What is meant by the quote “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” in Macbeth?

The quote “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” from Macbeth means that Macbeth will not be conquered until the trees from Birnam Wood approach his castle on Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth takes this literally and believes this statement offers him some security, since trees cannot walk, but it is actually deceptively worded to make Macbeth only feel secure.

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When Macbeth addresses the Weird Sisters in act 4, scene 1, he hopes to get some answers about the security of his position as King of Scotland. He fears, most especially, that Banquo’s descendants will come to sit on the throne for which he feels he has worked so hard. At his behest, the Weird Sisters conjure three apparitions, each of which delivers a message. Two of the messages appear, to Macbeth, to be assurances of safety, such as when the second apparition tells him that no man of woman born will harm him: Macbeth figures that since every man is born of a woman, that this means that no one will be able to hurt or kill him. The third apparition seems likewise helpful. It says,

Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. (4.1.105–107)

Macbeth interprets this message to mean that the trees of Birnam Wood, a forest near his castle atop Dunsinane Hill, would have to move up the hill—literally marching against him. Since he knows that trees cannot walk up hills or take sides in a battle, he believes that this message assures him, again, of his safety as king.

However, this message, like the one before it, is actually an enigmatically worded statement of destiny: the Weird Sisters evidently do have some power to see the future, and they predict (correctly) that there is a way for the trees to seem to move up the hill. Malcolm will instruct his soldiers to hew boughs to hold up as they march, thereby hiding their real numbers until they are close to attack. Only then will Macbeth realize what the Sisters’ words truly meant.

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This quote is spoken to Macbeth from the Third Apparition, a crowned child.  Macbeth has asked the witches to shed some further light on possible dangers to him after he has killed Banquo and Macduff’s family.  He is told that he cannot be hurt until a forest comes to his castle.  The prophecies seem ridiculous, so Macbeth feels safe.

Macbeth visits the witches for the second time in Act 4, because he is interested in knowing what more they have to tell him about his future. 

I conjure you, by that which you profess,

Howe'er you come to know it, answer me:…

Even till destruction sicken, answer me

To what I ask you. (Act 4, Scene 1, p. 59)

Macbeth has come full circle.  He was leading a pretty normal life until he happened upon the witches, and he ended up king.  Now he is ready to find out if he is going to stay that way.

He is greeted by “a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand” (4:1, p. 60).

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until

Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill

Shall come against him. (Act 4, Scene 1, p. 60)

Macbeth is thrilled.  The witches have told him he is safe until the forest storms his castle.  Since forests do not generally move, he is giddy with relief.

That will never be.

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good! (Act 4, Scene 1, p. 60)

Of course, the prophecy comes true.  Malcolm decides that the best way for the army to sneak up on Macbeth is to hide in the forest.

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. (Act 5, Scene 4, p. 83)

Malcolm is aware that anyone who sees a line of trees coming for the castle will be scorned and scoffed at.  That is exactly what happens.

Macbeth’s visit to the witches in this scene demonstrates that he is losing control.  Hecate admonishes the witches for overstepping their authority in messing with him, and then proceeds to step up the game by making Macbeth even more prophecies.  She realizes that he has become dependent on them, and they can really have some fun now.

The crowned child with the tree in his hand represents Macbeth’s throne, and the threat to it.  His kingship and his line is limited, as is shown by the prophecy of Banquo’s line inheriting the throne.  Taken together, the prophecies show real danger.

The prophecies relieve Macbeth’s concerns, when they should have the opposite effect.  All of the suggestions seem so absurd that Macbeth dismisses them.  He considers himself safe.  The witches get their way, because rather than being forewarned, Macbeth is going to be blindsided.  He does not see the real warning there.  Every one of the prophecies comes true, and Macbeth is defeated.

 

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The witches make this part of their prophecy to Macbeth in reference to the forests of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Castle, Macbeth's Castle. Macbeth feels omnipotent with this prophecy from the witches as how can the forest move to his castle? Little does he realize that the witches are equivocating...the witches are toying with Macbeth and stating the truth, but not the whole truth. The woods indeed move to Dunsinane when branches are cut down and used as camouflage by the invading English forces led by Siward and Duncan's son, Malcolm. Now, Macbeth is to be vanquished.

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