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Goodness Knows the
Wickeds’ Lives Are Lonely…
Search for Human Potential
15 November 2013
Macbeth’s fourth act begins with the
material that earned it a long ban from
its target audience – some “genuine”
witch chants as the Weïrd Sisters mix up
the potion for their charm.
The “Double, double” sequence is
probably Macbeth’s most widelyrecognized, but for mostly shallow
reasons (apparently, it’s fun to sing
rhymes while dancing around a
By this point, you’ve seen
Shakespeare slide extra meaning in and
around Macbeth’s edges often enough
to recognize that the “Fair is foul”
doubling motif appears again in the
There’s also some very specific,
unsettling imagery here: most of what’s
being tossed in the pot is either swollen
with venom, representative of sin
(pieces of blasphemers, things claimed
under cover of darkness or eclipse, etc.),
or dismembered parts of babies (the
owlet’s wing and the finger of a child
who was born in a ditch and
subsequently strangled – how is
I point out the specificity of what
seems like babble because, as you can
clearly see, the witches are mixing
things that pertain to Macbeth himself.
Everything from shattered newborns
to darkness and poison (the guard’s
drinks, trust as venom, etc.) reflects him
But the Sisters can’t finish
before Macbeth arrives.
When he asks them what
they’re doing, they reply – in
perfect unison – that their deed
has no name.
(Here, the thing to notice is not
merely that Macbeth himself has
committed foul, nameless deeds,
but that the three respond to him
in unison; we’ll study this in far
greater detail later.)
And what follows, of course, must
happen: Macbeth has not learned the
lesson Banquo’s fatal mistake should have
taught him, which is that one should be
careful when demanding – wishing for –
He demands knowledge that is not
rightfully his, seeking to gain advantage
over a future that’s much larger and more
complicated than he can understand.
What he gets is knowledge, but it’s
paired with some truly fatal, bloody
misconceptions: Siddhartha taught us that
wisdom only comes from experience and
understanding, not from blindly following
or trusting in the words of others, and that
lesson’s rarely more applicable than it is
With the addition of a filicidal
sow’s blood (shades of Lady
Macbeth’s “baby-dashing” line
here) and the sweat and grease
that fell from hanged murderers’
foreheads, an “Armed Head” rises
from the cauldron.
“Armed” should not be taken
literally here, at least not in its
primary sense: Shakespeare is
describing a head clad in a helmet
or armor, not a bunch of arms
sticking out of places where they
don’t belong.
It tells Macbeth exactly what he
expects to hear: that he must
beware Macduff, the Thane of Fife.
One should notice that the king,
far from his throne, is powerless
during the encounter: he is told to
keep silent, as the apparition can
sense his thoughts, and it ignores
his request for more knowledge.
As the first Sister bluntly tells
him, the Head “will not be
And unfortunately for Macbeth,
this powerlessness isn’t a
sufficient warning to be on guard
against arrogance (i.e., an
unwarranted belief in one’s power
or superiority).
He hasn’t struck us as a
particularly proud person before –
Lady Macbeth’s interactions with
him seem to have guaranteed that
– but his hubris (self-destructive
arrogance) gets the better of him
No sooner does the Head finish
its spiel than a child, covered with
blood (a chilling image), rises in its
When it tells him to be “bloody,
bold, and resolute,” it’s not just
repeating my favorite SFHP advice.
It’s telling Macbeth that he can
act decisively, for “none of woman
born” (no one born “naturally”)
can hurt him.
Macbeth, of course, takes this to
mean that he can safely disregard
the Head’s warnings – for isn’t
Macduff, like all men,“of woman
Just to be safe, however, Macbeth
decides to have him killed anyway.
At that point, he believes, he’ll be
so secure that he’ll be able to
“sleep through thunder.”
Shakespeare does something
interesting with his examination of
security here.
Remember, it’s trust in others
that destroys Duncan and, to a
lesser extent, Banquo.
But their downfalls also stem
from something else.
The man who’s most vulnerable
to a threat is the one who believes
he can’t possibly be harmed by it.
Duncan foolishly believes that he’s
safe, that, with the revolt crushed and
his guards at the ready, no one can hurt
him. (After all, isn’t he king?)
Banquo fails to consider that
Macbeth could want to kill him, even
though he’s already killed thanks to the
prophecy – and it’s not like Macbeth
wasn’t listening when Banquo heard his
own prophecy.
