William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 1

CHAPTER 4: Piled Higher and Deeper

— 4.1 —

The three Weird Sisters stood around a boiling cauldron in a cave. Outside a lightning storm raged.

“Three times the striped cat has mewed,” the First Witch said.

“Three times, and the hedgehog has whined once,” said the Second Witch.

“Harpier, my familiar, cries, ‘It is time … it is time,” the Third Witch said.

The First Witch said, “Round about the cauldron go; in the pot poisoned entrails throw. First to be boiled is a toad that sweated venom for thirty-one days as it sat under a cold rock.”

All the witches chanted together, “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

The Second Witch said, “Slice of a swampland snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s forked tongue and blind-snake’s poisonous sting, lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing, for a charm of powerful trouble, like a Hell-broth boil and bubble.”

All the witches chanted together, “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

The Third Witch said, “Scale of a dragon, tooth of a wolf, mummy of a witch, gullet and throat of a ravenous sea-shark, root of hemlock dug up in the dark, liver of a blaspheming Jew, gall of a goat, and twigs of the poisonous yew tree sliced off during the eclipse of the Moon, nose of a Turk and lips of a Tartar, and finger of a newborn babe who is damned because its mother, a whore, gave birth to it in a ditch and strangled it before it was baptized. Throw these into the cauldron and make the gruel thick and viscous. Add the entrails of a tiger to the ingredients of our cauldron.”

All the witches chanted together, “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

The Second Witch said, “Cool it with a baboon’s blood, and then the charm is firm and the opposite of good.”

Hecate entered the cave and examined the gruel in the cauldron. She said to the Weird Sisters, “Well done. I commend you for the pains that you have taken to brew this evil charm, and all of you will share in its gains. And now about the cauldron sing, like elves and fairies in a ring, enchanting all that you put in.”

All danced and sang around the cauldron, and the charm was ready for use when Macbeth arrived.

The Second Witch felt sudden pain — a harbinger of approaching evil — and said, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”

Her words were true now, but if she had spoken them before the Three Witches had tempted Macbeth, they would not have been true. Earlier, Macbeth had been a patriot and a hero, but now he was a regicide and a tyrant.

Hecate left, leaving the Three Witches in the cave awaiting Macbeth.

The Second Witch ordered, “Open, locks, to whoever knocks!”

Leaving Lennox outside, Macbeth entered the cave and said, “What are you doing, you secret, black, and midnight hags?”

The Three Witches replied, “A deed without a name. No name exists for what we are doing.”

Macbeth said to the witches, “I order you in the name of Satan or whatever other powers you serve to answer my questions no matter by which means you acquire the necessary knowledge to reply. Even if you untie the winds and let them blow against the churches, even if you make the foamy waves batter and sink ships and drown sailors, even if you beat down crops of food and blow down trees, even if you topple palaces and steeples, even if you turn nature into chaos so that no seeds ever again bring forth life, even if you cause so much destruction that chaos itself is sickened, I demand that you tell me the answers to the questions I will ask you.”

The First Witch said, “Speak.”

The Second Witch said, “Demand.”

The Third Witch said, “We will answer.”

The First Witch asked, “Tell us whether you would rather hear the answers from our own mouths, or from the mouths of our masters?”

“Call your masters,” Macbeth ordered. “Let me see them.”

The First Witch chanted, “Pour into the flame the blood of a sow that has eaten her nine piglets. Pour into the flame the grease that has dripped from the skin-sores of the decomposed corpse of a murderer who has been hanging from a gibbet for days.”

All the witches chanted, “Come, high spirit or low spirit; yourself and your knowledge deftly show!”

Thunder sounded, and the first apparition — a male head wearing a helmet — rose from the cauldron.

Macbeth began to speak to the apparition, “Tell me, unknown power —”

The First Witch told Macbeth, “He knows your thought. Hear his speech, but say nothing to him.”

The first apparition said, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff! Beware the Thane of Fife! Dismiss me. Enough.”

Macbeth replied, “Whatever you are, thank you for your warning. I have long been suspicious of Macduff. But one word more.”

The First Witch said, “He will not obey your orders.”

The first apparition disappeared into the cauldron, and the First Witch said, “Here’s another that is more powerful than the first.”

Thunder sounded, and the second apparition — a child covered with blood — rose from the cauldron.

The second apparition called, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!”

Macbeth replied, “Had I three ears, I would listen to your words with all three.”

