MACBETH -- BACKGROUND AND ANALYSIS

 

The following information is based on audiotaped lectures about Macbeth prepared by

William Harlan.  Although the following text is not identical to those lectures, it does contain the same information.  Citations are based on the Signet edition of the play which you should consult as you study this material.

 

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most intense plays and one his most complex psychological studies.  It is also a play about which there is a great deal of historical background, which I think you'll find interesting because it reveals Shakespeare's creative process.  The play was written in 1605--1606.  It's one of the plays where the date is pretty firmly established by internal references to external events, and most scholars have agreed on the date. 

 

Shakespeare was at the height of creative powers, and his theatrical company, the King's Men, was the official royal acting company.  He had the large Globe Theater, a large public playhouse on the south bank of the Thames.  He would soon open the Blackfriars Theater, a small private theater within the city itself where the plays were performed indoors, and he and his men performed often at the court for the king and his family.  The Blackfriars Theater would be exempt from the law prohibiting theaters within the City of London by being a private club.  It could accommodate only a couple of hundred people, opposed to the Globe audiences of a couple of thousand, and therefore Shakespeare charged a higher price for entry.  That in turn meant that the audience was wealthier and more sophisticated than the average attendee at the Globe was.  Because the plays were performed indoors by artificial light, they could be done at any time or weather.  Because it was a smaller theater, the acting style used could be more subtle and understated than the broad, overly dramatic acting used in the Globe before audiences of several thousand.

As far as we know Shakespeare's company continue to perform all the plays in both theaters; it's just that the productions would have differed in the way they were performed.

 

Once you know something of the complex historical background, a very curious fact emerges about this bloody, violent drama: the story of this psychotic killer and his fiendlike wife was actually written as a tribute to Shakespeare's royal patron, King James I of England, who was also king of Scotland.  What an unusual way to thank the king for his patronage!  Of all of his plays, this is a powerful suspense thriller.  We may know who the killer is, but we are fascinated to see if Macbeth gets away with it and to see how he convinces himself to commit the multiple homicides.

 

The historical background is necessary to help you understand why Shakespeare wrote the play the way he did.  Without the background there are many passages and references which make no sense to a modern audience.  This background also reveals the fascinating way Shakespeare used and twisted history to make a better play and to address the political agenda of King James.  It also shows some of the things going on at that time in English society and politics.  Macbeth is an openly political play.  Macbeth is considered a history play, based on the events in the life of a real historical figure, but it is even more a powerful tragedy.  Shakespeare played fast and loose with historical fact in all his history plays, but none more so than this play.  When Shakespeare wrote a play like Richard III, he was writing about events that had taken place about 100 years before, so most people in his English audience had a general sense of what that time was like.  In the case of Macbeth, he was writing about a time over 500 years in the past in a country about which most of his English audience was totally unfamiliar.

 

Shakespeare and his audience did not consider history to be a science, in which the goal was accuracy; rather history was an art, related to storytelling.  The purpose of history was to make a moral point about the present society.  You looked to the past to find or create parallels with the present age that would help you explain how people should behave right now.  Therefore history was often manipulated, changed or simply created to support some political agenda.  Every king at this time used history as a tool in his arsenal to help hang on to power.  They would hire professional historians to rewrite the past to support their claim to power in the present.  Similarly, religious figures would use history as a weapon to attack their opponents.  In many accounts written at this time by Protestant advocates, history is seen as the rise of many proto-Protestants, people who lived hundreds of years before Martin Luther, the first official Protestant.  These earlier figures are shown to be forerunners who simply didn't realize they were Protestants.

 

The historical sources that Shakespeare used were as much mythologies as they are reality.  Actually there was very little known about the historical Macbeth, so if the historians hadn't made things up they wouldn't have had much to say about him.  Shakespeare's principal source, Holinshed's Chronicles of Scottish History, was a loose collection of gossip, tales and fantasies, so the material he was using was already seriously flawed from a historical perspective.  Shakespeare then used this flawed material selectively, not telling the whole story, but only bits and pieces that made for a good drama.  He altered historical records to heighten dramatic effect, as we'll see in the dramatic account of Macbeth's first murder.  Shakespeare also changed history to simplify complexities and, quite frankly, to kiss up to King James.  Shakespeare took a story supposedly set in the 11th Century, around the year 1050, and filled it with many references to events taking place in 1605 in England, in particular to one of the most dramatic events in English history, the Gunpowder Plot, which had happened just the year before.  No wonder the play bears little resemblance to the historical reality.

 

The historical Macbeth had become king in the year 1040 when he killed the previous king, Duncan, in battle.  To put this in a historical context, this is hardly the Middle Ages; it's still the Dark Ages, as historians have termed the various stages of European history.  It is 26 years before the Norman invasion of England, which is generally considered to be the beginning of the medieval period in Britain. In 1040 Macbeth became king and ruled for 17 years until he was overthrown and killed by Duncan's son, who became King Malcolm III.  Malcolm is famous primarily because he married an English princess named Margaret who was later made a saint.  According to the Scottish historian Archibald Duncan, little is known about Macbeth and his lovely wife Grunnich, except that they were pious and endowed a religious house at St. Andrew's (which is probably the caddy shack on the fourth green of that famous golf course -- joke). The couple went on a religious pilgrimage to Rome where, the chroniclers said, "they sowed money like seed." (Many of us when we go on vacation do the same thing.) That's all we know for certain about the real Macbeth.

 

Now the fact that Macbeth killed the previous king was not a big deal.  Of the eight Scottish kings who ruled during this time, seven had died unnatural deaths, including several who burned to death until suspicious circumstances.  It was highly unusual for a Scottish king to die of natural causes in bed.  This violent record was largely the result of how Scottish kings came to power.  There was no fixed process of succession from one king to the next.  In effect, when an old king died every male who was related to the royal family, no matter how distant the relationship, had an equal chance for the throne.  It was a kind of royal free-for-all with the last man standing getting to be the king until he was done in by the next ambitious claimant. Macbeth is overthrown in 1057, still nine years before the Norman French invasion of England under William the Conqueror.

 

Two hundred years pass by.  The Norman kings are on the throne of England.  A succession of English kings and queens has tried to extend their power north into Scotland, as generations of Scots have raided English settlements to the south.  The warfare between these two historic enemies is almost constant. In the mid-1200's the English king Edward, also known as Longshanks and the Scots Killer, has invaded Scotland determined to subjugate it once and for all.  He pushes north and reaches the holy place of Scone where the Scottish kings were crowned. Here he seizes the holy relic called the Stone of Scone and takes it back to London where he places it under his throne at Westminster Abbey, where it remained for seven centuries, despite the efforts of Scottish nationalists to steal it back.  (Prime Minister Tony Blair finally returned the stone to Scotland after his election -- a smart political move.)  The film Braveheart gives you a highly dramatic sense of the conflict at this time between the Scots and the English. The Scots fight back unsuccessfully because they are not united in their efforts.  Finally one man arises who is able to weld the Scottish people into a single nation, Robert the Bruce, and he is able to lead to a Scottish victory.  The English have to acknowledge the right of the Scottish State to exist.  King Edward is bitterly disappointed and when he dies, he leaves instructions that if England ever mounts a new invasion of Scotland, his bones are to be carried at the head of the army.  So you see how bitter the hatred is between the two nations.

 

Under Robert the Bruce the Scots succeed in driving the English out, but in 1329 he dies and his daughter ascends the throne.  She had married a guy who was like the business manager or steward of the royal estates.  Not surprisingly the guy's name was "Steward" or as it came to be spelled, "Stuart." And so the Scottish throne passed on to this obscure family that had never been more than civil servants. Now every royal family worried about two things: succession, or who would inherit the throne.  Henry VIII had gone through five wives trying to sire a male heir to the throne and broken with the Catholic Church over the issue.  The second worry was to try and keep the crown within the family against attacks on their legitimacy.  So kings were always seeking ways to bolster their claim on the throne in the perception of the people.  The family of Elizabeth, the Tudors, had had on-going problems in both these areas.  The first Tudor, Henry VII, lost his oldest son soon after the boy had been married to Catherine of Aragon.  So as not to have to return her substantial dowry to the King of Spain, Henry VII simply married the young widow to his next son, Henry VIII, setting in motion all the turmoil of that king's five wives.  Henry's son Edward died while still in his teens, and his daughter, who reigned as "Bloody Mary Tudor," was unable to produce an heir.  The next Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, declined to try to have a child by refusing to marry.  Her decision caused all kinds of political problems as she approached death in 1603, until she declared on her deathbed that her distant cousin, James VI of Scotland, would rule after her.  The Stuart kings, by contrast, had been very prolific.  By the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, there had been eight generations of Stuart kings on the throne of Scotland.  They were the longest-surviving royal family in all of Europe.  They boasted that they would remain on the throne until Doomsday.  However, the Stuarts continued to worry about the public perception of their legitimacy.  After all the original Stuart king had had little claim to the throne.  So it was that in the early 1500's one of the Stuart kings hired a professional historian and ordered him to create an older, more respectable connection to the throne for the Stuarts.  This historian made up an ancient ancestor of the Stuarts, Banquo, who lived clear back in the time of old King Macbeth.  This Banquo, a thane or nobleman, was told by goddesses of Scottish destiny that his descendents would eventually become kings of Scotland.  These goddesses were given special powers to look into the future of the Scottish nation.  So the Stuarts had a mystical claim on the throne for several hundred years before they actually were crowned.  This Banquo was a completely fictional character that the historian/PR guy simply made up. Not surprisingly this character and the prediction of his descendant's rise to power figure prominently in the play.

 

Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, had used history in just the same manipulative manner.  After he defeated and killed the rightful king, Richard III, in 1485, he hired a number of "professional" historians to do a hatchet job on poor old Richard.  They "proved" that he was not the legitimate king and was in fact a monster who deserved to die so the Tudors could take power.

 

In the mid-1500's Scotland was ruled by Mary, Queen of Scots, a distant cousin of Elizabeth I.  Mary has come down in history as a kind of romantic figure, but in reality she was not nearly as sympathetic.  She was a Catholic trying to rule a land that was fiercely Presbyterian, and she was not very adept at the politics of power.  Plus she had the unfortunate habit of blowing up the castles where her estranged husband was staying.  She was finally driven out of Scotland and fled to England where she was given asylum by Elizabeth.  Rather than being content and grateful for her cousin's kindness, she began almost immediately plotting with malcontents to overthrow Elizabeth.  She let it be known that if the Catholic minority in England was able to get rid of the queen, she would graciously accept the crown.  Elizabeth tried to ignore the threats and then tried to confine Mary in an isolated country home where she could cause less trouble.  But Mary persisted in her plots. Finally Elizabeth is forced to stop Mary's intrigues by having her beheaded

 

Now when Mary fled from Scotland she left her infant son, James, and he was crowned James VI and ruled throughout his childhood.  Poor James was manipulated and used by the powerful men who had custody of the young king.  He learned to be very slippery and deceitful in order to survive to adulthood.  In one of the great ironies of history, when Elizabeth faces death she bequeaths the English throne to the son of her mortal enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots.  James was finally able to escape from Edinburgh and the clutches of the Presbyterian elders and go to the sinful city of London, the Las Vegas of that age.

In 1603 James is crowned James I of England and becomes a dual monarch.  A few months later he names Shakespeare's company the King's Men, the royal dramatic company.  The company has royal protection from local authorities and they make a great of money performing all the plays Shakespeare had written for the court.  It's no wonder that Shakespeare felt compelled to write a tribute to his royal patron, Macbeth.  As I said earlier, it's an odd play to be a tribute to a Scottish king, but then Shakespeare made a career out of doing the unusual.

 

Now as Shakespeare pays tribute to James, he also wants to support James' political agenda.  England and Scotland had been historic enemies, but now they were governed by the same monarch, and he wanted to unite them into a single kingdom.  In several plays written before 1603 Shakespeare used the Scots as convenient ethnic targets.  (We see this Scots-bashing in Merchant of Venice and Henry V.) After 1603 it became politically incorrect to take potshots at the Scots.  Although James and the other Stuarts wanted a United Kingdom, it would take over 100 years for England and Scotland to merge into a single political entity.  To advance the king's agenda, Shakespeare wrote the play in a certain way.  He created and emphasized commonality between the two kingdoms.  He was also careful not to show Banquo, the king's mythical ancestor, in a bad light.  Rather than being actively involved in overthrowing King Duncan, Banquo just stands around and waits for Fate to fulfill the prophecy of his family's future greatness.  (In Holinshed's account Banquo had been an active participant in Duncan's overthrow and death.)  Having set up the story of the Stuart family's rise to power, Shakespeare shift gears and makes the homicidal maniac Macbeth the protagonist of the play. 

