‘Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’ is one of the most popular lines in English literature.
Learn more about the meaning of this phrase in this lesson.
The Witches in Macbeth
Three of the most pivotal characters in the play Macbeth are the witches, who serve in many ways as one character. Throughout the play, the witches, also known as the weird sisters, tempt Macbeth to behave in evil ways. At the beginning of the play, the three witches predict and tell Macbeth that he will one day become king. Because of their prophecy, Macbeth and his wife decide to kill the king in order to make the prediction come true. After Macbeth is crowned king, he returns to the witches several times to have them predict the rest of his future.
Analysis of Lines
At the beginning of Act IV, the three witches chant ‘double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’ while stirring a cauldron and casting a magic spell (Act IV, Scene I, Lines 10-11). These lines serve as a reminder that their speech is full of double meanings and contradictions. Some of the major characters in the story, including Malcolm, Macduff, and Lady Macbeth, can be seen as foils or doubles for Macbeth.
At times, Lady Macbeth takes on Macbeth’s role, especially when she takes on the guilt Macbeth should have had for his behavior.Another form of doubling involves the use of disguises. While planning the murder of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth suggests that Macbeth ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent’ (Act I, Scene V, Line 61). She suggests that Macbeth appear loyal to King Duncan while in pursuit of his kingdom. Macbeth also states that men must ‘make (their) faces visors to (their) hearts, disguising what they are’ (Act III, Scene II, Lines 35-36). Even when Malcolm wanted to test the loyalty of Macduff, he pretended that he would be a terrible king in order to test Macduff’s loyalty to him and his kingdom.
Being disguised and hiding your true motive seemed to be the only way many characters in the play thought they could achieve their goals.Shortly after the three witches cast their spell and say ‘double, double toil and trouble,’ Macbeth enters to inquire about his future. The three witches tell Macbeth about a number of things he should be concerned about. First, they warn him to beware of the Thane of Fife (Macduff).
They also tell him that ‘none of woman born shall harm’ him (Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 96-97). Macbeth becomes hopeful when he hears this because he believes it is impossible for anyone to not be born from a woman.Next, Macbeth is told by the witches that he will ‘never vanquished be until, great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill, shall come against him’ (Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 107-109). Macbeth becomes even happier because he knows that nothing can move a forest. The last thing the witches show Macbeth is a procession of kings from his friend Banquo’s lineage, something Macbeth had hoped would not come to fruition.
Macbeth only focuses on the literal meaning of what he is told by the witches and never questions their authenticity because their early prediction of his becoming king has already come true. After the three witches give Macbeth their visions, he starts to have a false sense of security. Afterward, Macbeth proceeds to try to prevent all of the unpleasant things the witches tell him from happening.
‘Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’ is one of the most famous lines in English literature. These lines are spoken in unison by three witches who predict Macbeth’s future throughout the play. These lines show how what the witches say can have double meanings and can be contradictory.
Macbeth literally believes what the witches say to him without questioning the alternative meaning of their expressions. As a result, he starts to live his life to prevent the unpleasant aspect of the predictions made by the witches. Eventually, all of the negative things suggested by the witches occur and Macbeth is killed.
The contents of this lesson should prepare you to explain the origin and significance of the line ‘double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.’