Notes on Prophecies & Apparitions in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The play Macbeth seriously deals with the idea of fate and whether it is decided by our actions or due to external forces. The three witches are a supernatural force in the play. In their characteristic ambiguity, they utter prophecies in their very first confrontation with Macbeth and Banquo.

Table of Contents

1st Apparition

Their first prophecy is for Macbeth when they hail him as the Thane of Glamis, the Thane of Cawdor and the one who shall be king hereafter. As we come to know further in the play, this prophecy is in closest relation to Macbeth’s inner desire for absolute power which is kingship.

This prophecy plays an important role in the progress of the play because it sets the forthcoming actions which are by Macbeth when he tries to earn the power in a shortcut way under the influence of Lady Macbeth.

The moment Duncan awards him with the title of the Thane of Cawdor, he firmly starts believing in the prophecies. The fact that Duncan declares Malcolm as the heir to the throne alarms him and he wants nothing to cloud the prophecy and as an imminent possibility, he observes what Lady Macbeth says and kills Duncan. 

2nd Apparition

The second prophecy of the three witches from the first meeting was for Banquo. Confusing both of them further, they address Banquo as “lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” “not so happy, yet much happier.” And they predict that Banquo shall have kings in his coming generations but he will never be king by himself.

How Banquo reacts after listening to this tells us of his clear conscience. He disqualifies them as dark evil forces which deceive even in its truth. At the same time, hearing this, Macbeth perceives of Banquo as a threat and the second murder after Duncan is that of Banquo.

This is when we understand how Macbeth is trying to correct whatever sounds dangerous to him in the prophecies which means he is trying to control his own fate.

Once Macbeth has progressed as per the first confrontation with the three witches, they reveal themselves to him again. This time, under the influence of Hecate, they equivocate in a better way. They show him three apparitions. 

The first apparition is ahead with a helmet as armour on it. By this time, Macbeth has already doubted Macduff. This apparition warns him of the danger from Macduff and it confirms Macbeth’s next action which is to kill him and before doing so, he kills his family. 

The second apparition is a bloody child. Shakespeare has used child imagery in the play several times. Ironically, the child utters to be bloody bold and resolute. It confirms Macbeth’s further rampage as a killing machine.

As a prime equivocator, this apparition lures him into the first false sense of security which is that he won’t die because nobody born from a woman will ever harm him. 

3rd Apparition

The third apparition is a crowned child holding a tree who says that Macbeth is safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane hill. It sounds absolutely impossible hence it makes Macbeth sure of his invincibility. These apparitions are equivocations.

We see that Macbeth’s inability to trace the evil in them lures him further into misdeeds. His wrong actions and wrongly created confidence finally put him in a battle where he is defeated.

These apparitions and prophecies can be closely equated to the evil which already lies in Macbeth. The fact that Banquo sees the witches and yet act differently makes us think of Macbeth’s vulnerability to evil and his final tragic disintegration more.