 

The other political event which shaped the composition of the play was the criminal conspiracy to assassinate James, his family and most of the Protestant leadership of England in the Gunpowder Plot. This took place in early November of 1605, when a group of Catholic extremists planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the occasion of a speech by the king to Parliament.  There had been a long history of hostility between the Catholics and Protestants in England through the 1500's, especially during the time of Elizabeth.  Catholics considered her an illegitimate ruler and a bastard because she was the child of King Henry VIII's second wife, after the illegal divorce.  The film Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, gives you a good sense of the conflict in this time with the Catholic side being represented by the Pope and Queen Mary.  By contrast with Catholic intransigence, Elizabeth is shown to be much more humane and tolerant.  She had seen too much bloodshed over religious differences.  She did not much mind what people's private beliefs were as long as they avoided public display of religious heresies.  So under Elizabeth it was not illegal to be a Catholic, unlike Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestant dissenters; it was just illegal to perform a Catholic mass in public.  Understandably Catholics chafed under the restrictions of Elizabeth's rule and believed that a strong Catholic monarch could bring England forcibly back to the Catholic faith.  When Elizabeth died in 1603 many Catholics hoped their persecution would end with James.  After all, his own mother had been a Catholic.  However, that belief ignored the fact that James had been raised as a Presbyterian, not a Catholic.  Also he found Elizabeth's principle of allowing private faith a good compromise.  And so the more militant Catholics plotted to fill the basement of Parliament with gunpowder and at the critical moment blow it up.  Now this plot was the 17th Century equivalent of 9/11 or the harebrained scheme of Timothy McVey to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. 

 

The plot was discovered at the last minute.  According to the official account released at the time the king himself, with the help of God, covered the plan.  He was shown some intercepted messages which referred to "strike a blow" for the cause and realized that "blow" could mean an explosion and ordered the building searched.  The effect of the discovery on England was electric, traumatic.  In a flash the country realized how close they had come to disaster. As the conspirators were arrested, tortured, confessed and were executed more details came out.  English society was changed in ways that are still visible today.  For example to this day on November 5, the day the plot was discovered, called Guy Fawkes Day, children throughout Britain collect money in the neighborhood to buy fireworks to set off and burn a wooden effigy called "the Old Guy" in honor of Guy Fawkes, one of the principal conspirators.  The revelation of the plot did not ease the plight of Catholics, who were forbidden the vote or the ability to serve in Parliament.

 

One of the other conspirators turned out to be a secret Jesuit priest named Henry Garnett.  Although it was illegal to perform the mass, the Jesuits recruited young courageous English Catholics, trained them in France and smuggled them back into England to perform as priests.  Garnett was the confessor of several of the other conspirators and he was detained in the initial investigation.  The authorities suspected he was a priest and they asked him under oath if he knew anything about the plot.  He denied any knowledge.  Subsequent suspects were arrested and they revealed that Garnett had known about the plan and had advised the conspirators on what to do.  He was arrested again, questioned and this time he admitted that he did know about the plot.  When confronted with his earlier perjury under oath, Garnett explained that as a Jesuit he was not required to tell the authorities what they wanted to know.  In defense of his own faith he had not lied under oath; he had simply equivocated.  That simply meant he had not told the whole truth and had played fast and loose with the terminology, a lot like a former president testifying under a threat of impeachment.  This aspect of the scandal was in some respects the most shocking for the public because he seemed to cast the Jesuits as sneaky, lying shock troops of the Pope who would commit any sin to further their own cause.  And so the concept of "equivocation" became infamous, a kind of shorthand reference to the evil behind the plot.  It was so shocking that the legal oath Englishmen took when they testified in court was changed at that time to include the provision that the oath was taken "without equivocation" to cover any future Garnetts.  That provision continued in the English legal system down to the twentieth century.  Both the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day and the legal oath demonstrate how traumatic the Gunpowder Plot was on English society.  A lot of popular works were written at this time which refer to the details of the plot, including at least three plays called Gunpowder dramas. One was called The Whore of Babylon all about the Pope leading a black mass to call forth Satan to engineer the assassination of Queen Elizabeth.  The second play was called The Devil's Charter which traces the efforts of the evils Catholics to engineer the assassination of an English ruler.  The third play was Macbeth, according to noted author Garry Wills.  In the plays the Jesuits are linked to witchcraft.  This was not the first attempt on King James' life; he had survived three earlier assassination attempts.  (One reason James may have been able to uncover the plot so quickly is that he had had lots of experience,) The would-be assassins were subsequently tried as witches.  In another related case a plot was uncovered to kill James' bride, a princess of Denmark.  A group of accused witches from a town called Forres, mentioned in the play, had disapproved of James marrying a foreigner, and so the charmed the winds and caused a major storm on the North Sea to try and sink the ship bringing the Danish bride to Scotland.  As in the other cases the plotters were arrested, tortured, confessed and were executed.  As a result of his experiences and his own interest in the occult, James fancied himself an expert and had written a book called Daemonology, all about Scottish witches.  In the first two Gunpowder plays listed above it is a male witch that is behind the plots to kill the English monarch.  What Shakespeare does in his play is to take the "goddesses of Scottish destiny" that he had read about in Holinshed and change them into very unusual witches, in keeping with the interest of the principal person for whom he was writing the play, King James.

 

Holinshed had written about Macbeth that he began as a very good king, a welcome change from the corrupt reign of Duncan.  For the first seven years Macbeth had ruled in peace with equal justice.  He helped rid Scotland of robber barons who had flourished under Duncan.  But then in last ten years of his reign, Macbeth became cruel and persecuted anyone he feared might oppose him in the future.  Holinshed showed Banquo as an active opponent of Duncan and made a big deal out of the prediction of future greatness by the goddess to Banquo.  Obviously Shakespeare changed Holinshed, and here are some of the specific ways he did:

 

1.)    Shakespeare makes King Duncan very saintly. Holinshed shows Duncan as a bad ruler who plotted against Macbeth, instead of rewarding his service.

2.)    Shakespeare takes care to show Banquo as innocent of any conspiracy against King Duncan; he wanted to avoid any suggestion that James' ancestor had been a regicide or killer of a king.  Holinshed shows Banquo was in on the overthrowing of Duncan.

3.)    In Shakespeare's play Malcolm at the end of the play is shown as this great friend of England, overthrowing Macbeth with the help of an English army and adopting English titles for his nobles.  Holinshed shows that Malcolm was not a friend of England and openly tried to overthrow the English king by supporting the Danes.

4.)    Shakespeare shows the predictions about the future of Scotland coming from demonic witches; Holinshed had mystic goddesses deliver the predictions.

5.)    The most characteristic Shakespearean change was the murder of Duncan.  In Holinshed Shakespeare found a much more dramatic, bloodthirsty murder of King Duff by a guy named MacDonwald and he simply changes the names and uses details of this crime.  In Holinshed Duncan had been slain in battle. Here are some of the details from the Duff/MacDonwald account that show up in Macbeth:

a.)    MacDonwald is egged on by his wife, who is very ambitious.

b.)    MacDonwald had just been rewarded by King Duff for helping to subdue rebels; nevertheless, MacDonwald murders him.

c.)    The king's grooms or bodyguards were drugged before the murder.

d.)    Subsequently MacDonwald killed the grooms to hide his own guilt.

e.)    When the murderer protested his own innocence, the other thanes began to suspect him.

f.)      The murder of Duff was followed by violent storms and horses that ate each other.

All of the details are included in the play Macbeth.

 

The play is the shortest of all the tragedies. It is very intense, and the focus is on the psychological effect of the crimes upon Macbeth and the nature of the relationship between Macbeth and his wife.  People involved in staging this play have shared with me two important insights.  At the end of the play everyone on stage cheers the death of the tyrant Macbeth; if the production has been successful, the audience doesn't cheer.  Why not?  Why is our reaction different? The second insight is about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife.  They are a lot like other famous criminal couples, like Bonnie and Clyde or Leopold and Loeb.  Each one of these people by himself or herself is incapable of committing real evil, but together they form this symbiotic relationship in which each supplies psychologically what the other lacked and become a deadly combination.

 

For most audiences the witches are the most spectacular element of the play, along with the ghost of Banquo.  The witches are what people usually think of when they consider the play.  Both my kids grew up with Shakespearean performances, assuming that it was a natural part of life that when you could sit for three hours without wetting your pants you were taken off to large, dark theaters where you watched people in exotic costumes speaking endlessly about things you did not understand completely until they pulled out their swords to kill each other.  And so it was that my son went to his first Macbeth when he was six years old.  I told him about the story ahead of time and did caution him that there would be witches.  That was the immediate selling point, along with the cookies at intermission.  We went to see the play in a little theater in West Berkeley with a small stage around which we sat in folding chairs.  The characters often had to enter through the audience.  When the house went dark, my son, who was sitting on the aisle, tugged my sleeve and whispered, "Dad, there's somebody walking through the theater."  Being a trained professional and knowing the play I was able to tell him, "They're probably the witches!" Sure enough, when the lights came up, here were three grotesque hags up on stage cackling and hissing Shakespeare's lines.  In itself that was enough to impress a six-year-old, but these particular witches were wearing long gray wigs made of some synthetic filament, the kind of thing you used to be able to buy half-off at Target after Halloween.  In passing through audience one of them had brushed against Will and left a long strand of hair.  Throughout the rest of the play my son tapped everyone he could and showed them his "witch hair."  We sat through the whole play, and he was transfixed by things like Banquo's ghost and the fight scenes.  We got to the end and saw the final sword fight between Macduff and Macbeth.  The way this production staged the fight, Macduff pushed Macbeth down at the back of the stage, brought his sword down with a mighty thud and hauled up the bloody head of Macbeth. At this point Will proclaimed that this was the best thing he had ever seen. "God, that's cool!" The play ended quickly, the lights went down, came back up and there was the entire cast, including Macbeth, head in place, taking a bow.  Will bitterly observed, "This is a gyp, Dad.  You ought to get your money back.." Afterwards we were able to go up on stage, and Will went up and found the box in which they hid the bloody head and figured out how they pulled off the illusion and then told me all about it.  He subsequently he spent a number of years in local theater working as a volunteer backstage creating the same kind of illusions.

 

The witches in Macbeth were apparently very authentic, based on what Shakespeare had read in King James' book but also on the folklore of witchcraft that he had learned growing up in Stratford.  Over the years a very powerful superstition arose about Macbeth in the theater: strange things happened whenever you performed the play, so that in the English theater in particular you were forbidden to use the name of the play within the theater.  Actors would refer to it as "the Scottish tragedy."  A film some years ago about a group of actors in England during the Second World War, called The Dresser, showed this superstition in comic detail.

 

Go to Top

 

Act I, Scene 1

[Act I, scene 1] The primary impression one has in this scene is that something dreadful is about to happen as these three unearthly figures talk about meeting with Macbeth.  Even before we first see him, we know there is a collision course between Macbeth and some supernatural power.  Much that the witches say here sounds a lot like the oxymoron, the self-contradictory phrase that we saw in Romeo and Juliet, such as "My only love sprung from my only hate." Here we have phrases like "When the battle's lost and won" [line 4] or at the end of the scene, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" [line 10].  The contradictions are a little different from the oxymoron; they imply a deceptiveness, hiding the truth behind an appearance.  Shakespeare calls them "equivocations" at several points throughout the play, like Father Garnet hiding the truth of the Gunpowder Plot.  Being a good Jesuit he had written an extensive justification for the practice of equivocating and left it where the authorities found it and used it against him at trial.  The witches equivocate with Macbeth, telling him one thing while hiding the truth from him.  For example, "When the battle's lost and won." Macbeth has just won a battle, but at the same time the battle for his soul is about to take place and he will lose. Macbeth discovers that everything seems fair because he is the national hero, but there are foul thoughts and foul deeds taking shape beneath the reality.  Look for examples of these equivocations throughout the play.

 

The witches themselves are the dramatic highpoint of this scene.  Where do witches come from?  The idea of a person, particularly in an agricultural village, possessing occult powers had been around for a long time.  The Bible speaks of the Witch of Endor who had unusual powers.  The ancient Greeks told stories of Medea, who was considered a witch, and the Greeks recognize Hecate as the Goddess of Witchcraft.  In Shakespeare's England witches were usually thought of in conjunction with village life.  If you lived in the country there were things which happened that defied logical explanation.  One day your herd of swine was healthy; the next day they suddenly all got sick and died.  Without an explanation like a virus, you looked for a scapegoat. It doesn't take much imagination to see how the old, senile widow who lived alone on the edge of town became the target of the pig farmer's suspicion.  In the English tradition witches were thought to be old, usually women (although there were occasional male witches), and in league with the devil.  The practiced black masses and placed spells on people they disliked. They killed crops and animals.  In Scotland, by contrast, witches were often young and attractive.  They were much more powerful and controlled the winds.  The Scottish witch flew invisibly through the air; the only way you could tell she had been around was that she left a haze in the air, a kind of ectoplasmic smog.  That, said King James, is why the skies in Scotland are so hazy. Notice the final line of this scene: "Hover through the fog and filthy air."

 

Both English and Scottish witches were the visible part of a much larger supernatural world of evil. The witches were controlled by powerful, dark forces, in particular their own personal demons or devils that took the form of certain animals in this world.  These animal/devils were called the witches' familiars, and they were often black cats, ravens, owls, even rats, hedgehogs and toads.  Often these animal familiars were misshapen or missing body parts.  In this scene two of the witches are called by their familiars: "Graymalkin" is a cat, "Paddock" a toad.

