How does Macbeth interpret the statements of the apparitions in act 4, scene 1 of the play?

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Macbeth interprets the statements of the apparitions in Act 4, Scene 1 in a very specific way. To Macbeth, the statements are assurances of his safety.  However, closer analysis reveals them to be very specific statements regarding and how he will die.

The first apparition, an armored head, tells...

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Macbeth interprets the statements of the apparitions in Act 4, Scene 1 in a very specific way. To Macbeth, the statements are assurances of his safety.  However, closer analysis reveals them to be very specific statements regarding and how he will die.

The first apparition, an armored head, tells him simply to

"Beware Macduff!/ Beware the Thane of Fife!  Dismiss me.  Enough" (81-82). 

In other words, Macbeth should be wary of Macduff.  At first, Macbeth thinks very little about the warning, but after the statements from the next apparition he decides to wipe out Macduff's entire family, which provides even more incentive for Macduff to try to kill Macbeth.  Further, the first apparition's manifestation as an head wearing a helmet foreshadows the military action, led by Malcolm and Macduff, that will march against Macbeth.  Given that the apparition is a disembodied head, it also foreshadows Macbeth's own demise and decapitation during the final battle.  Quite simply, the apparition warning Macbeth could very well be Macbeth's own decapitated head.

The second apparition tells Macbeth,

Be bloody, bold, and resolute.  Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth.

Macbeth takes this to mean he can be as vicious and ambitious as he wants, that he shouldn't fear men because no man of woman born can hurt him.  Here he briefly discounts the warning of the first apparition, feeling he has nothing to fear from Macduff, as every man is born from a woman.  However, Macbeth is too quickly assured.  The second apparition, the bloody child, represents the very man that could (and will) harm Macbeth.  At the end of the play, it is revealed that "Macduff was from his mother's womb/ untimely ripped," meaning that he was not born in the traditional fashion (5.8, 19-20).  He is the product of a Cesarean section, which would result in much more blood than a traditional birth.  Therefore the apparition itself may be manifesting as the infant Macduff himself.

Finally, the third apparition, a child wearing a crown, holding a tree, further assures Macbeth, saying

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. Macbeth shall never vanquished be untilGreat Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane HillShall come against him. (103-107)

Macbeth believes this means he will never die until Birnam Wood, the forest near his castle, Dunsinane, grows the entire way to the castle itself.  This would take a great deal of time, perhaps hundreds of years if the forest was not tended to and kept away.  Once again, Macbeth feels assured by this statement.  However, as Malcolm's army approaches Dunsinane in Act 5, Scene 4, Malcolm orders the men to hew down the boughs of the trees to help disguise their numbers as they approach (6-9).  The image of Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland, hewing down and holding a branch bears a striking resemblance to the third apparition itself.  He is basically the child crowned, holding the tree in his hand.

After the apparitions disappear, Macbeth pushes for more information and is shown a parade of kings, representing Banquo's descendants.  He is confused by this vision, but is interrupted as Lennox enters.  While he begins to feel more safe in his rule, he nevertheless takes measures to protect himself further.  As stated above, he orders the death of Macduff and his family.  When the murderers arrive at Fife, Macduff has already left for England to convince Malcolm to return and overthrow Macbeth.  Upon hearing of his tragic loss, Macduff resolves to be the one to kill the tyrant.  Because Macbeth acts on the warning of the first apparition, emboldened by the words of the second and third, the characters represented by the second and third apparitions become even more resolute, thus fulfilling the predictions of all three manifestations.

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