How Does Macbeth Interpret The Prophecies Pronounced By The First Three Apparitions

How do Macbeth's erroneous interpretations of the three apparitions (and the predictions) in act 4, scene 1 affect the outcome of Shakespeare's Macbeth?

Macbeth is warned to beware Macduff and eventually murders Macduff's household—which makes Macduff intent on killing Macbeth upon invading Scotland. When Macbeth hears that no one born from a woman can kill him, he feels invincible; however, Macduff was born by c-section, and the apparition is of baby Macduff. Ultimately, Macduff does kill Macbeth. The crowned baby holding a tree branch comes with the prediction that Macbeth won't die until the trees move, which he believes is impossible. Eventually, trees appear to move as Malcolm, the crowned baby, orders his troops to cut tree branches as camouflage for their attack.

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In act 4, scene 1, Macbeth visits the Three Witches in order to learn more about his future in hopes of cementing his legacy as king. The Witches proceed to conjure several apparitions, which give Macbeth enigmatic, misleading prophecies. The first apparition is a severed head wearing a helmet, which...

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In act 4, scene 1, Macbeth visits the Three Witches in order to learn more about his future in hopes of cementing his legacy as king. The Witches proceed to conjure several apparitions, which give Macbeth enigmatic, misleading prophecies. The first apparition is a severed head wearing a helmet, which warns Macbeth to "Beware Macduff. Beware the thane of Fife." Macbeth responds by thanking the apparition for advice and explains that he is already concerned about Macduff. In response to the first prophecy, Macbeth sends murderers to slaughter Macduff and his family. However, Macduff has fled the country and teams up with Malcolm to challenge Macbeth. Macbeth unknowingly incites Macduff's rage and becomes the focus of his revenge.

The second apparition instructs Macbeth to be "bloody, bold and resolute" because "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth." Macbeth responds by saying,

Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee? (Shakespeare, 4.1.85)

Macbeth immediately becomes overconfident and no longer fears Macduff. In act 5, scene 8, Macbeth comes face-to-face with Macduff and tells him that he lives "a charmèd life." However, Macbeth dramatically misinterprets the prophecy and discovers that his enemy was "Untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, which means that he is vulnerable.

The third prophecy also misleads Macbeth into becoming overconfident. The apparition instructs him to be "lion-mettled" and bold because he will not be defeated until "Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him." Macbeth once again takes the prophecy literally and believes that it is impossible for the forest to uproot and travel to his castle. However, the prophecy is fulfilled in act 5, scene 5, when Macbeth learns that Malcolm's forces are carrying boughs from Birnam Wood to his castle, which makes it seem as if the forest is moving.

Overall, two of the three apparitions purposely mislead Macbeth into becoming overconfident in his abilities as a warrior, which motivates him to act more bloodthirsty, resolute, and fearless. Tragically, Macbeth discovers that he has been fooled by the Three Witches and dies at the hands of Macduff.

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In the witches' second set of predictions in Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth sees what he wants to see. He is easily tricked by the Weird Sisters into believing that he is invincible. This "false sense of security" will be his downfall.

In Act Four, scene one, the new predictions are generated to get Macbeth not only more deeply dependent upon what the witches' tell him, but at Hecate's orders, to win his soul completely to the power of evil: Hecate also wants some of the credit for Macbeth's deterioration and destruction.

When the witches tell Macbeth to "Beware Macduff," he simply thinks they are telling him something he already knows. This will affect the story in two ways. In his paranoia, he will decide that to be safe, he should kill Macduff. (However he hesitates and by the time he gets around to it, Macduff has left the country to see Malcolm.) Macbeth has Macduff's entire family and household murdered. Of course, this act enrages Macduff to the point that no one else had better get to Macbeth before he does when they invade Scotland—with a score to settle, Macduff will avenge his family, and probably, too, the much-loved Duncan.

When the witches' second prediction is delivered, it tells him that only one kind of man can kill him:

...for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. (89-90)

The apparition shows a bloody child. Macbeth believes that this prediction means no man can harm him—because all men are born of a woman. However, even believing he needs not fear Macduff, he decides he will take steps just to make sure.

This, of course, foreshadows Macbeth's death at the hands of Macduff. The bloody child in the apparition is Macduff as an infant: he was born by Cesarean section, not by natural childbirth. Not knowing this, Macbeth believes he cannot be defeated. It will be at Macduff's hands that he will die.

The final apparition is that of a crowned child holding a tree branch in his hand. The prediction is:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill

Shall come against him. (103-105)

Macbeth does not realize that the crowned child represents Malcolm. The tree branch in his hand symbolizes the branches that Malcolm will order his men to cut down and use to hide their true numbers.

MALCOLM:

Let every soldier hew him down a bough,

And bear't before him: thereby shall we shadow

The numbers of our host, and make discovery

Err in report of us. (V.iv.6-9)

Because Macbeth is sure the woods and the hill cannot move, he sees this last prediction as just one more guarantee that he cannot be beaten. However, in that Macbeth does not believe he can be defeated, the crowned child means nothing, and the tree branch has no significance for him. However, Malcolm will be successful in masking his numbers from Macbeth's spies; Macbeth will have no idea how large the force is that attacks his castle. And it is not until the trees look like they are moving (with the cut branches) that he begins to suspect the witches of telling him half-truths.

Because Macbeth underestimates the significance of the apparitions, and because he takes the predictions too literally, he is ultimately defeated and killed. His foolish belief that he "bears a charmed life" lulls Macbeth into thinking that he has nothing to fear. As a soldier, this kind of casual behavior can be deadly: and it is for Macbeth in the end.


 

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