 

Finally, one of the things that set this scene apart from the non-witch scenes in the play is the rhythmic pattern of the language.  The lines are shorter than the 10 syllable iambic pentameter -- usually seven syllables.  Next the meter is the reverse from the iambic line; here the accent comes on the first and third syllables (trochee), not the second and fourth (iamb).  Third, every two lines are rhymed at the end.  The combination of the short lines, trochaic meter and rhymed couples has the effect of making these lines sound like chants, which is appropriate for witches who chant spells frequently.

 

Act I, scene 2

 

In this scene we'll find that Duncan, king of Scotland, is besieged by three of his traditional enemies. The Vikings, here identified as "Norweyans" were usually called the "Danes." The "kerns" and "gallowglasses" were mercenaries from Ireland. Finally, traitorous Scottish nobles used these foreign invasions sought to overthrow the king, one Macdonwald and another, the Thane of Cawdor. Much of the scene is narrated by a wounded soldier who comes in and gives a long report on the success of the army led by Macbeth fighting Duncan's enemies.  What we see in this report are the qualities of Macbeth that make him a national hero: loyalty, bravery and skill in battle.  Shakespeare creates a sharp contrast between the creepy witches of scene one, hinting darkly at some evil to come, and scene two, where the heroic actions of patriots are openly displayed. [Act I, scene 2]

 

It's important to remember that there are two distinct actions here.  Macbeth is in Western Scotland, fighting against Macdonwald. The action in the east against Cawdor is totally separate, and Macbeth has no knowledge of it, although it will lead to his elevation as the new Thane of Cawdor.

 

The "bloody Captain" who tells the account of Macbeth's victory is very formal in his language and absolutely clear in his praise of Macbeth's achievement.  There is none of the emotional and moral ambiguity which will characterize most of the play.  Here, there are good guys and there are bad guys and the bad guys lose.  At line 16, we get a description of Macbeth as a kind of killing machine:

 

For brave Macbeth -- well he deserves that name --

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked with bloody execution,

Like valor's minion, carved out his passage

Till he faced the slave.

 

What Macbeth does best is this kind of violent physical action which doesn't require a lot of thought.  Throughout the play Macbeth will be faced with moral choices, about which he will agonize.  Usually he will revert to this same kind of military behavior when he is faced with a difficult decision, right up to his death.

 

When Macbeth faces the traitor Macdonwald he does not hesitate to act.  At line 22 we are told "he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops/And fixed his head upon our battlements."  This description is actually a tribute to Macbeth's prowess as a warrior. He kills Macdonwald by cutting him open with an upward stroke from his navel to his chin, a real feat, considering how heavy the swords were which were used.  The idea of fixing the head of the defeated leader on the battlements, a charming custom of the time, will reappear at the end of the play when it happens to Macbeth.

 

That was battle number one. Battle number two happens immediately after this when the royal army is attacked by new enemy forces led by a "Norweyan lord" at line 31. Duncan asks the captain if this second battle "dismayed" Macbeth and Banquo, and the captain replied with very heavy irony at line 34: "Yes,/As sparrow eagle, or the hare the lion." In other words, the attack didn't bother the heroes at all, who are described at lines 37 -- 40 as if they were cannons loaded with extra gunpowder slaughtering the enemy in a bloodbath. Finally, after his long-winded report of almost 40 lines, the bloody captain faints from loss of blood.

 

Now more messengers arrive, Ross and Angus, and tell the account of battle number three, in eastern Scotland, where another group of Norweyans, led by the King of Norway himself and in league with the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, have attacked. Here too the forces loyal to Duncan have succeeded, and the King of Norway has had to pay a ransom to get the bodies of his dead men returned for burial.  The overjoyed Duncan orders that the captured Thane of Cawdor be executed and his titles and estates given to Macbeth.  The scene ends with an each of the line from the first scene: "When the battle's lost and won."  Here Duncan proclaims: "What he [Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won." In this case there's no suggestion of creepy witchcraft behind Macbeth's reward.  Any fair-minded person hearing the account of Macbeth's heroic actions winning two battles in a single day would agreed he deserves Cawdor's title.

In the next scene, however, Macbeth jumps to the conclusion that the witches and their occult power have given him the title.

 

Act I, scene 3

 

In this scene we return to the world of the witches and watch as they prepare for their fateful meeting with Macbeth.  Read this opening section carefully and see if you can find the description of the limitation of the witches' power.  In some productions of this play, the witches are played as all-powerful creatures that not only know the future but also control all of Macbeth's actions.  The text makes clear that they have their limitations.  [Act I, scene 3, lines 1 -- 37]

 

This sequence is a foreshadowing of what awaits the Spice Girls when they fall off the bottom of the Billboard Chart.  They end up playing the Witches in regional theater in Liverpool.  Only joking, maybe.

 

Earlier I had mentioned the fact that English witches and Scottish witches were significantly different.  I can't explain why there should be such differences between the two cultures, but what Shakespeare does here and throughout the play is to form a combination of the two.  Right at the beginning we're told the Second Witch has been off killing swine, a typical activity of the English village witch.  Then the First Witch narrates the story of the "sailor's wife" who refused to share her chestnuts, thereby not showing the witch the proper respect.  This unfortunate woman, called a "rump-fed ronyon" at line 6, is not punished directly, but her husband, the captain of a ship called the Tiger, is made to suffer.  The reason the ship and its port of call are specifically named may have been because the English had just recently established trade with that part of the Eastern Mediterranean, now part of Syria, which at this time was part of the Ottoman Empire.

 

The witch says she'll get to the ship by sailing in a sieve.  Part of the magic of being a witch is being able to do things that seem impossible to mere mortals. "Like a rat without a tail,/I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do" at lines 9 -- 10 is a sinister, albeit nonspecific threat, in addition to being a reminder about witches' association with misshapen or incomplete animals through their familiars.  The witches then collect the winds until they have a complete domination of the means by which ships moved across the oceans, or as First Witch says, "All the quarters that they know/In the shipman's card" [lines 16 --17].  What she's referring to is the primitive navigational chart which showed the direction of the prevailing winds in an area.  Earlier I mentioned that Scottish witches controlled the winds.

 

The First Witch describes the revenge to be visited upon the poor Captain of the Tiger: his ship will be tossed about in constant storms; the winds will blow against him; "Sleep shall neither nor day/Hang upon his penthouse lid" [lines 19 -- 20].  It will take him a long time to get home: "Weary sev'nights nine times nine/ Shall he dwindle, peak and pine" [line 22 -- 23].  If you follow her mathematical formula here, he will be 81 weeks (a "sev'night" being a week) on the return voyage.  Even in the days of unreliable sailing conditions, this seems like an exaggeration.  But what it does show us is the importance of magical numbers, especially to English witches.  They dealt with odd numbers only, and judging by these girls' favorite numbers, three and multiples of three are the operative ones: three times three = nine; nine times nine = eighty-one, undoubtedly a very witchy number with powerful ramifications. 

 

We see at this point, lines 24 -- 25, the limitation on the witches' power: "Though his bark cannot be lost/ Yet it shall be tempest-tossed."  The witches are not as powerful as the Fates of Greek mythology.  They cannot determine how long a man may live.  They can make life rough for the clueless captain, but they cannot kill him.  In the same way, they can tempt Macbeth with predictions about his future, but they cannot make him choose evil.  That one exception is what makes this play a story of one man's free will, his decision to opt for evil over good.

 

The spell placed on the Tiger is a powerful one and requires strong magic.  The First Witch has a secret ingredient, a severed thumb.  One of the occupational hazards on those old-fashioned, clumsy sailing ships with their heavy rudders and primitive helms for steering was the tendency for the wheel to spin out of control in heavy weather, so that ship pilots sometimes lost fingers.  Garry Wills also argues that the dismembered finger was a gruesome reminder of what would have been showered all over London, had the Gunpowder Plot been successful. (And as we discovered in the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe.) The witches love body parts to make their spells more powerful.  We'll see this morbid fascination again in Act IV.

 

The witches refer to themselves at line 31 of being "the weird sisters." The word refers to an old Germanic concept of fate, not necessarily controlling fate but foreknowing it.  They call themselves "posters of the sea and land," with the idea of "posting," meaning speeding a message.  (Believe or not, the origin for the post office.) Post horses were then seen as the fastest way to deliver information.  Finally, just before Macbeth enters, at line 35, they play their magical number game again: "Thrice to thine and thrice to mine,/ And thrice again to make up nine./ Peace! The charm's wound up."  They are ready to greet Macbeth.

 

In this next sequence right near the beginning, what is Macbeth's physical when he hears the witches' greeting?  Why is that reaction significant?  What directions do the witches give him about what to do in light of the prophecies they make? [Act I, scene 3, line 38 -- 156]

 

Macbeth's physical reaction to the witches' greeting is found at line 51.  His best friend Banquo tells us, "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear/ Things that do sound so fair." First, we get that echo of "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" from the first scene.  Next we get Shakespeare making sure that everyone in the theater knows what Macbeth's reaction is; he doesn't rely upon the actor to convey that emotion.  What the witches tell Macbeth initially shocks and frightens him.  He says nothing for over 20 lines, and Banquo says at line 57 that he is "rapt withal," entranced by what they have said.  It is unusual for Shakespeare to have a character's expression described for us as he does here.  Whenever he does this verbal reinforcement of the actor's reaction, it is always to heighten the effect.  Shakespeare wants everyone to know, no matter where they are in the theater, that Macbeth is frightened, shocked and then rendered speechless by what the witches say.

 

At the beginning of the scene Macbeth enters saying, "So fair and foul a day I have not seen."  What he means is, of course, that they have achieved a great victory, which made it a fair day; at the same time the weather is lousy, making it a "foul" day.  We see the verbal connection with the witches' equivocation in the first scene, suggesting strongly that there's some kind of supernatural connection that's been established.  Banquo gives us a description of the witches at line 40: "So withered and so wild in their attire,/ That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth,/And yet are on it," and he goes on to say these women have beards, a kind of physical equivocation at line 45, being both male and female.  English witches were often described as being old crones with facial hair.

 

The witches hail Macbeth, first as the "Thane of Glamis," the title he inherited from his father, then "Thane of Cawdor," which he says is just impossible, and finally as "King hereafter," which is what knocks his socks off.  I had asked before what directions the witches give Macbeth about what to do in light of these prophecies, and the answer is absolutely nothing.  Any action is left entirely up to Macbeth; the consequences of the witches' statements all flow from him.  And the first consequence is that reaction of fear and shock: "Why do you start and seem to fear/ Things that do sound so fair?"

 

When Banquo confronts the witches, he takes a different approach.  He steps up and asks at line 58, since you're giving out predictions, what about me?

 

            If you can look into the seeds of time,

            And say which grain will grow and which will not,

            Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear

            Your favors nor your hate.

 

He is not afraid or undone by them, unlike Macbeth.

 

The witches' statements to Macbeth were straightforward: you're Cawdor and you'll be king.  With Banquo, the witches speak in equivocations: "Lesser than Macbeth, but greater./ Not so happy, yet much happier./ Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none" [lines 65 -- 67].  Banquo is lesser than Macbeth in that he is not as heroic nor is he rewarded with a new title as Macbeth is; however, he is "greater" in the sense that he behaves more morally than his friend.  Banquo is "not so happy" in the sense that he does not live as long as Macbeth, but in terms of the pain suffered, Banquo is "much happier" and his soul does not burn in hell as Macbeth does after death.  Then from the point of view of King James, the most important prediction is that Banquo's descendents will take the throne, although Banquo is not a king. 

 

Finally Macbeth comes out of his state of shock and demands that the witches tell him more.  He knows that he is the Thane of Glamis through his father, Sinel.  But he cannot believe he would be the Thane of Cawdor, and he describes that nobleman as he was before at line 73, "A prosperous gentleman."  He has no more hope of being king than he has of becoming the Thane of Cawdor.  Notice how Macbeth has made this situation conditional in his statement.  If you think about his statement at line 73 -- 75, he's saying in effect, "If I were to become Cawdor, I could well become king."

 

The witches vanish.  On Shakespeare's stage this was probably accomplished by using a smoke machine to temporarily cover the actors playing the witches dropping through the trap door in the floor of the stage.  Modern film uses creative techniques and devices to make this exit magical.

 

Banquo and Macbeth are inclined not to believe what just happened.  Banquo suggests at line 84 that they may have "eaten on the insane root/ That takes the reason prisoner."  (The reference to "insane root" is provocative and reminds us that the use of

hallucinogenic substances is not new.) When Macbeth says that he will be Thane of Cawdor and King, he somewhat sarcastically asks Banquo at line 87, "Went it not so?" to which Banquo in disbelief answers, "To the selfsame tune and words," as if this were a musical joke.

 

With the entrance of Ross and Angus the situation changes.  Now we have the public level awareness represented by the newly arrived nobles.  Macbeth and Banquo share a secret and have their own private level of awareness.  And then there is a third level, Macbeth's introspective examination of his options, which he shares only with us, the audience.  Throughout the rest of the scene Macbeth operates on all three levels of awareness at different times.  Just reading the language on the page, it can be difficult to figure out which level Macbeth is on at any given time.  But in performance you understand exactly where he is.  What you don't realize as easily is that Shakespeare has made the audience Macbeth's co-conspirators.

