Once again a post under The Shakespeare Project (read about that here), this time on Act IV of Macbeth, which is my current read. My posts on Acts I, II, and III are here, here and here. Please note that unlike the usual posts on this blog, my Shakespeare-related posts are not spoiler-free so read on only if this doesn’t bother you. 

In the last Act, Macbeth had done away with Banquo and his son Fleance in an attempt to remove what he perceived as threats to his power, since it was Banquo’s sons who were foretold to be kings after Macbeth and not his own. But instead of setting his mind at rest, this only serves to haunt him further as Banquo’s ghost appears to him at his banquet and he begins to babble and even let out more than he should. We also learn that the others haven’t quite been fooled by Macbeth’s pretenses, and are preparing to take action. Meanwhile Macbeth has planned to consult the weird sisters once again.

And this is how Act IV opens. The scene is once again in the witches’ realm–a cavern with a boiling cauldron, and thunder in the background. Before Macbeth arrives on the scene, the witches are at work, brewing a spell with the, one poem which (or at least lines of which) comes to mind on thinking of Macbeth: “Double double, toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble” .

Into the cauldron go an assortment of gruesome ingredients, from the typical eye of newt that we’ve come to expect in witches potions to even some mummified flesh and a couple of questionable (rather non-PC) ones. But once the charm is ready, Hecate once again appears on the scene and praises their efforts. Just as they sing around the cauldron, as Hecate has told them to do, Macbeth appears on the scene. Of course, his arrival has been sensed as the witches speak out another of Macbeth‘s (the play’s) iconic lines, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”.

Macbeth enters , and soon demands that his questions be answered no matter what. The witches agree but also ask him whether he wouldn’t rather have the answers from their “masters”. Macbeth agrees, and yet another ghastly ingredient is added to the potion. With this, an apparition–an armed head appears.

Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head by Henri Fuseli (1793) via wikimedia commons

This apparition tells him to beware of Macduff, but as he tries to question it further, the witches stop him and another apparition, this time a bloody child is conjured up. This tells him that no one born of a woman will be able to kill him, and disappears. He then seems reassured that he won’t have to kill Macduff to keep himself safe but decides all the same to do so, to be doubly sure. The final apparition, a child with a crown on his head and a tree in his hand tells Macbeth that he will be undefeated till Birnham Wood marches to fight him at Dunsianane Hill. Macbeth now feels that there is no real threat to his power since such a thing could never happen–after all woods don’t move, do they? (But didn’t Hecate say something about tricking Macbeth into believing that there is no real threat. Hmm…) But Macbeth is still not satisfied and wishes to know whether Banquo’s sons will reign. But the witches stop him from going further. Yet, he is shown a vision of eight kings, all of whom seem to be Banquo’s descendants.

The witches confirm that this is true and vanish, while Macbeth calls to whoever is outside. Lennox appears in response, and claims that he hasn’t seen the weird sisters. He however, reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth now plots to seize Macduff’s castle and have his wife and children killed.

John L Prtichard as Macduff by Richard James Lane, printed by Jeremie Graf, published by John Mitchell, after Alfred Edward Chalon, hand-coloured lithograph, published 17 December 1838, via wikimedia commons

And so, in the second scene, we find ourselves in a completely different setting, Macduff’s castle. Here a conversation is taking place between Lady Macduff and Ross, and she asks him what Macduff has done that has made him flee the country, remarking that even if he isn’t a traitor his leaving the country has made him look like one. She is, and rightly so, angry that he has left the country, leaving his wife and children behind for he has put them in danger, while he himself is away safe. Ross tries to convince her that her husband is wise and noble, and is doing what is required, but the reader can’t help but agree with her–Macduff may well have done what he thought right, but knowing Macbeth, he should have ensured that his family was safe too.

Macduff by Dorothy Carleton Smyth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ross also takes his leave, as Lady Macduff continues to lament her and her son’s situation. She tells her son that his father is “dead” which is what happens to traitors. The boy doesn’t believe that his father is dead and at the same time observing that there are more traitors than honest men in the world, and they would be fools to have the honest men hang them. Meanwhile a messenger enters to warn them of the danger on the way, but he is too late as the murderers arrive, the first killing her son and the second following her off stage, as she tries to escape.

In the final scene of this Act, we find ourselves in yet another setting, in England in fact, where Malcolm and Macduff are having a conversation. They are of course discussing Macbeth, and Malcolm is unsure whether Macduff is in earnest or merely trying to offer him as a “lamb”. He even questions why Macduff has left his poor wife and children there if he really does oppose Macbeth. Macduff merely laments the fact that good people are afraid to face Macbeth, who will end up enjoying all he stole. Malcolm however tries to say that Macbeth, despite all his evil is better as King than he would be for he has many flaws. Macduff continues to try to convince him but in vain, or so it seems. But it turns out that Malcolm was only testing his integrity; he really does want to serve his country, and in fact informs Macduff that there are ten thousand soldiers ready for battle.

Meanwhile Ross arrives and speaks of how Scotland is no longer the land that they knew, with no happiness, only sorrow. He informs Malcolm that there are many who want to rebel; that Macbeth’s army is in preparation; and that his presence would give the rebels inspiration. Before this Macduff has inquired about his family and Malcolm simply said that they were at peace; but now he passes on the news that the castle was attacked and everyone, Macduff’s wife, children, and all the servants killed. Macduff is naturally horror-struck and hurt, but one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t consider the possibility knowing how Macbeth was in the first place. The others give him courage and they prepare for battle.

In this Act, I felt the scene with the witches was once again my favourite while the situation with Lady Macduff and her children gave one a lot to think about. I loved the atmosphere of the entire scene with the witches, the thunder, the bubbling cauldron with the quintessential witch-y ingredients, bloody and frightening apparitions and more prophecies. (And I still wonder how they did the ..er… special effects in Shakespeare’s day). Once again their prophecies have ensured that Macbeth wreaks more havoc, this time for Macduff’s family, though he really had no reason to this time, since their prophecy was that he was safe. The only conclusion we can draw is that Macbeth has crossed the point of no return with the first murder (murders, in fact, since he also did away with the guards), and now nothing will stop him from carrying on.

As far as poor Lady Macduff was concerned, one can’t help but feel for her since her husband, noble though his motives may be, had essentially left her helpless and with no protection whatsoever. That too in the time in which they were living. And Ross too did nothing to take her to safety. Macduff to my mind didn’t deserve the slightest pity on this account, because he should have foreseen it or something like it. Even if he loved his country more, I don’t think this excused what he did. After all, did he not owe anything to his wife and children?

Anyway, for Macbeth, his doom is imminent. Act V will of course tell us how. Let’s see how the witches prophecies come true.

What did you thing of this segment? Did you enjoy the scene with the witches as much as I did? Looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Project: Macbeth Act IV

  1. You are really bringing Macbeth back to life for me. I had forgotten the details, though the broad picture remains in my mind. Undoubtedly, Macbeth is caught in a downward spiral from which there is no escape; the first murder pushed him in. I can sympathize with Lady Macduff, and your concerns are very real, but that’s how it has always been. Men marching off to battle for King and country, and women being left to fend for themselves and their families. It’s only now that we see things through the gender lens, and find injustice staring us in the face on every side.
    By the way, the weird sisters are really too pretty to be witches or is that another illusion that we preserve. One can be ugly inside as well as out. A pretty face does not mean an evil heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was in fact one of the odd ones out in terms of pictures of the witches. I have more authentic ones in the earlier posts.

      True- it was and to some extent remains the truth. But as someone who has more responsibility for his family than one would be today, he should have given them some thought.

      Like

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