Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



This entire act is often accused of “sagging” and being tedious; but consider Macbeth’s experience psychologically and how such an effect might be appropriate. This first scene may contain portions again not by Shakespeare.

After the third familiar not mentioned in the first Act, a harpy, is said to cry, “‘Tis time, ’tis time” (IV.i.3), the witches make soup and intone: “Double, double toil and trouble” (IV.i.10). This phrase

is part of the refrain to their demonic incantation, an inspiring little number in tetrameter…. The collective memory has clouded somewhat; often this refrain comes to mind in the jumbled form “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” which makes even less sense than the original. The witches are actually trying, with their spells, to pile up toil and trouble until they “double” — yielding twice the toil and double the trouble for Macbeth, presumably. (Macrone 32-33)

Evil soup contains a number of interesting ingredients, including specific organs of newt, bat, dog, lizard, goat, blaspheming Jew, etc. It’s an exotic concoction, and one hopes that the witches find uses for the rest of the Turk once the nose is stirred in this potage (IV.i.29); surely the rest of the birth-strangled babe “Ditch-deliver’d by a drab” (IV.i.31) is not thrown away after the finger is severed (IV.i.30). What is especially cooling about baboon’s blood (IV.i.37) I don’t know.

“Something wicked this way comes” (IV.i.45): it’s Macbeth and the “secret, black, and midnight hags” (IV.i.48) are delighted. He’s determined to find out the worst, and the witches are very compliant today. The first apparition, an armed head, warns, “beware Macduff” (IV.i.71). Since there’s nothing particularly “armed-head-like” in what’s related, the stage directions clearly indicate that we should be seeing one in the production. So are all the other hallucinations to be experienced by us too?

The second apparition, a bloody child (which serves as a recurring image in this play), calls Macbeth three times; this time Macbeth seems impatient, or perhaps his own name has become loathsome to him. The apparition promises that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.80-81), seemingly contradicting the first message; Macbeth notices this, but figures that killing Macduff anyway will serve as a welcome narcotic. The third apparition, a crowned child holding a tree, announces, “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (IV.i.92-94). So that seems pretty safe, since “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root” (IV.i.95-96)?

Macbeth asks specifically about Banquo’s descendants, and although the witches imply that finding out is pointless torment, he pursues the question and sees a sequence of monarchs prompting him to ask (as do I every Saturday afternoon at Winco), “What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom?” (IV.i.117). Anyway, some damn brats will inherit what Macbeth worked so hard for.

A somewhat traditional interpretation based on a forced Jacobean case for the purpose and dating of the play suggests that the prophecy here would have indicated to Shakespeare’s audience that James I and the line of Stuarts will indeed rule, uniting Scotland and England (esp. IV.i.120-121). Such critics imagine in original suck-up productions of the play a possible mirror held up to audience-member King James’ face. There is no evidence, however, that this play was ever performed in front of James.

Lennox arrives but did not see any witches. He brings news that Macduff is fled to England. “Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits” (IV.i.144), apostrophizes Macbeth, turning to gratuitous depopulation now, vowing to butcher Macduff’s family, even though no prophecies suggested that his descendants were a threat. Macbeth even mentions that his days of deliberation are over: he won’t even think about his violence now but just act.


This scene is often omitted in performance, but it does offer Rosse’s lines on living in a police state:

I dare not speak much further,
But cruel are the times when we are traitors,
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way, and move.

The scene also adds the odd twist that, rather than simply unwitting and arbitrary victims of Macbeth’s insane tyranny, Lady Macduff is presented as being thoroughly unpleasant. She rails against her husband and her kid seems to know she’s not all that loyal and committed a wife: “If he were dead, you’ld weep for him; if you would not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a new father” (IV.ii.61-63) — a cheeky assessment that may have an autobiographical touch in it from Oxford.

A messenger advises that they flee, but Lady Macduff refuses. Murderers enter and declare Mac Daddy a traitor. The murder, on stage, of little Winky Macduff, or whatever his name is, inverts an earlier scene in which the parent (Banquo) bid his son (Fleance) to flee. The scene ends with Lady Macduff screaming bloody murther.


In stable old jolly England, Duncan’s son Malcolm gripes with Macduff about Macbeth’s tyranny. “Scotland is a land diseased and sick, needing a physic to purge it” (Garber 718), hence Macduff’s call, “Bleed, bleed, poor country” (IV.iii.31). Malcolm tests Macduff’s mettle by pretending that he, Malcolm, would be a worse tyrant than Macbeth: raping women, avariciously snatching nobles’ lands and wealth, etc. Malcolm “tests his listener, showing a ‘false face’ not to deceive but to adjucate and to prove” (Garber 720). Macduff does prove he’s a patriot by lamenting the prognosis for his country: “hope ends here” (IV.iii.114). But Malcolm then acknowledges he was just kidding about all that rape and despotism. In fact, this was the first time he’s ever even lied! He now can “Unspeak” all of that (IV.iii.123).

We also hear that King Edward of England is actually a healer; the “evil” (IV.iii.146), often known as the “king’s evil,” is “scrofula, a tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands of the neck, with a variety of unsightly side effects” (Asimov 194). Even Queen Elizabeth was sought for a laying on of the royal hands.

Rosse arrives and seems to have aged or been victim to the psychological ravages of being in Scotland under Macbeth — Malcolm almost doesn’t recognize him anymore (IV.iii.160). He indicates when asked that all is well with Macduff’s family: “they were well at peace when I did leave them” (IV.iii.179). But after Malcolm says that England has promised ten thousand troops, Rosse then reports that Macduff’s family was “Savagely slaughter’d” (IV.iii.205)! Malcolm and Rosse urge Macduff to speak and to invest his emotions into focused revenge against Macbeth. Malcolm advises, “Be comforted. / Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge / To cure this deadly grief” (IV.iii.213-215) Macduff says, “He has no children” (IV.iii.216). He is likely referring to Macbeth, and either that sufficient revenge is not possible because Macbeth cannot know the pain of having his offspring murdered, or perhaps he means that only a childless man could perform such an outrage. But it is also possible that he is referring to Malcolm,who, because he has no kids can’t fathom the impossibility of manipulating such emotional devastation into politics, as Malcolm has just recommended and does again: “let grief / Convert to anger” (IV.iii.228-229).

Macduff resolves nicely the gender issue that began with Lady Macbeth insulting her husband’s “manhood.” Here Macduff acknowledges that he will “act” like a man by taking action, but he supplements the notion by asserting, “But I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.221) — that he cannot deny his emotional side. “Macduff, for the first time in the play, expands the meaning of the word man” (French 249). E.T. Clark notes that Henry III of France had no children (Clark 818).

Act V