 

Angus and Ross praise Macbeth's heroic action in flowery language and at line 105 give Macbeth the big news: because of his heroic actions in the "kingdom's great defense," he is now the Thane of Cawdor.  Now this is a big deal, because it means Macbeth has two titles and estates and incomes.  He's worth probably double what he was before.  Yet notice that Banquo's immediate reaction is, "What, can the devil speak true?" [line 107], suggesting, of course, that the motive behind this reward is some force for evil rather than Macbeth's heroic actions.  Macbeth's reaction at line 108 is "why do you dress me/In borrowed robes?"  You're putting fine clothes on me that don't belong to me, he's saying.  This introduces a motif or pattern of repeated images that are found throughout the play in about half-a-dozen places -- the idea that Macbeth is wearing clothes that do not fit, pretending to be something he is not.  Angus explains that the old thane is still alive but will soon die for treason, laboring in his "country's wrack," or ruin at line 114.  Ironically, this is what the new Thane of Cawdor will also do, labor in his "country's wrack."

 

Macbeth's reactions after this become more complex.  At the public level we have the straightforward interaction with Ross and Angus.  Banquo's reaction at line 107, "What, can the devil speak true?" is a private communication just with Macbeth.  It would make no sense were Angus and Ross to hear it; in fact, it would imply an insult to the king.  At line 116 we get the first ultra-secret statement, or aside, which Macbeth shares just with the audience: "Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor/ The greatest is behind."  Macbeth reveals that he really has been affected by the witches' greeting.  The line shows a rather curious concept of time, something described by the ancient Greeks.  It is as if you were on a small island in the middle of a raging river, situated in such a way that you can only see what is downstream from you, what has flowed past.  Time is the river, and the future in effect is upstream, what will flow down and present itself to your view.  Hence, becoming king will be in the future.

 

Having shared this secret ambition with us, Macbeth immediately looks for validation from Banquo and asks him privately at line 118: "Do you not hope your children shall be kings,/ When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me/ Promised no less to them?" Both Macbeth and Banquo assume that what Macbeth just received was a gift, not of a grateful king but of a satanic power.  Banquo warns Macbeth from line 120 on that this is a very dangerous assumption to make: 

 

                                    That, trusted home,

            Might yet enkindle thee to the crown,

            Besides the Thane of Cawdor.  But 'tis strange:

            And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

            The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

            Win us with honest trifles, to betray's

            In deepest consequence.

 

Banquo fears that Macbeth may act upon the promise of being king, may be "enkindled," caught up in a fiery passion as if lighting a fuse.  He warns there is danger here, that evil may tells us minor truths to make us do something seriously wrong "In deepest consequence."  And, of course, that's exactly what Macbeth does.  Banquo may not entirely trust the witches, but Macbeth does.

 

"Two truths are told/ As happy prologues to the swelling act/ Of the imperial theme" [lines 127 -- 129].  Two of the three prophecies are true, and he eagerly looks forward to the "swelling act" of becoming king, in a memorable phrase.  He briefly steps back into his public self to thank Angus and Ross and returns to his introspective musings.  Here Macbeth reveals one of the qualities that make him an admirable character: he faces the consequences of his actions directly.  At line 130 he begins by saying what the witches invite him -- "solicit" him -- to do cannot be bad or ill and then immediately adds, "cannot be good."  If it is ill, "Why hath it given me earnest of success," [line 132] or proof of its truth?  On the other hand, if it is a good thing,

 

why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature?         [lines 134 -- 137]

 

As a tragic hero Macbeth wrestles with moral choices.  The witches have not told him he must do anything, and yet here he contemplates an act which makes his hair stand on end and causes his heart to beat in an unnatural manner.  What is the "horrid thing" that Macbeth imagines he must do?  We don't know for sure, but we can guess from the rest of the description Macbeth provides us at lines 137 -- 142:

 

                                                Present fears

            Are less than horrible imaginings.

            My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

            Shakes so my single state of man that function

            Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is

            But what is not.

 

What is in his mind is more horrible than any fears he may feel at this moment.  What is in his mind, "my thought," involves murder, a murder as yet "fantastical" or imaginary.  Nevertheless, just the idea of this murder shakes him so seriously that he cannot function; he is paralyzed with the thoughts of "what if…" or surmise.  Nothing exists in this ambivalent state but what is not, and yet its shakes him to the core.

 

Banquo comments on his friend's appearance at line 142, that he is "rapt" or in deep thought.  Macbeth has assumed up to the point that the witches' greeting means that he must commit a murder, undoubtedly the current king.  Now, at line 143, he finally considers the alternative: "If chance [Fate] will have me King, why chance may crown me/ Without my stir."  Maybe he doesn't have to do a thing, just wait.  That's what Banquo does.

 

Banquo describes his physical reaction at line 145: "New honors come upon him,/ Like our strange [new] garments, cleave not to their mold/ But with the aid of use."  It's that motif about ill-fitting clothes being used to describe Macbeth's obvious discomfort in this situation.

 

What is the answer to Macbeth's complex dilemma?  Should he act? What should he do? In his final aside Macbeth reverts to what he knows best, being a soldier, a man of action:

"Come what come may,/ Time and the hour run through the roughest day" [line 146 -- 147]. It seems to me this is his philosophy as a military man.  You contemplate your choices and then you just do it -- act without necessarily having all the answers.  When he unseamed the traitor Macdonwald, he didn't agonize over it; he just hit him with the sword and figured it out later.

As they leave, everything is joyous at the public level, and they go to meet the king.  However, at line 153 he invites Banquo to meet with him privately and discuss the implications of the witches' prophecies.  They obviously both have a lot to consider.

 

Act I, scene 4

 

In the next scene look for parallels between the former Thane of Cawdor and the new thane.  What happens in this scene which seems to force Macbeth to act?  [Act I, scene 4]

 

When in the final line of the scene Duncan refers to Macbeth as "cousin," it's a reminder that the two are related, a family loyalty, in addition to the bonds of allegiance and shared humanity which Macbeth will violate in murdering the king.

 

Macbeth and the former Thane of Cawdor successfully hide their villainy and both betray their monarchs.  At line 7 we're told: "nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it."  He made have been a rotten traitor, but he died well.  In Shakespeare's time, as in ours, that counted for something, and it will something we can say of Macbeth at the end of the play.  Cawdor is describes as dying, "As one that had been studied in his death,/ To throw away the dearest thing he owed/ As 'twere a careless trifle" [lines 9 -- 11].  The people in Shakespeare's audience associated this kind of attitude with the heroic figures of ancient Rome and called it stoicism, the equanimity of the human spirit in the face of failure or death.  We see this stoic attitude in a number of Shakespeare tragedies.

 

Poor King Duncan is astounded by Cawdor's betrayal:  "He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust" [lines 13 -- 14].  He wishes there were some way to tell a person's thoughts by looking in his face.  Ironically the very next person he sees, at line 14, is Macbeth, with whom he will make the same mistake again.  The king is overwhelmed with gratitude for Macbeth's actions, as well as Banquo's.  In rather flowery speech from lines 15 to 21 Duncan wishes that Macbeth had somehow deserved less so that he could pay him properly.  As it is, "More is thy due than more than all can pay" [line 21].  Macbeth's response at line 22 states the proper relationship between the subject and the monarch, but at the same time is ironic since we know he is contemplating killing his lord and master:

 

            The service and the loyalty I owe,

            In doing it, pays itself.  Your Highness' part

            Is to receive out duties; and our duties

            Are to your throne and state children and servants;

            Which do but what they should, by doing everything

            Safe toward your love and honor.

 

What Macbeth is implying here is that his duty toward Duncan is that of a child toward his father, which will make the murder all the more heinous.

 

The king's response from line 27 -- 32 is liken his rewarding of Macbeth to the idea of cultivation: "I have begun to plant thee, and will labor/ To make thee full of growing." Duncan thanks Banquo too, who responds in the farming imagery: "There if I grow,/ The harvest is your own" [lines 32 --33].  The sense of gratitude Duncan feels to both men causes him to weep at line 34.  The next thing he does is to announce publicly that his eldest son Malcolm will be his heir to the throne of Scotland.  This has a rather curious historical significance, besides being a key point in the plot development. At the beginning of these remarks I spoke of how many kings of Scotland had died unnatural deaths.  In large part this was due to the way succession for the crown in Scotland was handled.  When the old king died, every male relative in the extended royal family was technically eligible to ascend the throne.  It was a lot like handing everyone a sword and letting them whale away on each other to see who was left standing.  It also meant that any of these potential rulers who didn't like the way the present king was running things felt free to try and take over.  What Duncan does here is to try and stop the old manner of succession, called the law of tannistry, and replace it with the principle that only the eldest son was eligible to be king, the law of primogeniture, which was how they did things in civilized England.  Furthermore, in a parallel with the English crown prince being named "Prince of Wales," Duncan names Malcolm "Prince of Cumberland" at line 39.  This establishes a process of succession by law rather than by sword.

 

I have seen a couple of productions of the play where, when Duncan says he will establish his estate, name his heir, the soldiers and other thanes turn immediately to Macbeth, as the most worthy to be the next king.  So it comes as a real shock to Macbeth when Malcolm is named next in line.

 

Duncan announces that he will now travel to Inverness, site of Macbeth's home castle, so he can "bind us [the royal "we'] further to you" [line 43].  When the king came to visit you, it was a sign of high honor.  So Duncan thinks he is doing a good thing when he signs his own death warrant.

 

Macbeth excuses himself to leave and go prepare his wife for the royal visit.  But he tells us at line 48 that circumstances have now changed: "The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step/ On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,/ For in my way it lies." All that Macbeth heard in this scene is the announcement of Malcolm's elevation.  He ignores the praise he received and the promise of future reward.  One option for Macbeth becoming king might have been just to wait for Duncan's death, since he is an old man, and assume power then as the mightiest thane of Scotland.  Now he feels he is forced to act to forestall Malcolm's succession.  And in order to act he evokes the spirit of the night at line 50:

 

                                    Stars, hide your fires;

            Let not light see my black and deep desires;

            The eye blink at the hand; yet let that be

            Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

 

Macbeth envisions committing the murder at night, obviously, because it will be easier to hide his actions.  But here he emphasizes that the dark will allow him to act, without having to see the consequences of his action.  His hand can commit the murder without his eye having to witness it.  Somehow this will make the guilt less.  It is a curious form of denial which we'll see several times in the play.  Notice the sharp contrast between Macbeth's aside, where he chooses evil, and Duncan's final lines, where he repeats his gratitude for Macbeth's actions, using that same imagery of growth and food: "in his commendations I am fed/ It is a banquet to me" [lines 55 -- 56].  Duncan ends with the unwittingly ironic observation: "It is a peerless kinsman" [line 58].

 

Act I, Scene 5

 

The opening scenes in this play are among the most intense in all Shakespeare's works.  Certainly this scene heightens the tension.  We meet Macbeth's helpmate, Lady Macbeth, a person I like to call the perfect corporate wife helping her husband up the ladder of success.  She receives a letter from her husband telling her all about the witches' prophecies.  Then she gets word of the pending arrival of the king at her home.  Why does Macbeth write a letter to his wife about the witches?  The answer is not as obvious as it may at first appear.  Then ask yourself what does she propose to do about the content of the letter. [Act I, scene 5]

 

 

Macbeth's letter is interesting because he tells her certain things about the encounter with the witches and in a particular way, but other things, such as his speculation about killing Duncan, he omits.  He trusts the witches' message (at line 2 -- "perfect'st report") and emphasizes their supernatural power by describing how they vanished ("they made themselves air" at line 5).  Then he tells how Ross and Angus arrived  and greeted him with the news of his new title, which he attributes entirely to the "weird sisters," as he calls them.  He gives a reason from line 10 -- 14 for having written to his wife, "his dearest partner in greatness' [line 11]: so she would know what greatness is promised her as queen.  But I'd like to you look at the psychological interaction going on with this letter.  I suggest that he writes the letter because he knows how she will react and this is exactly what he wants her to do.

 

She no sooner finishes the letter than she starts to find potential problems.  At line 17 she worries: "I do fear thy nature;/ It is too full of the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way."  The image of "milk" will appear several times in the next few scenes with the suggestion of the warmth and affection of the nursing mother.  She's afraid he doesn't have the guts to do what he has to do "to catch the nearest way" [line 19].  In the following lines she gives us an insightful description of her husband and his moral ambivalence.  I find for my own understanding of this passage that it makes sense to drop the "-est" endings from the words.  See if this isn't a little clearer than the text:

 

                                                Thou would be great,

            Art not without ambition, but without

            The illness [evil] that should attend it.  What thou would highly,

            That would thou holily [in a holy manner]; would not play false,

            And yet would wrongly win.  Thou would have, great Glamis,

            That which cries, "Thus must thou do," if thou have it;

            And that which rather thou do fear to do,

            Than wish should be undone.