But he, too, believes he’s
untouchable, at least by his best friend.
So Duncan lets his guards drink at the
home of the replacement from his
corrupted advisor, and Banquo rides by
torchlight through darkness with the
figure Macbeth would most want
Both actions reek of hubris – the
choices of men who foolishly believe
that bad things aren’t going to happen
to them, even though Shakespeare has
shown us plenty of reasons for both men
to have their guards up.
It’s that very same mistake – nothing
bad can happen to me! – that Macbeth
makes here.
By hearing that “none of woman born
can harm him,” he makes a leap
(particularly later in the play) to “I can’t
be harmed.”
This simply isn’t true.
On some level, he must know
this; otherwise, there’s literally no
reason to kill Macduff.
But Macbeth’s so desperate for
comfort – the real reason he’s
sought out the witches, for there’s
obviously security in certainty –
that he’ll happily make that leap.
Anything for the possibility of
sleeping again, of feeling human
Then – just as he’s started to virtually
cackle with glee over the nearness of his
victory – a child wearing a crown rises from
the cauldron.
It is perhaps the single most powerful
image one could show Macbeth, so he pays
The child holds a tree for some reason…an
important reason, as it so happens: it tells
him that he cannot be beaten until Birnam
Wood (a forest) marches against him at
Dunsinane (the location of Duncan’s /
Macbeth’s castle).
Somewhat justifiably, Macbeth is a bit
perplexed by the prophecy (walking trees??),
even as it cements his newfound feelings of
certainty: if the only one who can defeat me
is someone who isn’t “of woman born,” and
they can only beat me after a bunch of trees
start walking toward my castle, aren’t you
just telling me I can’t lose?
Yet Macbeth, flush with triumph,
must know more still.
There’s one point the three
apparitions didn’t mention: what
will happen with Banquo’s line.
The witches warn him,
unambiguously: Seek to learn no
And Macbeth, equally
unambiguously, replies: I will be
That’s a demand, not a
statement of satisfaction.
He threatens to curse the witches,
which is not only incredibly foolhardy –
these are the people you plan to
antagonize? – but also uncomfortably
reminiscent of Banquo’s fatal, fateful
words to them during Act I.
Banquo said,“[I] neither beg nor fear
your favours nor your hate.”
Clearly, he should have.
But Macbeth repeats his mistake, the
cauldron immediately sinks, and as the
air fills with trumpeters heralding
something, the Sisters say (in unison):
Show his eyes, and grieve his heart;
come like shadows, so depart.
Eight kings appear, with the eighth
holding a mirror.
They’re clearly not related to Macbeth,
who flies into a rage, screaming at each of
the kings who walks past him, then at the
Then the eighth king reaches him and
shows him an even more terrible sight in the
depths of its mirror: a seemingly endless line
that follows the eight in front of him, with
some of the new ones wearing crowns
signifying the unification of two kingdoms.
This, of course, represents the joining of
Scotland and England; Shakespeare’s just
nakedly pandering to King James I at this
point, whom he probably feared would be
And all the while, the bloodied ghost of
Banquo smiles at Macbeth from the back of
the line of eight kings, pointing at them
silently: They’re mine.
As Macbeth gapes, disbelievingly, at
the apparitions, his worst nightmare
given almost fleshy form, one Sister asks
him why he looks surprised.
Didn’t he always know this was so?
Didn’t he always know this would be
his fate?
Have the Sisters ever lied?
Have they ever been wrong?
The Sisters dance, laughingly, telling
Macbeth that he can now say they gave
him what he came for.
Then they disappear…never to return.
Lennox arrives to tell him of
Macduff’s departure (previously
mentioned in Act III, Scene VI), and in his
new state of disequilibrium, Macbeth
lapses into a truly sick soliloquy: he
resolves to arrange an invasion for
Macduff’s castle in Fife and have
everyone inside it murdered, including
his wife and children.
Macbeth, like any wounded animal, is
now more dangerous than he would
otherwise be, simultaneously convinced
that he can’t lose and terrified that his
defeat is inevitable.
The only course of action for
him, then, is to eliminate every
threat he faces, one by one.
While Lady Macbeth is busy
wrestling with her guilt, Macbeth
has resolved to murder his
opponents until there’s no one left
to kill; they’ve essentially swapped
moral compasses, and their
needles are spinning too wildly to
save either one of them.
