Act 4, Scene 1
In the middle of a cavern is a boiling cauldron. The three witches enter to the sound of thunder. They brew a potion a with a variety of ingredients, first adding parts of animals (“Eye of newt and toe of frog”), then of people (“Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips”). Hecate joins them briefly and commends them for their work, but she disappears before Macbeth enters.
Macbeth demands that the witches answer the questions he is about to ask. The witches ask whether he would prefer to hear the answers from them or from their masters, and Macbeth chooses the latter. The witches summon up three horrible apparitions. The first, a head wearing a helmet, tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff. The second, a bloody child, tells him that “none of woman born” can harm him. The third, a crowned child with a tree in his hand, says that he will never be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
Macbeth is pleased with these pronouncements, which seem to suggest that he is invincible. He then asks whether Banquo’s descendants will ever be kings. A final apparition shows eight kings, the last of them holding a mirror, followed by the ghost of Banquo. The apparition vanishes and so do the witches, leaving Macbeth alone. Lennox enters, and Macbeth asks if he saw the witches. Lennox did not. He brings news that Macduff has fled to England. Even though he knows Macduff isn’t present, Macbeth decides to attack Macduff’s castle and kill his wife and children.
Act 4, Scene 2
In Macduff’s castle, Lady Macduff is asking the thane of Ross why her husband left so suddenly. Ross defends Macduff’s decision, but Lady Macduff says that it was cowardly of him to run away, leaving his family in danger. Ross leaves, and Lady Macduff talks to her young son, telling him that his father is dead. Her son can tell she’s not being truthful and asks if his father is a traitor. When Lady Macduff says yes and that traitors must be hanged, the boy responds that the traitors are fools to allow the honest men to hang them, since they greatly outnumber the honest men.
A messenger enters and tells Lady Macduff that she is in grave danger. She wonders where she can go that is safer than her castle, but as she hesitates, a group of murderers enter. They ask where Macduff is, calling him a traitor. When Macduff’s young son says this is a lie, the first murderer stabs and kills him. Lady Macduff runs away, and the murderers pursue her.
Act 4, Scene 3
Macduff has located Malcolm at the English court. Though they apparently have a common cause—overthrowing Macbeth—they are suspicious of one another. Macduff calls for violent action against Macbeth, but Malcolm wonders whether Macduff might be working for Macbeth. Malcolm then explains his hesitation in challenging Macbeth, saying that if he were to rule Scotland, he might be an even worse king. When Macduff replies that this is not possible, Malcolm claims that he is exceptionally lustful and would steal the wives and daughters of every thane in Scotland. When Macduff seems to think this vice can be accommodated, Malcolm adds that he is so avaricious that he would steal all their possessions as well, never being satisfied even as he takes lands, homes and jewels from all his noblemen. Macduff admits that this is bad but adds that there is a great deal of wealth in Scotland, enough even to satisfy Malcolm’s greed. Malcolm then says that he has...
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not a single virtue, but only wants to cause harm and discord. At this, Macduff breaks down and says that Malcolm is unfit to live, let alone to rule. He bids the prince farewell.
Malcolm then reveals that he made these absurd claims to test Macduff’s integrity. If he had been a spy from Macbeth trying to lure Malcolm into a trap, it would not have mattered what the prince said. Now he knows that Macduff is honest. He takes back everything he has said about his own vices, saying that until he made these statements, he had never even told a lie before.
The thane of Ross arrives with news from Scotland, telling Malcolm and Macduff that the country is ravaged by the tyrannies of Macbeth. When Macduff inquires after his own family, Ross initially pretends that all is well, and Malcolm vows to return to Scotland aided by the armies of the English king. Eventually, Ross breaks down and admits that Macduff’s castle has been attacked and his wife, children, and all his servants slaughtered. Macduff weeps for them, but his grief soon transforms into a steely resolve to get revenge on Macbeth.
The hideous ingredients in the witches’ brew and the macabre nature of the apparitions they summon emphasize to the audience just how unwisely Macbeth has chosen his associates. He, however, is cheered by the new predictions that he can only be killed by a man not born of a woman and that he will only be vanquished when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane—both of which appear impossible to Macbeth. The only apparition that perturbs him is the one that confirms the witches’ original prophecy that Banquo will found a royal dynasty. It is often said that the mirror held by the line of kings in this scene was used to show King James I his own reflection when the play was performed before him, the implication being that he is a descendent of Banquo and a rightful king. However, the mirror may also have been used to reflect the eight kings on the stage, creating the visual illusion of a long line of kings.
Although Lady Macduff and her young son only appear in a single scene, it is one of the most powerful scenes in the play, and their last moments create a strong impression. Although Macbeth himself is not present, the attack on the castle is evidence of his increasing depravity, since he now slaughters women and children for no particular reason. Macduff’s family was not a threat to him, and he seems to have had them murdered out of sheer spite.
The conversation between Macduff and Malcolm in act 4 is often cut in performance, since it unfolds at a leisurely pace in comparison with the action of the surrounding scenes. Malcolm’s extravagant descriptions of his imaginary vices are the nearest the play comes to comedy except in the words of the porter in act 2, scene 3, though the atmosphere pivots quickly back to tragedy when Macduff learns of his family’s slaughter at the end of the scene. It is at this point in the play that Macduff, formerly a relatively minor character, grows in stature through his suffering and grief to become Macbeth’s primary nemesis.