 

Shakespeare often revealed this same idea in writing about his royal figures in his history plays.  Successful rulers had to have a touch of larceny to succeed, to bend the rules a little to get what they wanted.  Kings who were absolutely good and saintly almost always end up badly.  Lady Macbeth sees her husband's moral ambiguity and fear as the obstacles to accomplishing what the both want.  So at line 27 she prays that he will come home quickly

 

            That I may pour my spirits in thy ear,

            And chastise with the valor of my tongue

            All that impedes thee from the golden round [the crown]

            Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

            To have thee crowned withal.

 

Here Lady Macbeth reveals what she does best in the relationship.  She accurately describes her husband's limitations, has no qualms about what has to be done, and provides the necessary incentive for her husband to do what he must do.  And Macbeth writes the letter because he knows exactly how she will react and he wants her to do exactly what she does to motivate him.

 

A messenger now brings the news that King Duncan is on his way to spend the night.  For Lady Macbeth this is a shock, almost as if some supernatural force had been reading her mind.  Here she has been agonizing over how to get her husband to commit the evil necessary to take the crown, and suddenly the target makes himself available right in her own house.  Her experience here parallels her husbands when the witches greeted him with "who shalt be king hereafter."  For both a shocking message makes them believe that the occult world is on their side.  Lady Macbeth's shock expresses itself when she tells the messenger at line 32, "Thou'rt mad to say it!"  She quickly recovers and tries to hide her revealing outburst by explaining, "Is not thy master with him, who, were 't so,/

Would have informed for preparations?"  But we know the news shook her, and now we learn how it energized her.

 

She now revels in the news at line 39: "The raven himself is hoarse/ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/ Under my battlements."  If a raven was sitting on top of your house,  squawking, it was a sign that someone was going to die, often of bubonic plague.  Lady Macbeth's imaginary raven has croaked so hard, it's lost its voice.  Remember also that the raven was one of the witch-familiar animals, so her choice of birds is appropriate.  Notice the pronoun, "my battlements."  She was talking before about psyching her husband up to do the deed.  Now she has assumed control.

 

 

 

 

Lady Macbeth now makes an unusual request beginning at line 41, one which has prompted spirited commentary over the centuries.  What is it she asking?

 

Come, you spirits

 That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

 And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full

 Of direst cruelty!

 

The phrase "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts" seems to refer to the impulses that have to be kept in check by remembrances of our own mortality and the concern we have for our souls.  She now wants those spirits of evil to come out of hiding and "unsex me here." She wants to repress those feelings of compassion and pity which were associated in Shakespeare's time with being a woman.  Rather than being sensitive to morality, she wants to become an unthinking, unfeeling killing machine like her husband, filled "top-full of direst cruelty."  In a memorable production I saw once at this point Lady Macbeth began to do her own incantation, much like the witches, throwing things into a pot over a small fire, obviously evoking Hecate and Satan to help make her stronger to accomplish the evil she needed to do. At line 44 asks, "Make thick my blood,/ Stop up the access and passage to remorse."  She wants no weakness or feelings of pity or attacks of conscience to hinder her actions.  At line 46 she continues, "[So] that no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell [evil] purpose, nor keep peace between/ The effects and it!" To act as a killing machine she will need, in her mind, to become unnatural.  Women were not supposed to harbor feelings of cruelty nor to act upon such feelings.  Lady Macbeth makes a choice for evil, just as her husband had done earlier.  In our experience of crime it is unusual for people to make a conscious choice to commit evil.  They normally feel superior and resentful or justified in their acts but seldom evil.  In Shakespeare's plays we often find characters who knowingly choose to do bad things.  This action allows the audience to examine the moral effects of such a choice.

 

Lady Macbeth had earlier spoken of "the milk of human kindness" in her husband.  Now she prays at line 48,

 

Come to my woman's breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature's mischief!

 

So for Lady Macbeth the "milk" will become "gall," bitter and hardly nourishing. These "ministers" are "sightless" in the sense we cannot see them with mortal eyes, and they "wait on nature's mischief" in the sense of that they serve some evil force in nature.  (Both Macbeth and his wife identify the evil they commit with something malevolent in nature.)

 

 

 

 

At line 51 she concludes by evoking the spirit of the night:

 

                                    Come, thick night,

            And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

            That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

            Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,

            To cry, "Hold, hold!"

 

Much as her husband at line 50 of I, 4, when he urged, "Stars, hide your fires;/ Let not light see my deep and dark desires," so Lady Macbeth has this curious reaction that if she cannot see the evil act she commits because it is done in the dark, it will be more tolerable.  The night is described as "thick," as if we could feel it.  To make the darkness even more impenetrable, she asks that it be "palled," or wrapped in the shroud of a dead person, in the form of the "dunnest [dark and thick] smoke of hell," a place we already associate with smoke and fire.  This absolute darkness will keep heaven from warning the victim by crying "hold" or "stop."

 

When Macbeth enters at line 55 there is a great deal of excitement, with the witches' prophecies foremost in both their minds.  In many modern productions there is also a lot of sexual tension.  Macbeth has been away at battle for an indeterminate length of time; Lady Macbeth is very excited by the prospect of becoming queen.  In the Roman Polanski film version Macbeth picks up his wife to carry her upstairs to make love at the end of this scene.  That sexuality, I think, is an integral part of the relationship between these two.  Lady Macbeth certainly uses it to manipulate her husband in two scenes.

 

From line 55 to 75 notice for a moment just what Macbeth says and doesn't say.  At line 58 he tells her what we already know: "My dearest love,/ Duncan comes here tonight."  Notice that he makes no assumption nor does he give any indication of what he was planning the last time we saw him, namely to kill Duncan.  When his wife asks pointedly, "Yes, but when does he plan to leave?" Macbeth simply says, "Tomorrow, as he purposes."  There's no wink or nudge or ironic laugh.  He leaves it up to his wife to say sinisterly what's on both their minds, "O, never/ Shall sun that morrow see" [lines 61 -- 62].  The only other thing he says a rather non-committal remark at 71, "We shall speak further."  Given Macbeth's earlier passionate commitment to murder, this exchange seems strangely quiet.  Why did he write the letter?  Why doesn't he say anything more here?

 

Now look at Lady Macbeth's side of the conversation at line 55: "Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!/ Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter!"  This last greeting obviously refers to becoming king in the future when everyone will "all-hail" him.  For her Macbeth's letter served the same function that the witches' first greeting had for her husband.  It "transported" her beyond the present when she had no idea what was in store for them and revealed the future "in the instant," or right now.

 

When she asks when Duncan plans on leaving their castle at line 60, she wants to see what Macbeth has resolved to do.  She wants to hear her husband say, "He's never going to leave here alive."  Instead he says, "Tomorrow" and the qualifies it with "as he purposes."  It's up to Lady Macbeth to articulate the hidden agenda of this little exchange: "O, never/ Shall the sun that morrow see!"  She then gives the first of her many instructions to her husband, telling him to cover up the feelings he reveals in his face:

 

To beguile the time,

Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,

But be the serpent under it.

 

At this point all she is asking him to do is to hide his feelings, to practice the deception he has already started to do in his earlier scenes with Banquo and Duncan.

 

Both Macbeth and his wife do not want to see the evil act they plan to commit.  That's why they keep talking about the night and their eye not seeing the knife as it cuts into the flesh of their victim.  They don't even want to say the words that denote their action.  They use all kinds of euphemisms, as here at line 67: "He that's coming/ Must be provided for."  Gee, I wonder what Lady Macbeth has in mind here?  This is a form of denial, as if not using the word "murder" makes it less horrible.  The same kind of strange language avoidance was found it the great movie Pritzi's Honor where both Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner played professional killers.  But they never used the word "kill" or "murder." It was always a euphemism, like "do the job," "rub 'em out," or "waste 'em."

 

More to the point notice the pronoun Lady Macbeth uses at line 68: "you shall put/ This night's great business into my dispatch."  That's right, she'd going to do! All he has to do not reveal his emotions, as she reminds him in the final lines of the scene.  She assures him again, "Leave all the rest to me" [line 74].  You can see how throughout this entire scene, just by looking at the pronouns, how Lady Macbeth takes on herself the entire enterprise.  She "unsexes" herself to became to stone-cold killer that she feared her husband was incapable of being.

 

Act I, scene 6

 

This is a short scene of about 30 lines to cover Duncan's arrival at the castle.  It is designed to establish the tension between the outer appearance of civility and generosity and the inner deception and evil -- the same old "fair is foul" theme again.  Macbeth's castle is very pleasant.  Duncan is especially pleased to see the nests of the swallows built on the upper walls of the castle, which he believes symbolize the domesticity of the place.  Lady Macbeth plays the perfect hostess, welcoming the king and assuring him that his visit is no trouble: "We love having you stay with us." The king does ask where Macbeth is and jokes that he's sure Macbeth's love for his wife lent him speed in getting there first.  As she conducts him into the castle to meet Macbeth, once again the king mentions possible rewards: "we love him highly,/ And shall continue our graces toward him" [lines 29 -- 30].

 

 

Act I, Scene 7

 

Here we begin with Macbeth contemplating the effects of the murder.  This is a curious development since we just heard Lady Macbeth assure him, "Leave all the rest to me." Examine this first sequence and see if you can determine whom he envisions committing the murder.  What are the consequences of this act? [I, 7, lines 1 -- 28]

 

What we have here is the portrait of a man who is conflicted, to put it mildly.  Something has changed for Macbeth. In the opening sentence, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/ It were done quickly," we see that same reluctance to name the event; the murder here is simply "it." Do it quickly, don't think about it.  At line 2,

 

If the assassination

            Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,

            With his surcease, success; that but this blow

            Might be the be-all and end-all -- here,

            But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

            We'd jump the life to come.

 

Once again we get a substitute for the actual killing.  Here it is "assassination" and even more vaguely, "surcease." "It isn't murder, it's just 'surcease.'" Your notes explain that "trammel up" is a reference to catching something in a net, here the nasty "consequences." The image of the net also connects with the "bank and shoal" where one might "trammel up" some fish.  With the phrase "with his surcease, success," we get one of those Shakespearean plays on words, a kind of serious pun. At line 4 the word "blow" has a curious historical connection.  We probably assume it refers to the action of striking a body with a knife, but the historian Garry Wills, in a provocative study of Macbeth as one of the Gunpowder plays, maintains it was meant to remind the audience of the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  "Blow" was the word which King James supposedly realized referred to explosion in the intercepted note from the conspirators. If we could catch the consequences of our actions, so that what we did was the "be-all and end-all" -- what we did was all there was to it -- we would "jump the life to come." We would ignore our after-life, the "life to come," where we must normally pay for what we have done.  We would act right "here, but here" without hesitation.

 

You'll notice that the first two sentences have both started with the word "if." These are subjunctive statements of what might be, and if this were Lady Macbeth, that's as far as the examination would go.  But Macbeth has this powerful imagination, and he cannot let it end here, and he envisions the rest of what will happen.  At line 7 he continues the scenario:

 

                                    But in these cases,

            We still [always] have judgment here; that we but teach

            Bloody instruction, which being taught, return

            To plague the inventor.

 

If he thought for a moment that he could "trammel up the consequences," he reminds himself of what really happens: what I invent or teach will be returned upon me.  The next image captures this idea even more powerfully at line 10: "this even-handed justice/Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/To our own lips." If I kill Duncan, whether by poison or stabbing or explosion, then I bring down the same destruction on my own head.

 

Now at line 12 he begins to enumerate the reasons not to kill Duncan: "He's here in double trust:/First as I am his kinsman and his subject,/Strong both against the deed." Macbeth is related by blood to Duncan, and he has sworn allegiance to Duncan as his monarch; both are powerful arguments against the murder.  Then at line 14 an equally strong reason not to kill him: "then, as his host,/Who should against his murderer shut the door,/Not bear the knife myself." In Shakespeare's time the concept of hospitality was almost sacred.  Travel was difficult and you had to rely upon strangers to provide for and protect you. Martha Stewart would never allow the murder of guests. 

 

But Macbeth pushes further in his imagination about the consequences at line 16:

 

                                    Besides, this Duncan

            Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

            So clear in his great office, that his virtues

            Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against

            The deep damnation of his taking-off.

 

Duncan is portrayed as this saintly king who has governed well (unlike the account in Holinshed's history).  As a consequence his virtues, like angels, would loudly proclaim against the awful murder, which would, of course, be a "deep damnation."  So much for jumping the life to come! In fact it would be as if the forces of heaven, the angels with loud speakers, would let everybody know what was going on and who was responsible. (By the way, notice still one more euphemism for murder: "taking-off.") This image of heavenly revelation and retribution continues at line 21:

 

            And pity, like a naked newborn babe,

            Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim horsed

            Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

            Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

            That tears shall drown the wind.

