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Anyone familiar with the ‘Scottish Play’ knows it’s full of magic and mayhem, but what about the point where these two meet? Come explore the dark realms of divination in this lesson on the Three Apparitions in Shakespeare’s ”Macbeth”!

Toil and Trouble: Conjuring Illusions in Macbeth

‘Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’ This Three Witches, or Weird Sisters, refrain is one of the most famous couplets in all of Shakespearean literature, but it’s only one of the many magical incantations that makes Macbeth so steeped in witchcraft.

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This couplet is particularly important because it’s part of a magic ritual that brings about one of the most unnerving scenes in one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies. This defining moment of Macbeth takes place in Act IV, Scene I, in which the Three Weird Sisters gather around their cauldron in a cave and conjure the famous ghostly apparitions that foretell the bloody fate of Macbeth, a medieval Scottish warrior.When the play opens, Macbeth is serving in King Duncan’s army and is married to a very ambitious woman. By the time Act IV rolls around, Macbeth’s already taken the witches’ previous pronouncements of his rise to power to heart and believes he is destined to become Scotland’s next king.

Under the influences of his wife, Lady Macbeth, and his desire to become king, Macbeth does away with King Duncan, forces Duncan’s sons into exile, and even has one of his own best friends, Captain Banquo, murdered.So, how could things get any worse? Haunted by Banquo’s ghost and the fact that Banquo’s son, Fleance, escaped assassination, Macbeth decides to consult with the Weird Sisters once again: ‘More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know, / By the worst means, the worst’ (Act III, Sc. IV).

The Three Apparitions

Having prepared their spells ahead of time, the sisters are ready and waiting for Macbeth by the time he arrives in Act IV, Scene I. When Macbeth shows up, he demands that the witches use every power at their disposal to answer his questions, but before he can ask a single one, the Weird Sisters ask him if he’d like to hear from their ‘masters’ directly. As soon as Macbeth gives the word to ‘Call ’em; let me see ’em,’ the sisters add the final ingredient to their magical concoction and invoke the three apparitions: the severed head, the bloody child, and the royal child and tree.

First Apparition: The Severed HeadOf course, Macbeth is full of questions, but he’s instructed to keep quiet since the first apparition – a disembodied head – is able to read his thoughts, as are the other apparitions. The severed head is armed, but since it is disembodied, the only thing it could be armed with would be a helmet. After calling Macbeth’s name three times, the first apparition warns him to ‘beware Macduff; / Beware the thane of Fife…’ before asking to be dismissed and disappearing.Macbeth acknowledges that the apparition ‘harp’d my fear aright,’ namely that Macduff, his archrival, would be a threat to his reign. As a result, he has Macduff’s children and wife murdered. The ‘armed’ and severed head represents Macbeth’s bloody fall from power.

However, the head can also symbolize Macbeth himself and his murderous actions, rather than any external threat.Second Apparition: The Bloody Child‘More potent than the first,’ when the second apparition arrives, it’s in the form of a bloodied child. After being instructed once more not to speak, Macbeth is told by this ghastly illusion to ‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man.’ According to the apparition, Macbeth can’t be killed by anyone born from a woman.After this last pronouncement, Macbeth believes he has nothing to fear from Macduff and is home free.

All people are born from women, right? Once again, we find that the apparition really represents Macbeth. This time, it’s his childish na;vet; that allows him to be led into such bloody ambitions with so little effort.The Third Apparition: The Royal Child and TreeThe third apparition of a baby boy holding a tree immediately catches Macbeth’s attention with his mark of royalty: a crown. Taking in to consideration the boy’s words to ‘Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care / Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are,’ Macbeth might expect this apparition to symbolize his line’s eternal reign. However, the second part of its pronouncement will eventually reveal the real identity of the crowned child.

The last of these dark specters finishes by telling Macbeth that he’ll never be defeated until Birnam Wood marches against Dunsinane, the location of his royal palace. Even more than the second apparition’s reassurance, this prophecy serves to bolster Macbeth’s belief that he’ll maintain the throne, since trees in a forest can’t just uproot themselves and march against him, can they?

‘Mortals’ Chiefest Enemy’: Macbeth’s False Security

Little does Macbeth know that the third apparition actually represents Duncan’s son, Malcolm, the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. Malcolm’s planning his revenge against Macbeth while hiding in England. During his offensive to reclaim Dunsinane, Malcolm instructs his troops to carry tree boughs from nearby Birnam Wood to mask their numbers. As Birnam Wood marches against Dunsinane, just as the third apparition predicted, Macbeth’s fate is sealed.Before the apparitions even appear, Hecate, an ancient goddess of witchcraft and the dark arts, visits the Weird Sisters.

As the guardian of the craft, she feels left out of the sisters’ plans to toy with Macbeth, as put in motion in Act I. However, she says they can make up for it by helping her deal Macbeth one final blow through the most devious means possible:And that distill’d by magic sleights Shall raise such artificial sprites As by the strength of their illusion Shall draw him on to his confusion: He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear He hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear: And you all know, security Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (Act III, Sc. V)So, how does Hecate’s plan to trick Macbeth into a false sense of security pan out? We’ve already seen the third apparition’s prediction come true in an unexpected way, as well as those of the other ghosts. Once Malcolm’s forces breach the castle walls, Macbeth ends up confronting his nemesis, Macduff.At the beginning of the battle, Macbeth doesn’t think he has anything to fear from a man born of a woman; however, Macduff fulfills the second apparition’s prophecy because he was ‘from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d’.

The realization that Macduff’s birth was the result of a Caesarean section instead of a natural delivery makes Macbeth realize that he should have heeded the first apparition’s warning and that his ambitions led him to believe anything he wanted to hear.

Lesson Summary

Macbeth is a medieval Scottish warrior serving in King Duncan’s army, who, following the predictions of the Three Witches, or Three Weird Sisters, and his ambitious wife, sets off on a murderous path to become Scotland’s next king. Among his victims are King Duncan of Scotland, his friend, Banquo, and the family of his rival for the throne, Macduff.In Act IV, Scene I of the play, after the main character receives a visit from the Ghost of Banquo, he arrives at the cave of the Weird Sisters.

Here, Macbeth encounters three apparitions: a severed head, a bloody child, and a royal child holding a tree. Each of them respectively represents Macbeth himself, his childish naivete, and Malcolm’s offensive from the Birnam Wood. However, as Hecate explains, Macbeth doesn’t immediately respond to these realizations, as the apparitions are intended to provide him with a false sense of security.

The Three Apparitions

The three apparitions
Severed Head Bloody Child Royal Child Holding the Tree
Represents Macbeth’s bloody fall from power or his murderous actions Reveals the fact that Macbeth can’t be killed by one born of man, giving him a false sense of security Assures Macbeth that he won’t be defeated until the forest marches on his castle

Learning Outcomes

Actively exploring this lesson on the three apparitions in Macbeth could prepare you to:

  • Sum up one of the defining moments in Macbeth
  • Describe the Weird Sisters’ conjuring of the three apparitions
  • Discuss the impact of the three apparitions on Macbeth and recognize their importance in the play
  • Remember Hectate’s plan to trick Macbeth into a false sense of security

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