The terrible thing, however, is that
Macbeth keeps killing people a) by
proxy, b) attacking victims when they’re
at their most vulnerable (he’s always
had an eye for an opponent’s soft spot,
just as Lady Macbeth does:
Macdonwald’s unzipping starts and
ends at his softest points), and c)
picking people who don’t know he’s
coming for them.
Fleance survived either by chance or
by fate, but no one else is that lucky.
The people he kills aren’t even the
ones who truly threaten him (Malcolm,
Macduff, perhaps Fleance).
They’re people related to those
threats, and their deaths – if we’re being
realistic – only serve to harden the
others’ opposition to Macbeth.
Notice, however, that these
“misdirected” killings aren’t
Macbeth knows full well that
Macduff isn’t in his castle.
The only thing he can
accomplish is the slaughter of
Macduff’s family – notably, a group
of people that poses no threat to
him, has never been predicted to
pose a threat to him, and does not
stand in the way of his ambitions.
One could argue that Macbeth
has only killed at this point
because he “must”: Duncan’s
death represented the fulfillment
of prophecy, whereas Banquo’s
killing was an attempt to thwart it.
These latest murders would be
voluntary, unprovoked,
Macbeth sends his murderers
And in one of those “dramatic irony”
sequences that Shakespeare revels in –
the audience knows what’s coming, but
the characters don’t – we’re introduced
to Lady Macduff as she’s bemoaning her
husband’s decision to leave for
Macbeth listened to his wife; Macduff
overruled his.
By departing, he’s left his castle – and
his family – defenseless.
The Porter’s line about admitting
those whose choices lead them to Hell
takes on terrible significance here.
Lady Macduff isn’t stupid: she knows why
Macduff has gone.
But she also recognizes that Macduff’s
made enemies, powerful ones, and she rightly
fears for her safety.
In a tragic parallel to Lady Macbeth’s
words, she questions what kind of man her
husband is – not due to his capacity (or lack
thereof) for murder, but for “wanting the
natural touch” (lacking the natural instincts
that should drive every parent).
Where are his priorities? she wonders.
“The poor wren, the most diminutive of
birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest,
against the owl.”
All is the fear and nothing is the love.
In our time of need, our man has left us
Both Lady Macbeth and Lady
Macduff demand that their
husbands make decisions that not
only take them and their needs into
consideration, but prioritize them –
that the needs of family outweigh
all other demands.
Macbeth, for better or worse,
comes to see his primary
responsibilities as a) his own
needs and b) his wife’s needs.
Macduff doesn’t…and he will
pay a terrible price.
Ross tells Lady Macduff to be patient
– that the times they live in are
dangerous indeed, but their
unpredictability has caused her
husband to choose his current course.
Macduff is doing what he does for the
greater good; nothing would make him
happier than simply staying at home by
their side, with the people he’s most
personally devoted to, but others need
him to do more.
Macduff’s wife will have none of it;
she tells her son that his father’s
forsaken them, and that his father is
therefore dead.
Shakespeare then lets the son and
mother engage in an odd, witty
repartee, and it’s a truly sick scene: we
know they’re about to be cut down like
animals in their own home, and they’re
sitting there joking with each other.
We can’t laugh at anything they’re
saying because we’re bracing for the
inevitable, as unable to control the
events we’re watching as Macbeth is to
control what the prophecies spelled out.
We’re suddenly aware of how the
characters, on so many different levels,
feel: helpless and out of control, with
our dread of what we know amplifying
our fears.
And as the son makes his last joke –
that if the “liars and swearers” are to be
killed by the honest men, they’re idiots,
for there are far more liars than honest
men – a messenger arrives, frantically
urges her to run far away with her
children, and flees.
Before she can react, the murderers
arrive, and – in one of the most jarring
moments Shakespeare’s ever put on
stage – stab her son to death in front of
The boy pleads with his last breath for
his mother to flee – a reversal of Banquo’s
death (where the parent tries to spare the
child), and a futile attempt, as the
murderers chase his mother offstage and
cut her down.
The earlier killings in Macbeth
either happened offstage or
under deep cover of darkness.
With the death of Macduff’s
family – with the onstage
slaughter of a child –
Shakespeare’s shoving the
ugliness of murder directly in the
audience’s faces.
This isn’t entertainment: it’s
butchery, loud and messy and
Don’t underestimate how horrible this
crime is.
It’s not just the murder of an innocent
Macbeth, of all people, should
understand what he’s doing to Macduff:
he’s annihilating his entire line.