 

The images get very dense and complex here, but the general idea is clear: everyone would know who was responsible.  "A naked newborn babe" -- what a perfect image to represent pity! The idea here is that pity itself would respond to the murder. At line 22 we can imagine the baby astride the wind as if it were a horse, or once again we can see here with "blast" and with "blow" at line 24 those images of the Gunpowder explosion.  Shakespeare really gets carried away with the description, and he moves from the baby to the cherubim or angels riding upon the "sightless couriers," (wind shown metaphorically as horses, without eyes but still delivering the message of the murder as couriers).  These angels, earlier described as "trumpet-tongued," would blow the "horrid deed" in every eye.  When you are out in a strong cold wind, your eyes water, but with this heavenly onslaught, your tears would "drown the wind."

 

Perhaps Macbeth has moved beyond his wife's assurance, "Leave all the rest to me," and is now contemplating doing the murder himself.  Or maybe all this agonizing about consequences is about his standing by while his wife commits the murder.  His intention is not clear from the passage here.  As Macbeth looks at the situation, he realizes he does not have sufficient motivation to do the act. At line 25 he envisions himself riding a horse, much like the "sightless couriers" above and preparing to jump over some kind of obstacle, as in a steeplechase race:

 

                                    I have no spur

            To prick the sides of my intent, but only

            Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,

            And falls on the other ---

 

He needs something to force the horse into this jump, and the only spur he has his own ambition, which leaps too soon and too weakly, and fails to clear the obstacle and falls on the other side. (Remember that earlier image of jumping the life to come? Here's what really happens!)  But before Macbeth can finish his idea of failing in the jump, in comes Lady Macbeth, who is exactly the spur he needed.

 

[I, 7, lines 28 -- 82]

 

One of the reasons I like this scene so much is that it shows us how couples who have been together for a long time understand how he other work and can assume certain psychological roles with each other.  If Macbeth lacked some motivation to get past all of objections he just raised to the murder, here she is. Lady Macbeth is entirely focused on the task, what has to be done, and she's concerned because Macbeth left the dinner table.  Worried about the propriety of the occasion, Macbeth demands to know if Duncan asked for him, and Lady Macbeth snaps, "Of course he has."  Then taking a big breath Macbeth tells her his decision at line 31:

 

            We will proceed no further in this business:

            He hath honored me of late, and I have bought

            Golden opinion from all sorts of people,

            Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

            Not cast aside so soon.

 

The reference in the last two lines is probably to wearing new clothes, or possibly fashion accessories.  Once again we see Macbeth refer to his situation in terms of wearing something new and not his usual clothing.

 

Lady Macbeth's reaction is immediate and visceral; she's really upset by this turn of events.  At line 35 she rages:

 

Was the hope drunk

With which you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely? From this time

Such I account thy love.

 

Lady Macbeth doesn't want to hear this Macbeth; this is the "milk-of-human-kindness" Macbeth.  Let's go back and find that Macbeth who had the sudden upsurge of excitement when the witches greeted him as "king hereafter." At line 36 we get the continuation of that clothing motif; Macbeth has changed because he's not in the same garment psychologically, the one that brought them both hope. In the next line she changes metaphors and asks if that elation he felt had fallen asleep and now awakened feeling "green," or sickly, and "pale" at the idea he had earlier contemplated. And for the first time she attacks his manhood: whatever caused this change in you, that’s what I will consider your love, or probably more specifically your ability to love me.  She equates his love for her with his willingness to do the act.  She continues this equation at line 39: "Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valor/ As thou art in desire?" "When you want to make love, nothing stops you.  Why don't you act in the same way to get the crown?"  Finally she mocks his sudden change of heart at line 41:

 

                                    Wouldst thou have that

            Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,

            And live a coward in thy own esteem,

            Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"

            Like the old cat in the adage?

 

You really want that "ornament of life," the crown, yet you, a big, brave military hero, behave like a "coward in thy own esteem," or opinion.  You allow your fear to dominate your desire that the cat that wanted to spilled milk but was afraid of getting its paws wet.

 

Macbeth reacts to his wife's nagging by trying to shut her up at line 45: "Prithee, peace!/

I dare do all that may become a man,/ Who dares do more is none." "Prithee" is a contraction of "I pray from thee."  This is undoubtedly not the first time in their marriage he has asked her for silence or peace.  He reminds her that he is a hero; he's been out killing Norwegians and other thanes.  He is the epitome of a man of action.  She can't find a man more willing to act -- anyone who dares do more isn't really a man but a beast..

 

Now Lady Macbeth hits him with a bombshell at line 47:

 

                                    What beast was 't then

            That made you break this enterprise to me?

            When you durst do it, then you were a man;

            And to be more than what you were, you would

            Be so much more the man.

We are back to the letter he sent.  In effect she demands, "If you call yourself a man now, then what beast was it that wrote the letter?  Why did you tell me if you weren't going to do anything about it?"  She understands that her husband told her everything because he wanted her to push him into action.  She then switches to a different approach: "When you were willing to do it, then you were a man.  And now if you carry it [the murder] out, you will be even more of a man. " What husband doesn't want his wife to see him as "so much more the man"?

 

Lady Macbeth points out the common experience they have had at line 51 -- he with the greeting of the witches, she with the news of Duncan's arrival.

 

                                    Nor time nor place

            Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.

            They have made themselves, and that their fitness now

            Does unmake you.

 

You were gun-ho to act when you first heard the witches but had neither the time nor place to carry it out.  Now, through some powerful force, Duncan puts himself in our hands, and the fact that he has made it easy to do the murder has made you suddenly incapable of acting.  Everything is conspiring to make Macbeth do it.  Just an observation: Macbeth has no problem killing many men during a battle; committing one immoral murder in peacetime to advance himself unnerves him.  That's not so unusual.  After all the vast majority of combat veterans do not return home and continue killing.

 

Macbeth's wife now closes with the most devastating argument of all.  What can she find as an equivalent for herself to show her husband, who after all goes around unseaming enemies of the state, what she would be willing to do?  We know from other places in the play that the Macbeths have no children and are eager to have them.  In a memorable production in Ashland some years ago the actor and actress playing the Macbeths suggested by expressions and gestures that they had had a child who had recently died, so there was a gaping wound in their lives and having a child was a real issue with them.  At line 54 she lets him have it: 

 

                        I have given suck, and know

            How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.

            I would, while it was smiling in my face,

            Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,

            And dash the brains out, had I so sworn as you

            Have done to this.

 

This is cold! Even as she celebrates the idea of motherhood and babies and nourishment (notice the "milk of human kindness" makes one more appearance), she couples it with cold-blooded destruction with the most graphic act of violence.  Notice that the baby is a male (especially important for a macho guy like Macbeth) but that the violence is compounded by the way she describes "the brains," as an impersonal mess on the wall.  We now understand why she had to call upon the spirits to "unsex" her.  If she would be willing to do all of this, how can Macbeth balk at one measly little murder?

 

Macbeth now shows the first sign of weakening.  At line 59 he asks, "If we should fail?"  When people have been using declarative sentences in their arguments and then switch to the "subjunctive voice," the "what if" constructions, then you know they are weakening.  Now the way Lady Macbeth answers him can vary, depending on where you place the emphasis. With the punctuation here, when she says, "We fail?" it is as if she's saying,  "You've got to be kidding. There's no way we will fail."  In a production once I heard it read without the question mark.  He asks for some kind of reassurance, and she declares, "We fail!" That's the bottom line; we risk everything and we may have to pay the price, but isn't it worth it?  Another way to read it is to put the emphasis on "we," as in "We, the two of us working together against the suckers of the world, fail? It's not going to happen."

 

Lady Macbeth now envisions how it will happen.  Duncan, an old man, will be worn out after his horseback ride and the big feast, and he will fall asleep quickly and soundly.  She'll make a special effort to get his bodyguards -- his two chamberlains -- good and drunk with wine so their brains will be no better than a "limbeck," a bottle of liquor. At line 67 she concludes:

 

                                    When in swinish sleep

            Their drench`ed natures lies as in death,

            What cannot you and I perform upon

            The unguarded Duncan, what not put upon

            His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt

            Of our great quell [murder]?

 

They will have a perfect opportunity to kill Duncan and will have scapegoats handy to blame.  You notice the pronoun has changed.  It's no longer "Leave all the rest to me." Now it's "What cannot you and I…." It's become a joint enterprise: "our great quell."

 

Macbeth is convinced in a flash.  This is what he wanted his wife to do for him from the beginning, figure out a plan and give him some reassurance about its success.  He indicates his acceptance by praising her and at line 72 saying, "Bring forth men-children only;/ For thy undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males."  Here Macbeth revisits that awful idea of his wife dashing out the brains of his hypothetical son.  He asks that she give birth to boys only since her "mettle" or inner qualities are best suited for males.  Apparently Lady Macbeth's "unsexing" operation succeeded in getting rid of her feminine qualities. We know that Macbeth's is converted because he immediately picks up on the plan she has outlined and begins embellishing -- they will use the guards' knives to kill Duncan and will rub blood on them as evidence of their guilt.  Lady Macbeth agrees and encourages him, saying the two of them will play the grief-stricken subjects as well as anybody.  Now it is Macbeth who takes control.  Earlier she had warned him to hide his feelings; now he tells her at line 81: "Away, and mock the time with fairest show./ False heart must hide what the false heart doth know."  The two of them must play-act and hide their real feelings, something that's a new experience for Macbeth. (The last two lines here form a rhymed couplet, remember, to signal that the next scene is in a different place.)  Macbeth has taken ownership of the plot.  The pronouns have shifted from Lady Macbeth's "I" to now "we" for the two of them.  One last observation about the final line in which Macbeth, newly turned villain, now admits that he has a "false heart," the admission that he is a villain.  Elsewhere in these lectures I have talked about the "Snively Whiplash" effect, named for the bad guy in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show on television, who was about as subtle in his evil as bulldozer.  You knew Snively was the villain because he twisted his moustache and cackled fiendishly.  Shakespeare makes sure that even the most stupid person in the audience gets the idea that Macbeth is a bad man, "false heart," no matter how hard he pretends to be a good guy.

 

Go to Top

 

Act II, Scene 1

 

This short scene, between two emotional highpoints, serves a couple of purposes.  First, it establishes that Banquo does have a son, Fleance, through whom Banquo's line will be preserved to eventually become the Stuart kings of Scotland.  Secondly, Shakespeare wants to give us a moment of calm before he begins to build the suspense again. Thirdly, he wants to establish the contrast between the moral choices of Banquo and Macbeth.  As you read this scene notice how Banquo reacts when Macbeth enters and what Duncan has given Lady Macbeth.  Finally notice how Macbeth and Banquo dance around the prophecy of the witches.  [Act II, scene 1, lines 1 -- 32]

 

This short scene provides a momentary calm.  It establishes a contrast between Macbeth and Banquo: Banquo is tired and will sleep soundly, especially after he offers a little prayer to the "merciful powers" at lines 8 -- 10; Macbeth, psyched up by the confrontation with his wife, roams the halls of the palace.  We get very different views of children: Lady Macbeth "dashing the brains out," and Macbeth hoping for "men-children" contrast with Banquo and his son, who seem perfectly natural.  Dad even lets his boy carry the big sword for him.  Banquo fears "the cursed thoughts that nature/ Gives way to in repose" [lines 9 -- 10].  These are the same thoughts that Macbeth and his wife had tried to raise in their powerful evocations of the night in contemplating evil.

 

When Macbeth comes in, Banquo instinctively calls for his sword as if something dangerous is approaching.  Of course, Banquo doesn't realize how right he is to suspect Macbeth.  King Duncan has been generous to everyone at the castle, even giving Lady Macbeth a diamond.  It's just a reminder that Macbeth can't claim ingratitude drives him to the murder.  Duncan's generosity and his pleasure in visiting the Macbeths make his murder all the more horrible.

 

At line 20 Banquo first brings up the witches: "I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters./ To you they have showed some truth."  Macbeth denies that he has thought of them at all, but then asks Banquo if they can meet privately, perhaps do lunch, so they can talk about what happened.  Banquo agrees.  Perhaps then Macbeth realizes that he won't be able to sound Banquo out more fully before he commits the murder in just a few minutes.  Perhaps he suddenly wonders how Banquo will react?  In any event, he blurts out this strange request at line 25: "If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis,/ It shall make honor for you." This is strange because it doesn't refer to anything specific; it's as if Macbeth is saying, "Something's about to happen, and if you side with me ['cleave to my consent'], it will bring you honor."  No more details than that.  It's almost as if Macbeth panics and really wants to test Banquo's allegiances here.  Banquo's answer is not negative, but he makes it clear that whatever Macbeth is asking, Banquo will be careful not to do anything which compromises his honor or violates his oath of allegiance to Duncan.  So much for the forlorn hope Macbeth had that Banquo, the kind of Everyman  in this play, would support him.  I think the close friendship between Macbeth and Banquo ceases at that moment.  Clearly Macbeth cannot trust him. In this exchange Macbeth has acted toward Banquo as his wife had acted toward him in the previous scene in trying to manipulate him to act.  Obviously he is not as skilled in this endeavor as his wife is.  He sends the messenger out to tell his wife to strike upon the bell when "my drink is ready," which is, of course, the signal for when she has drugged the bodyguards.

