Why Macbeth‘s Birnam Wood Prophecy Actually Works

In case I hadn’t mentioned it here before, I love Macbeth. Passionately. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play (other than Hamlet) and its main character is one of my favorite protagonists in all of literature.

In spite of that, I can understand why a lot of people dislike it: it’s pretty dark and violent, even for Shakespeare, and the ending can seem a little odd. I’ll concede that the resolution to the “none of woman born” prophecy was a bit of a cop-out; however, I’m not so sure I can say the same about the next most infamous plot point in Macbeth, the fulfillment of the Birnam Wood prophecy.

In case your memory needs refreshing, in Act 4, Scene 1, a spirit conjured by the Weird Sisters tells Macbeth that he can never be defeated until Birnam Wood, the forest surrounding Macbeth’s castle, comes against him. Naturally, Macbeth interprets this to mean that the trees themselves will have to move of their own volition before he can be overthrown: “That will never be. / Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?” So you can imagine Macbeth’s surprise in Act 5, Scene 5 when his castle is attacked not by an army of walking trees but by an army of men camouflaging themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood.

This, understandably, can be rather disappointing to some. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, was so disgusted with Shakespeare’s handling of the Birnam Wood prophecy that he corrected the mistake in his own Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating the human-like tree creatures we now know as ents. But, while guys dressed like trees might not have the same element of surprise and wonder as walking trees, I do think that, in the context of Macbeth, such an inauspicious fulfillment to the prophecy works.

In the dramatic conventions of Shakespeare’s day, a tragedy wasn’t a tragedy at all if it didn’t concern itself foremost with the hero’s downward spiral into darkness. We can see how this plays out gradually in Macbeth: Act 1 reveals the murderous ambition he harbors, Act 2 sees him killing his king, Act 3 has him ordering the murder of his best friend, and in Act 4, he sends soldiers to slaughter Macduff’s defenseless wife and children. By Act 5, he has reached the nadir of his corruption. This reign of terror can only end with his death. Macbeth, however–still under the influence of the witches, but also drunk on his own pride–believes that he is invincible, that he is so great that nothing of this world can harm him. It would take nothing short of a brand new natural phenomenon to take him down.

The forest closes in on our Macbeth character in Throne of Blood (1957).

Contrast the mighty, exalted image Macbeth has of himself with the paltry spectacle of his enemies. Different directors might stage this scene in different ways: for instance, in his 1957 retelling of the Macbeth story Throne of Blood, director Akira Kurosawa has his actors moving whole tree trunks while shrouded in fog, making the ambush look much spookier than it sounds on the page. Still, it cannot be denied that these are men pretending to be trees, and not the awe-inspiring walking trees that Macbeth anticipated. These people are false, similar to how Macbeth is a false king, trying to wield a power that cannot truly be his. When faced with these warriors and this fulfillment to the prophecy in which he had placed so much trust, Macbeth’s delusions of grandeur quickly fall to pieces. He is forced to confront the fact that he too is only a man, still subject to the same universal laws and the same morality as other men, instead of the all-powerful, almost God-like creature he believed himself to be.

That’s it for me. What do you think? Do I make a good point? Am I overreaching to try to save my favorite play from the ridicule it justly deserves? Let me know in the comments.

One thought on “Why Macbeth‘s Birnam Wood Prophecy Actually Works

  1. I think it works as long as the disguise isn’t the panto sort of a fakey branch with a couple of leaves on it. Yes, it’s all about the natural environment rising up against this corrupter of the natural order, but why can’t humans be the unwitting agents of that? Omens, portents and visions are one thing; walking trees belong in fantasy novels.


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