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In Act 1V of the play "MacBeth" by William Shakespeare, the author stages a frightfully atmospheric scene (which probably had a profound effect on the audiences of the time) in which the witches circle the cauldron, throwing all sorts of horrible ingredients in to concoct a foul recipe ready to meet MacBeth. The apparitions show him a procession of eight kings along with Banquo. Some critics think that William Shakespeare was thinking very much about King James when he did this and that the eight kings represent his ancestors. There is even a story that the eighth king actor shone on a mirror on King James as he watched the play! Even today, England's royalty are descended from King James - so this may have been a political twist.
After the witches show Macbeth three apparitions, which he mistakenly takes for good omens, he asks them:
Yet my heart
Throbs to know one thing: tell me, if your art
Can tell so much, shall Banquo's issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?
They answer with this:
Show his eyes, and grieve his heart;
Come like shadows, so depart!
A show of eight Kings, and Banquo last with a glass in his hand.
Thou are too like the spirit of Banquo. Down!
Thy crown does sear mine eyeballs. And thy hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
A third is like the former. Filthy hags!
Why do you show me this? A fourth! Start, eyes!
What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Another yet! A seventh! I'll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That twofold balls and treble sceptres carry:
Horrible sight! Now I see ’tis true;
For the blood-bolter'd Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his. What, is this so?
Eight kings appear, and they all look like Banquo. The last apparition/king holds a mirror which shows even more kings. So more than eight generations of Banquo's children will be kings, stretching, as legend has it, all the way to the King to whom Shakespeare dedicated Macbeth: King James I.
Ever since Macbeth killed Duncan and usurped the throne, he was haunted by the witches' prophecy with regard to Banquo. Banquo's issues would be the kings--that was the prophecy which bred in Macbeth a deep sense of fear and insecurity. His appointed killers got rid of Banquo, but his son, Fleance, escaped unhurt.
In act 4 Macbeth met the witches even if it was to know 'by the worst means the worst'. Three Apparitions conjured up by the 'weird sisters' equivocated to give Macbeth a false sense of immunity against death and defeat. Macbeth still stood with a throbbing heart, and insisted on knowing whether Banquo's progeny would ascend to the throne.
It was then the witches presented a show of eight kings rallying with their kingly attributes, the ghost of Banquo following them. The show was supposed to suggest that Banquo's issues would really be the kings in times to come. This piece of pantomime was thus an ironic projection of the future state of affairs which plunged Macbeth in much shock and despair.
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