What is foreshadowed by each of the apparitions? Can someone please explain to me what the apparitions foreshadow when they appear to Macbeth in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's play?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It seems to me that there should be a distinction made between predictions and foreshadowing. Most of what the apparitions tell Macbeth would be called warnings or predictions. Telling Macbeth to beware Macduff is a warning. The bloody child foreshadows the revelation that Macduff was not, technically speaking, "born of a woman." The appearance of Banquo with his descendents does not foreshadow what is going to happen in the future; rather it clearly shows Macbeth and the theater audience what is going to happen.

It seems to me that Shakespeare created this highly effective scene at least partly because he wanted to make further use of the actors playing the three witches and the actor playing Banquo. The witches are interesting characters. They look weird and they say weird and unexpected things. Banquo has a prominent role in the play. It must have occurred to Shakespeare that he could make further use of this actor after killing him off, simply by turning him into a ghost. Banquo appears as a ghost at the inaugural banquet, and then, after establishing him as a ghost, Shakespeare uses him again in the encounter with the three witches and the apparitions.

Shakespeare was at least partly motivated by economic considerations. He was not merely the author of the play but also the producer, director, and part owner of the theater. He must have frequently used his supporting actors in various roles in a play, wearing different costumes. That's show biz. The plays were presented to make a profit. The profits were derived from box-office receipts minus costs, and the biggest costs were the actors' salaries.

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nathangarton | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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In Act 4, Scene 1 Macbeth returns to the witches to get more answers. He is terribly insecure at this point in the play, having recently been troubled by Banquo's ghost at the feast. Before he leaves to see the 'weird sisters', as he calls them (3.4.133) he tells his wife that he is 'bent to know, / By the worst means, the worst. (3.4.134-135). So it is with this 'bent' mind-set that Macbeth goes to the witches and demands answers. It is worth noting that when he speaks to the witches here (4.1.51-60), he hazards all of nature upon his demand to know more.

So, Macbeth comes to the witches with 'bent' intentions and is willing to risk all the world to get his answers. So it is that he cannot see 'straight' to the truths revealed by the three apparitions. Contrary to what Macbeth believes when he hears them, these apparitions foreshadow his downfall. He asks to know the worst, but does not see it when shown to him.

The first apparition is clear enough, it tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Macbeth, naturally, is thankful for this straightforward advice. Things complicate, however, with the second apparition, the bloody child, which states enigmatically that none of woman born shall harm him. Macbeth's initial response here is to discount the warning about Macduff in the first apparition, 'what need I fear of thee?' (4.1.81), though he resolves to have him killed just to be on the safe side. But already we can see that Macbeth is looking to interpret the apparitions according to his need for reassurance.

The third apparition appears to reassure him further: another child tells him that he shall not be defeated until the woods come up the hill to his castle. Again, Macbeth cannot see this being a possibility and believes that he can now 'live the lease of nature' (4.1.99). The foreshadowing here is that Macbeth has already committed crimes against the order of nature. Macbeth's murder of Duncan was closely followed by the report that the day was unnaturally dark, a mighty hawk was killed by a little owl and Duncan's horses ate each other (2.4.1-20). Macbeth's 'vaulting ambition' has resulted in reversals of nature and so it is that the third apparition predicts natural forces rising up against him. But, again, Macbeth's anxious state to find reassurances by the worst means leads him to interpret the messages in a way that suits him. In this way, the apparitions also foreshadow the rash and foolhardy way in which Macbeth orders his troops to leave the safety of his castle and fight the advancing troops (5.5.46). At this point Macbeth echoes his earlier outburst against nature as he admits 'I 'gin to be aweary of the sun / and wish the estate o' the world were now undone' (5.5.49-50).

So Shakespeare foreshadows the destruction of Macbeth through these apparitions - straight, hard truths and natural forces that Macbeth cannot see because of his 'bent' and ambitious purposes.

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Upon Macbeth's second visit with the witches, he sees three apparitions.  Macbeth sees an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned with a tree in his hand.

1. The armed head:

Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; Beware the thane of Fife.

This apparition foreshadows Macduff's return.  Macduff is planning to return to take the crown/throne from Macbeth.

2.  A bloody child:

The power of man, for none of women born, Shall harm Macbeth

This apparition tells Macbeth that no man born of woman can harm him.  Macbeth knows that Macduff was born of woman and, therefore, cannot harm him.

3. A child crowned with a tree in his hand

Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until, Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.

This apparition tells Macbeth that he will not die until the woods come against him.  Again, Macbeth feels some security in this prophecy because he knows that no man can literally move an entire wood.

Know that there are many different interpretations of what the messages of the apparitions mean.  This is simply one (my) interpretation.

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