The term “one fell swoop” comes from
Macduff’s reaction to the news that
Macbeth’s attacked his castle (“fell” means
foul, vile, wicked, tainted, or evil): with one
stroke, Macbeth has killed “all [his] pretty
ones,” the very people he should have
protected, the people who made his life
He may still be alive, but Macbeth, in his
cowardice, has gone behind his back and
robbed him of all that once made him
I’ve mentioned the role isolation
plays in the play, and how terrible
people feel – and how terribly they act
and decide – when they’re alone.
Yes, it’s true that we only get a sense
of who Macbeth “really” is when he’s in
soliloquy mode.
But how lonely is that existence?
To have absolutely nobody who truly
understands you?
Nobody who you truly understand?
Nature abhors a vacuum, and
involuntary isolation is a roaring
vacuum for the soul; human beings will
often go to desperate lengths to fill that
I asked you to notice that
Shakespeare unifies the witches,
giving them the very power
Macbeth lacks: the power of
numbers, the support of
Entire schools of religious
thought center themselves around
polytheism – a god for every cause.
Even the monotheistic
Christianity attests to the power of
the Holy Trinity.
Societies, families, relationships
– all stem from the fundamental
belief in power and improvement
via company.
So while a single witch can be a
memorable character in a play –
we’ve seen soothsayers and
oracles sharing prophecies since
the Greek plays hit the stage – we
remember Shakespeare’s bizarre,
disfigured Unholy Trinity because
their impact on us does uneasy
things to our psyches.
For it’s not simply that the witches
seem to know the future, but that
they seem somehow more than
human – not better, yet still more
powerful, transcending our
In their numbers, their
synchronicity of purpose and word,
this nameless pack of cackling hags
seems representative of something
so powerful as to be alien to us,
impossible to understand.
They are recognizable – women? –
and yet not.
It’s almost as though our minds,
being baffled by their true nature,
perceives them in a way that kind of
makes sense – like trying to capture
a concept like Fate or God with a
three-or-four-letter word – but
ultimately fails to represent them.
We can’t fully understand them,
and when we try – especially when
we try to make them serve us – the
attempt leaves us feeling powerless,
grasping onto anything we can to
feel some control.
Contrast this with Macbeth, who’s either
killing off his friends or fighting with his wife,
the holder of a barren scepter and an empty
line, under threat from the sons of both his
victims – in other words, impossibly,
irreversibly alone.
It is the power of numbers that threatens
him, the lone, solitary figure screaming
impotently as the specter of Banquo’s endless
line marches before him, dooming him and his
family with every silent, solemn step.
It is the power of numbers that threatens
him, as Malcolm’s and Siward’s soldiers begin
overwhelming his defenses in Act V.
And it is the power of numbers that
threatens him, in the form of the dangers he
provokes through his crimes.
There are too many threats to combat, and
while he knows they’re out there, he doesn’t
really see them – just as the numberless stars,
now invisible in the pitch-black skies above
him, quietly and dispassionately spin his fate.
So Macbeth, true to form, reacts
desperately when facing the
possibility of lost control.
He kills Macduff’s entire family
in one fell swoop.
He’s sowing the seeds of his own
destruction, but he’s taking a
whole bunch of people with him.
And in the meantime, Scotland is
falling apart: a nation that began
the play fending off a foreign
invasion now finds itself praying
for one in order to find some
degree of salvation.
That’s predicated, however, on
the alternative to Macbeth being
an improvement on the current
It’s not until the final scene of
Act Four, however, that we realize
we’ve been baited into the same
“trust mistake” yet again.
We automatically believed that
Duncan was a good king, ignoring
the fact that the play begins with
him beating back a revolution.
Now we assume that his oldest son,
Malcolm, is a better option than
Macbeth, because…why, exactly?
Because he didn’t kill his way to the
throne, which would have involved
murdering his father?
We know virtually nothing about him,
save that he’s Duncan’s son.
We haven’t seen him do anything that
marks him as worthy of the throne.
We’ve barely seen him more than
Fleance, who’s being intentionally
sidelined; the only thing we can really
remember him doing is running away
after Duncan’s been murdered.
He’s a cipher.
Yet when we hear that Macduff’s gone
out to meet him, we expect the scene to
play out in a familiar way.
Macduff will meet the noble prince
and his new ally, Siward; together, they’ll
lead an army against Macbeth,
conquering and taking back what’s
rightfully theirs.