 

In the second half of this scene Macbeth will hallucinate a dagger.  Look at the description and find where the appearance of the dagger changes.  How does it change?   What's the significance of the hallucination and this change?  [Act II, scene 1, lines 33 -- 64]

 

 This scene of the imaginary dagger was a real favorite of old-time actors.  It gave them a chance to ham it up and overact as they envision this scary knife that only they could seen.  Some productions try to supply a spooky dagger with light projections or a prop on a wire.  All these are mistakes, nor does Macbeth have to go ballistic over the appearance of the thing.  The language makes it clear that Macbeth knows what the source of the fantasy is.  The scene reveals some important things for us.  The dagger has its handle toward his hand, but when he tries to grab it, he fails, and at line 36 he asks:

 

            I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

            Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

            To feeling as to sight, or art thou but

            A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

            Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

 

Even in the midst of his delusion he has enough sense to question why he's having this particular vision.  At line 42 he realizes the dagger is leading him: "Thou marshal'st me the way that I was going,/ And such an instrument I was to use."  Now he realizes that this imaginary dagger is actually closer to the truth and is a warning to him: "Mine eyes are made the fools of the other senses,/ Or else worth all the rest" [lines 44 -- 45].  Then at line 46 we get an important shift in the appearance of the knife, something that's usually skipped over in production.  The dagger is suddenly covered with blood: "I see thee still./ And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,/ Which was not so before." Macbeth's imagination is giving him a warning about how it will be if he uses the knife, how the blood will cover the blade and the handle.  Given how much trouble Macbeth has in the next scene with all the blood the murder creates, he should pay attend to his vision.  But he dismisses it at line 47: "There's no such thing./ It is the bloody business which informs/ Thus to mine eyes."

 

Now at line 49 Macbeth goes into another one of those evocations of the night.  It is as if Macbeth is saying, "If the sun's not shining, I don't need to worry about morality.  If it's too dark to see what my hand is doing, I'm safe."

 

                                    Now o'er the one-half world

            Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

            The curtained sleep; witchcraft celebrates

            Pale Hecate's offerings; and withered murder,

            Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,

            Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

            With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design

            Moves like a ghost.

 

The word "abuse" here is revealing.  Your notes tell you it means "deceive," but more importantly it was a technical term used to describe a witch's spell.  So here the "wicked dreams" put a spell on sleep that thinks it's safe behind a curtain.  "Hecate" is the goddess of witches for the ancient Greeks; she'll appear in the flesh later in the play.  So Shakespeare, in addition to using details from English and Scottish witchcraft, goes back and borrows from the Greeks as well.  At line 52 Shakespeare personifies "murder," creating a character who represents the crime.  Murder has a watchdog or "sentinel," which is a wolf, an animal which still evoked fright even though there were no wolves left in England at that time.  The howl of the wolf is likened to the regular call of the watchman who cried out on the hour throughout the night.  At line 55 Shakespeare now compares murder, sneaking through the dark, with the Roman despot Tarquin who stalked and raped the Roman matron Lucrece.  (Shakespeare had written a long poem about Lucrece whose only recourse after she was attacked was to kill herself.)  So in these eight lines Shakespeare packs a lot of information.

 

So, without having solved the question of the imaginary dagger, which might warn him of consequences, but after evoking the power of the night, Macbeth at line 56 sets out to commit the ultimate crime:

 

                                    Thou sure and firm-set earth,

            Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear

            Thy very stones prate of my whereabouts,

            And take the present horror from the time,

            Which now suits with it.  Whilst I threat, he lives:

            Words to the heat of deed too cold breath gives.

 

Macbeth is ready to act; he has psyched himself up, and because it is night, the consequences will not be great.  But even the environment conspires against him, the stones warning of his approach.  He ends up with that same imperative of the soldier we had seen earlier -- just do it! You thought about it enough, now act!

The bell rings on cue, and he sets out at line 62 to act. "I go, and it is done: the bell invites me." Notice how we get the euphemism "it" once again to refer to the murder. The last two lines of the scene, "Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell/ That summons thee to heaven, or to hell" is a rhymed couplet used to signal the audience that the next scene will be in a different location.  It is also a Snively Whiplash reminder so that even the slowest member of the audience, who has not followed all of Macbeth's pretending to be good and moral ponderings on the event, will now know he is about to commit evil.  The rhyme words emphasize the message: "knell," the bell rung for the dead; and "hell."

 

Act II, Scene 2

 

This is the murder of Duncan, one of the triumphs of Shakespeare's imagination.  It presents the horror of the murder in an unusual way, one that will heighten what is done.  The scene will also reveal some profound psychological differences between husband and wife, fault lines in their relationship.  As you look over the scene, as yourself why have we moved all the way from Lady Macbeth's "Leave all the rest to me" to "what cannot you and I perform" now to "He is about it"?  Why is Lady Macbeth not upstairs sticking the knife into Duncan's flesh? Then ask yourself what to make of Macbeth's reaction to committing the murder.  [Act II, scene 2]

 

This scene is justifiably famous for the creation of suspense.  We never see the murder, only a kind of parallel action, which actually has the effect of making the horror greater.  Early in his career Shakespeare had written a series of action dramas, including Titus Andronicus, a particularly bloody one.  In that play Shakespeare was careful to show every act of death and mutilation on stage.  A young playwright, Shakespeare had exercised no restraint at all.  Now we see the mature playwright at work: no blood or body, but Shakespeare showing us the psychological effects of the action. 

 

In the opening 13 lines Lady Macbeth isn't upstairs in the action, but she is psyched.  She has been hitting the booze, and she is supersensitive to sounds.  She hears the owl at line 3, another animal associated with witchcraft. She calls it the "fatal bellman,/ That gives the sternest goodnight." This refers to a rather quaint custom in London.  When a person was about to be executed the authorities had a special person walk up and down outside the prison the night before, ringing a bell and crying out to remind the poor wretch inside that he needed to make his peace with his god.  Lots of people in the audience had undoubtedly heard the bellman.  At line 4 she tells us, "He is about it." Again the euphemism of "it." It also reinforces the idea of off-stage action, drawing our attention to somewhere else in our imagination. We saw something like this in Romeo & Juliet where while the kids spend their night of love, downstairs Juliet's dad was arranging for her marriage.  At line 5 following Lady Macbeth, like a good wife, worries that her husband has screwed up.  At line 8, when she hears him cry out, her anxiety increases.  As she tells us if he bungles the murder and is caught, they will both lose their heads.  If they can bring off the killing, then they should be able to lay the blame on someone else: "Th' attempt and not the deed/ Confounds us" [lines 10 -- 11].  She did all the preparation; he "Could not have missed 'em."  Then she reveals a very important psychological key to how she works and what probably happened to those pronouns: "Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done it" [lines 12 -- 13].

 

When Macbeth returns from upstairs, he and his wife have a heated, almost frantic exchange between lines13 -- 22.  Here Shakespeare is using the very brevity and terseness of the language to emphasize the fact that both of these people are very agitated and their emotions are raw.  The exchange takes the form of a series of questions and answers.  Notice how sometimes Macbeth doesn't even answer the question his wife asks, suggesting that he is very distracted.  What begins to emerge is that they have very different reactions to the event -- she's excited by the success, he's devastated by what he's done.

 

Macbeth: I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

Lady M.: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.

                Didst thou not speak?

Macbeth:                                             When?

Lady M.:                                                          Now.

Macbeth:                                                                     As I descended?

Lady M.: Ay.

Macbeth: Hark!

                Who lies in the second chamber?

Lady M.:                                                          Donalbain.

Macbeth: This is a sorry sight.

Lady M.: A foolish thought to say a sorry sight.

 

Notice how at line 18 she answers his question, and he jumps to a whole new topic.  People under extreme stress will act like this, unable to move logically from one point to another.

 

At line 22 Macbeth finally begins to tell her what happened, not in terms of the principal action of plunging the knife into Duncan's flesh repeatedly, but in terms of what happened, supposedly, on the way up and back down from Duncan's room.  It is as if by not mentioning the actual killing Macbeth heightens the horror.  Now in the exchange between Macbeth and his wife, which runs between line 22 and about 45. It is as if we had two different worlds trying to communicate.  He has this powerful imagination that builds on the event, making it ever more complex and shocking.  We saw what his imagination could generate with his sense of sight and the air-borne dagger before;  His sense of hearing proves to be even more fertile.  She has no imagination, at least none that she shares with him; she will seek to treat the event in the most mundane and literal fashion possible.  He tells her that someone laughed in his sleep and another one cried "Murder!" At line 23 he explains: "[So] That they did wake each other. I stood and heard them./ But they did say their prayers, and addressed them/ Again to sleep." Lady Macbeth, who knows the sleeping arrangements upstairs, confirms that two men are sharing a room.  So far, so good.  But now Macbeth begins to expand this exchange at line 26:

           

            One cried, "God bless us!" and "Amen" the other

            As they had seen me with these hangman's hands:

            List'ning to their fear, I could not say, "Amen."

            When they did say "God bless us."

 

They say more to each other, asking for God's blessing as if they has seen Macbeth with his "hangman's hands."  The hangman in these times did much more than just put the noose over the condemned man's neck.  In executions for serious crimes against the state, the hangman often stopped the victim from dying, revived him so that he could watch while the hangman cut him open and pulled out his intestines.  When the victim finally died of shock and loss of blood, his body was often cut up into quarters and sent to be displayed in various parts of the city as a warning to others.  This is where we get the phrase: "Hang, drawn [cut open] and quartered."  Macbeth identifies with these unnamed men's sudden fear in the middle of the night, but he cannot say "Amen."

 

Lady Macbeth's solution to her husband's dilemma is simple: "don't think about it!" at line 29.  But he cannot let it go.  At line 30 he ponders its significance: "But wherefore could I not pronounce 'Amen'?/ I had most need of blessing, and "Amen"/ Stuck in my throat." Lady Macbeth, at line 33, is even more insistent about her earlier solution: "These deeds must not be thought/ After these ways; so it will make use mad."  Now this is really revealing.  Her message throughout the play up to now has been, "Come on, be a man! The dead can't hurt you."  But here she warns that his over-blown response "will make us mad." We're back to those revealing pronouns.  She fears for both of them.  Underneath her mask of being tough and not bothered by the events, she really is.  In the end she will be the one who does go mad.

 

Macbeth auditory hallucination continues.  Now besides the two guys who woke up we get this detail at line 34:

 

            Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!

            Macbeth does murder sleep" -- the innocent sleep,

            Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

            The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,

            Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,

            Chief nourisher in life's feast --

 

Don't you hate walking through a house in the night and having lengthy expositions coming at you from the dark?  Of course, Macbeth does murder sleep in the sense that we never see or hear of him sleeping through the rest of the play, but we do get a number of references from him and his wife about the trouble he will have getting a good night's sleep.  Banquo had prayed that he be protected from the wicked dreams that come in the night; it's too late for Macbeth.

 

Lady Macbeth was willing to cut her husband some slack before; after all, he had done what she wanted.  But this is too much: "What do you mean?" she demands at line 39.  And he's just getting started with what all he heard: "Still it cried 'Sleep no more' to all the house:/ 'Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more!'" This is a whole lot to have heard just coming down the stairs.  Of course, we can see how Macbeth in stabbing Duncan in his sleep would think that he had murdered sleep.  Once he had done it to another, how could he ever sleep peacefully himself?  Lady Macbeth blows up, as she tries to deal with what he says in a literal sense at line 43: "Who was it that thus cried?" She'll find out who said what and what room they're in.  She'll get to the bottom of the mystery.  Then at line 43 she lashes out at him in the same way she had before the murder: "Why worthy Thane/ You do unbend your noble strength, to think/ So brainsickly of things." It's that same suggestion she used before that he's not living up to his macho image.  All he has to do is wash his hands to get rid of "this filthy witness" from his hands.  Then she realizes that he still has the bloody daggers in his hand. He has screwed up, as she feared.  He was supposed to have left them upstairs and to have smeared the sleepy grooms with blood.  She orders him to go back and finish the job.

 

Macbeth refuses at line 49: "I'll go no more./ I am afraid to think what I have done;/ Look on it again I dare not." This takes us back to those evocations of the night.  As long as Macbeth did not have to see the wound he made in the dark, he was all right.  Now he is terrified of thinking about the consequences of his action.  He cannot bear to look at it again.  So gutsy Lady Macbeth finally gets her chance to jump in at line 51:

 

                                    Infirm of purpose!

            Give me the daggers.  The sleeping and the dead

            Are but as pictures.  'Tis the eye of childhood

            That fears a painted devil.  If he do bleed,

            I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,

            For it must seem their guilt.

 

She gives her husband a couple of shots, attacking his manhood once again.  She declares that "The sleeping and the dead/ Are but as pictures" but remember when she looked on the sleeping Duncan back at line 12 of this scene, what did she think?  We know that Macbeth is terrified, but what does it take for Lady Macbeth to go upstairs and finish the job?  We even get a serious pun in the last two lines here -- the play on "gild" and "guilt."

 

At this point we get an intrusion, a knocking at the door.  It's a simple device, but psychologically what an impact! The Macbeths have been behaving as if they were the only people in the world; they are in the midst of a terrible, bloody act.  The knocking is a sudden, dramatic device to remind both of them that they are accountable to the outside world, which is at the door and wants in now.  Macbeth freaks out at line 56:

 

                                    Whence is that knocking?