The second apparition said, “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”

The second apparition disappeared into the cauldron.

Macbeth said, “Then I can let Macduff live because why should I fear him? But nevertheless I will take steps to ensure that Macduff shall do me no harm. Macduff shall not live. Then I can tell my white-hearted fear that it has nothing to be afraid of, and I can sleep even when the sky thunders.”

Thunder sounded, and the third apparition — a child wearing a crown and holding a tree branch in his hand — rose from the cauldron.

Macbeth asked, “Who is this who rises like the son of a King and wears upon his baby-brow the round and top — the crown — of sovereignty?”

The Three Witches said to Macbeth, “Listen to the apparition but do not speak to it.”

The third apparition said to Macbeth, “Have the courage of a lion, and be proud. Don’t concern yourself about those who resent you and your rule and suffer under it. Don’t concern yourself about conspirers. Macbeth shall never be conquered until the great Birnam Forest marches twelve miles to your castle on the high Dunsinane hill.”

The third apparition disappeared into the cauldron.

Macbeth said, “That will never happen. Who can make a forest uproot itself and march for twelve miles? These are good omens for me! Banquo, you rebelled against death by appearing to me as a ghost. Never rise again until Birnam Forest rises up and marches against me. I, the King, will live until I die of old age and natural causes. Yet I still want to know one thing more: Shall Banquo’s descendants ever reign in this kingdom?”

The Weird Sisters replied, “Seek to know no more.”

“I will know the answer to my question!” Macbeth said. “If you do not answer, may an eternal curse fall upon you! Tell me! Why is the cauldron sinking? What music am I hearing?”

The music of oboes sounded.

The First Witch ordered, “Show him!”

The Second Witch ordered, “Show him!”

The Third Witch ordered, “Show him!”

All three Weird Sisters ordered, “Show his eyes, and grieve his heart; come like shadows, then depart!”

Spirits showed themselves in the forms of eight Kings. The eighth King had a mirror in his hand. The ghost of Banquo also appeared.

Macbeth shouted, “You look like the ghost of Banquo! Go away!”

Macbeth then shouted at the first King, “Your crown sears my eyeballs.”

Then he shouted at the second King, “Your hair, your brow that is crowned with gold, resembles those of the first King! And the third King resembles you!”

Macbeth then shouted at the three Weird Sisters, “Why do you show me this! I see a fourth King! Eyes, jump out of your sockets! What, will the line of Kings stretch out to the crack of doom? I see another and another King! A seventh! I don’t want to see any more Kings, and yet an eighth King appears, holding a mirror in which I see many more Kings, some of whom are carrying coronation emblems that show that they are Kings of multiple countries! This is a horrible sight for me! Banquo — his head bloody — smiles at me and points to his descendants, all of them Kings!”

The apparitions vanished.

Macbeth asked, “Is all of this true?”

The First Witch answered, “Yes, all that you have seen is true. You are acting like a person in shock, but we Weird Sisters will cheer you up and entertain you. I will charm music out of the air and my sisters will dance. We want you, great King, to kindly say that we welcomed you.”

The witches danced until Hecate showed herself, and then they and Hecate vanished.

Macbeth listened a moment, heard only the galloping of horses, and said, “Where are the Weird Sisters? Gone? Let this evil day be forever a day of ill omen in the calendar! Lennox, come here!”

Lennox entered the cave and asked, “What are your orders for me?”

“Saw you the Weird Sisters?” Macbeth asked.

“No, my lord,” Lennox replied.

“Didn’t they pass by you?”

“No, indeed not, my lord.”

Macbeth said, “The air that the three Weird Sisters ride upon is infected with corruption, and everyone who trusts them is damned. I heard horses galloping. Who was it who came here?”

“A few men came here to tell you that Macduff has fled to England.”


“Yes, my good lord.”

“Macduff timely anticipated what I was going to do to him,” Macbeth said. “Anyone who forms a plan ought to act immediately on it. From this moment on, I will do so: Whenever I form a plan in my heart, I will act on it and bring it to fruition. I will start to do that right now: I will attack Macduff’s castle at Fife, and I will kill his wife, his children, and anyone unfortunate enough to be related to him. I won’t boast of deeds not done; instead, I will ensure that this deed is done before I change my mind. I will also no longer seek to see the apparitions of the Weird Sisters! Where are the messengers? Take me to them.”

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