The wise and gentle Malcolm will be
placed on the throne, as he should have
been following his father’s death.
Donalbain will come home; peace
and harmony will be restored to the
It’s all very simple, really.
Except that’s not what we get at all.
Instead, Macduff meets a young man who’s
very frightened and deeply suspicious of
others, almost to a paranoid degree.
He subjects Macduff to not one but two
tests, both involving naked deception.
In the first, he tries to bait Macduff into
“selling him out” – betraying him to Macbeth,
to whom Macduff is supposedly secretly loyal.
He, too, questions why Macduff would leave
his family so alone, and would do so in such an
abrupt fashion.
And even as he’s back-pedaling from that –
Oh, don’t mind what I say, I’m just suspicious
of others after my father’s death – he quickly
pivots to a disturbing self-portrayal,
excoriating himself for his sinfulness and
If I were to be king, he continues, Scotland
would burn:“Black Macbeth will seem as pure
as snow” by comparison.
If there’s an appetite or weakness in the
book, Malcolm lays claim to it.
Avarice? Check.
Unbridled sexual appetite? Check.
A lust for power? Check.
A willingness to murder rivals? Check.
Plotting to take the nobles’ lands after
murdering them? Check.
A complete and utter lack of any redeeming
Malcolm swears that nothing about him
can be redeemed.
He is without respect for justice, devotion,
patience, or courage.
As he goes down the list, Macduff
desperately tries to tell him that he’s being
too hard on himself, or that the sin he
describes is understandable (or less dire
than he believes).
But with each protestation, Malcolm
worsens his self-criticism.
There’s a clear pattern of escalation on
his part, and he goes on and on until finally
Macduff throws up his hands, weeping for his
helpless nation – now doomed to suffer
under a tyrant’s rule, whether or not Macbeth
occupies the throne – and verbally tears into
Malcolm with a fury we’ve never seen him
display before.
Your father was a good, gentle king; your
mother was a devout, caring woman. That
they could have produced something as
wicked as you just proves that God has
forsaken my country, and thus I must forsake
it too.
And as Macduff turns from him, angry
and despairing, Malcolm suddenly “breaks
character” and shows his true face.
It was all a test!
He just wanted to test Macduff’s loyalty
to Scotland.
If he had stayed steadfastly loyal to
Malcolm in the face of all those terrible
confessions, it would have been evidence
that Macduff could be tempted to do
terrible things.
Someone who mourns for their country,
on the other hand, must be loyal to it.
It’s a complete reversal of character,
and it’s incredibly jarring when
experienced live.
Following Malcolm’s monologue –
during which he professes to be all of
the things we’d want a king to be –
Macduff points out that “such welcome
and unwelcome things at once [are]
hard to reconcile.”
And if they’re difficult for Macduff to
process, how are we supposed to feel?
This is our first real exposure to
Malcolm, and it tastes sour: this is the
new king?
This is the vessel into which the
Scottish people should place their
This deceptive, shapeshifting thing?
When Ross shows up to deliver the
news of Macbeth’s attack on Fife,
Macduff can join forces with Malcolm
without any qualms: uncertainty’s easy
to banish in the face of searing rage.
Malcolm even compliments him on
how “manly” his expressed desire for
vengeance sounds.
(There’s the masculinity issue
And to his credit, Malcolm doesn’t do
or say anything negative for the rest of
the play.
But the damage, as Susan Snyder
points out, has already been done:
Malcolm’s left such a negative first
impression that it proves impossible to
shake entirely.
Act Four ends with seemingly all of
the pieces arranged as they should be:
Malcolm and Macduff have united in
order to gain revenge, Macbeth is
actively seeking to cement his power,
and a clash seems imminent.
Fleance is off wandering around
somewhere, and we still don’t
understand why the Sisters do what they
do – do they have a choice?
Are they mouthpieces of fate?
Hecate’s presence indicates a plan,
but the plan’s motivations are too
murky to make out.
No matter.
The audience has spent four
acts waiting for the inevitable
clash between good and evil, and
now it looks like we’ll get it.
We want Macbeth to pay for
what he’s done.
We want Macduff, Malcolm, or
Fleance to seek some sort of
retribution for the people that
they’ve lost.
But Shakespeare’s damaged his
“good” characters – Malcolm’s
“fake” sinfulness, Macduff’s
“abandonment” of his family –
and worsened his “bad” ones.
Can there be any winners here?
Fair is foul…