            How is it with me when every noise appalls me?

            What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes!

            Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

            Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather

            The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

            Making the green one red.

 

When Macbeth looks at his hands and wonders about cleaning them, he thinks in terms of using the ocean. However, even that would not be enough to cleanse the guilt from him.  The blood will turn the green sea to red in that wonderful word "incarnadine."  Everything about his crime and subsequent guilt makes Macbeth think in terms of superlatives.

 

Lady Macbeth returns and gives her husband one more shot at line 30: "My hands are of your color, but I shame/ To wear a heart so white."  When she hears the knocking at the door, she urges that they retire to their room, wash up and change to their night clothes: "A little water clears us of this deed." It won't be that simple, as she'll find out.  She sees Macbeth's suffering at line 70 as simply being "lost/ So poorly in your thoughts."  He sees it differently: "To know my deed ,'twere best not know myself."  His regret is palpable. He had warned himself before the murder that committing the crime was like drinking the same poison you use to kill someone.  His final words in the scene also express regret as he says to whoever is knocking at the door: "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!"

 

Act II, scene 3

 

Scene 2, you'll notice, doesn't end with that rhymed couplet that I told you signals the conclusion of most scenes.  That's because Shakespeare did not consider this as a separate scene but as a continuation.  The Porter is the doorman for the castle, and we see him, hung over, playing a little game of being the Porter at the gates of Hell.  Read his short scene in the first 22 lines of the scene and notice anything unusual about who he lets in.  [Act II, scene 3, line 1 -- 22]

 

This scene shows how far Shakespeare had come in the development of his art.  You recall in Romeo & Juliet there was a short scene of comic relief involving a group of musicians who show up for Juliet's wedding to Paris, only to discover she has died and have to change their musical selections to fit the new circumstances.  I pointed out that this wasn't very effective and is almost always cut.  By contrast, the Porter's scene is one of the very best comic relief scenes that Shakespeare wrote.  The emotional intensity of the previous scene is very high, with the Macbeths scurrying around to hide their guilt and the insistent knocking at the gate, threatening discovery.  Now, Shakespeare uses the Porter to create a different view of the same issues.  The Macbeths stated that is they could operate in the dark they could escape detection.  The Porter shows that there are many others who make the same mistake, and they all pay the same price by going "the primrose way to the ever-lasting bonfire" [line 20] of Hell.  There are so many sinners, the Porter says, he would be opening the door all the time.  One of the sinners he lets in at line 4 is a farmer who tried to get rich by hoarding his crop, hoping for high prices, only to learn that there's a bumper crop and his goods are worthless.  He hangs himself, and suicide is a mortal sin, so he will sweat in Hell and need lots of napkins.  Another sinner is a comic English tailor at line 13 who stole, another mortal sin, by copying the fashion of France, something the English were notorious for.  The tailor will be where it is hot enough to heat his "goose" or pressing iron.  The really interesting sinner is the equivocator at line 8.  You know all about the equivocator, the Jesuit Garnett, who lied about the Gunpowder Plot and was executed in a particularly horrible manner.  In this one reference Shakespeare brings the current events of England into this play supposedly set in medieval Scotland.  At the end of this sequence as he finishes his routine, the Porter reminds us to remember him, at line 22, as a character looking for a tip from whoever he lets in the door. The line is also a reminder to the audience to remember his message that no one escapes from the consequences of their actions, no matter how dark it is.  Now this passage has had humor, and in that sense it is "comic relief," but it has not let us forget the significance of what the Macbeths have done and how they will have to pay.

 

[Act II, scene 3, lines 23 -- 44] In the lines that follow when Macduff and Lennox come in, we do get some genuine comic relief.   The Porter explains that everyone had too much to drink, which is why it took so long for him to get to the door.  He launches into another comic routine that too much drink provokes nose painting, sleep and urine.  Drink does promote lechery, sexual desire, but it takes away the ability to perform, so that too much drink could be said to be an "equivocator with lechery; it makes him and it mars him….makes him stand to and not stand to" [lines 34 -- 37]. We get that theme of equivocation sounded again, complete with the phallic reference, with more comic effect than the earlier reference.  The rest of the exchange between Macduff and the Porter, all in prose of course, is pretty low humor.

 

In the next sequence we will watch as Macduff goes upstairs to awaken Duncan.  Notice Macbeth's reactions as he awaits the bloody discovery.  How has he changed from what he was before?  Notice everyone else's reactions to the news of Duncan's death.  What's unusual about them?  [Act II, scene 3, lines 45 -- 148]

 

In lines 45 -- 65 Macbeth seems very subdued.  There are a series of mundane questions and answers, as Macbeth escorts Macduff to the door leading up to the King's bedroom.  Once Macduff enters we wait, along with Macbeth, for the shoe to drop.  In a sense everything that Macbeth says here has a double meaning, which only we share.  So when Lennox at line 54 asks if the king is leaving today, Macbeth says he is, then quickly adds the qualifier, "he did appoint so" as a reminder to us that plans can change suddenly.  Lennox describes a terrible storm that happened the night before, a storm which would signal to Shakespeare's audience supernatural connections with the death of a ruler. Some of the things Lennox mentions are your typical storm damage, like chimneys blown down. Some suggest supernatural forces, such as the "obscure bird" or owl, hooting throughout the night and the earthquake at line 63, something very unusual for the British Isles. Some have a special meaning for Shakespeare's time, as at line 60 where strange voices prophesy "dire combustion and confused events/ New hatched to the woeful time"  quite probably referring again to the Gunpowder Plot with its special "combustion and confused events."  Lennox is highly emotional in his account, to which Macbeth responds at line 63: "'Twas a rough night."  That short line resonates with us because we have been through it with Macbeth.

 

What's unusual about the way Macduff and others describe the death of Duncan from lines 66 to 82?  "O horror! horror! horror! Tongue nor heart/ Cannot conceive nor name thee," he says as he first comes down at line 66.  Granted that Shakespeare's language is often more formal than that we use, this wording is fancy in the extreme.  On NYPD Blue in over eight seasons, no one, finding the hacked body of a business associate, has ever said something like this.  The language conveying the emotions here is very formal.  Notice at line 68:

 

            Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.

            Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope

            The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence

            The life of the building.

 

No where else in literature, to my knowledge, does an author compare taking a man's life to the act of desecrating a holy building, (holy because the king is consecrated by God in the act of coronation).  The concept here of murder of a monarch being a form of "confusion" is very abstract and intellectually correct.  But none of this rings true emotionally; this language doesn't sound like real people in a state of shock but rather like people going through the motions of grief.  And that's the point.  Shakespeare doesn't want us to empathize too closely with Macduff or the king's sons discovering what we have already gone through, so he uses language to keep us from any genuine feeling.  He had done the very same thing back in Romeo & Juliet when the Nurse and the Capulets discover the supposedly dead Juliet in Act IV.  He doesn't want us to use up all our emotional energy when he has more for us to feel, and so he removes us from the event by the language.

 

Macduff orders the bell rung, a reminder of the bell Lady Macbeth rang just before the murder. At line 78 he tells Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan's sons, to "Shake off downy sleep, death's counterfeit,/ And look on death itself!" This reminds us of Lady Macbeth's lines that the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.  Lady Macbeth gets up and demands to know what's happening.  Macduff says he cannot tell her because, as a woman, the words would murder her.  But he turns right around and tells Banquo, "Our royal master's murdered," to which Lady Macbeth cries out, "What, in our house?" at line 90. (You can hear her thinking, "Not in the room with the white carpeting!")

 

Macbeth had run upstairs to see the body with Lennox and Ross.  He comes down now and says, at line 93:

 

            Had I but died an hour before this chance,

            I had lived a blessed time; for from this instant

            There's nothing serious in mortality:                    [mortal life]

            All is but toys.  Renown and grace is dead,        [trifles]

            The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees       [sludge in the bottom of a wine vat]

            Is left this vault to brag of.

 

What's Macbeth motivation here for this speech?  At the obvious level he is mirroring the grief that others are feeling.  At another level this is a profound feeling of his despair for what he has done.  In a very real sense he wishes he had died just an hour before, so he would not have killed Duncan.  (The subject/verb agreement at line 95 is incorrect.  It should be "Renown and grace are dead."  Apparently this point of grammar was less important in Shakespeare's day than it is in ours.)

 

Malcolm and Donalbain come in and are told that their father has been murdered, that "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood/ Is stopped" at line 100 as if the king were a water source from which their blessings flow.  When they ask who did it, Lennox says that the guards in his chambers apparently were guilty.  He describes the blood on them and their daggers, their distracted behavior, and concludes, "No man's life was to be trusted with them" [line 107].  Now Macbeth expressed regret for having killed them, blaming his fury. Surprise!  Was this in the original plot that the Macbeths hatched? No, that only went as far as the murder of Duncan.  So apparently Macbeth is starting to ad lib, to act without getting his wife's permission.  Macbeth has set out on a journey of his own into further evil.

 

Macbeth's actions immediately prompt suspicion.  Macduff demands to know why he killed them; later Banquo will express his doubts.  Macbeth thought it would cover up his guilt, but it just multiplies the doubts.  We saw the same thing in our history when Jack Ruby, in an act he said was to clear the name of Dallas, killed Lee Harvey Oswald and generated decades of doubts, suspicions and grotesque movies by Oliver Stone about the unresolved murder of Jack Kennedy.  Macbeth attempts to justify his actions, saying that he was driven temporarily  insane by the sight of Duncan's body and the obvious culprits covered with his blood.  He concludes at line 118: "Who could refrain,/ That had a heart to love, and in that heart/ Courage to make his love known?"  So the murder of the grooms was an act of love and loyalty to Duncan.

 

In this instant the dynamics of the scene have changed.  No one is sure whom to believe.  Suspicion has begun to point toward Macbeth when Lady Macbeth suddenly begins to faint, or at least gives that impression at line 120.  Why does Lady Macbeth faint?  Here are three possibilities.  First, she realizes that people are beginning to suspect her husband, and she pretends to faint to divert attention, the good wife helping hubby.  A second possibility is that she really does start to faint.  The vivid description of the bloody crime scene that her husband just gave was too much for this woman who had to pretend that it didn't bother her to go upstairs and finish the job.  We'll see the real toll that action took on her later in the sleepwalking scene.  Finally she faints because in an instant she fears that her husband may no longer need her to psyche him up and provide direction.  Killing the grooms was an act of his independence and the old relationship is dead.

 

While everyone else rushes to catch Lady Macbeth, Malcolm and Donalbain have an aside where they share with us that they trust no one and fear for their own lives.  Banquo now takes control of the situation at line 128, and while Lady Macbeth is carried out he declares:

            And when we have our naked frailties hid,

            That suffer in exposure, let us meet

            And question this most bloody piece of work,

            To know it further.  Fear and scruples shake us.

            In the great hand of God I stand, and thence

Against undivulged pretense I fight

Of treasonous malice.

 

After saying that they all have suspicions, Banquo takes his stand against plots and hidden motives of treason.  At this point you have to wonder if Banquo suspects Macbeth's complicity.  One thing to look for in any production is where Banquo first indicates his suspicions of Macbeth.  The thanes go out to dress and then meet to discuss the crime.  Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee: "This murderous shaft that's shot/ Hath not yet lighted, and our safest way/ Is to avoid the shaft" [lines 143 -- 145].  They both realize they are the next targets and must flee to avoid the weapon aimed at them.  Malcolm goes to England and Donalbain to Ireland.

 

Act II, scene 4

 

This scene takes us away from Macbeth's castle and the scene of the murder to show us the reactions of a commoner. [Act II, scene 4]

 

Ross talks with an old man in his seventies who says he has never seen anything like the storm that accompanied Duncan's murder.  Ross describes how the day is as dark as night and asks, "Is it night's predominance or day's shame?"  The old man adds a strange detail at line 12: a falcon, a mighty bird, was attacked by an owl (there's that supernatural touch again) and killed.  Ross then describes Duncan's horses going wild, breaking out of their stalls and then trying to eat each other, more strange, supernatural happenings.  This particular detail Shakespeare found in Holinshed's description of the murder of  King Duff by Macdonwald, which he used  as the model for the death of Duncan.

 

Macduff enters and announces that Macbeth will be the new king.  Now Macduff is politically correct in what he says. The murderers were apparently bribed by Duncan's sons, and the fact that they have fled makes them suspect. At line 28 Ross calls their actions "unnatural."  Macbeth is on his way to the holy coronation site at Scone to become king while Duncan's body has been taken home for burial.  Now Macduff is clearly one of the most important figures in the kingdom.   He was so trusted by the previous king that he gave him permission to enter the royal bedroom and wake him.  Where should such a key political person be when the new king is crowned?  Macduff is asked if he will go to Scone at line 35 and he says, "No, cousin, I'll to Fife," his home. It may not seem a big deal to us, but believe me, it is a conscious insult and reinforces the idea that Macduff has serious suspicions about Macbeth.  Ross covers himself and says he'll go to Scone.  Macduff says at line 37, "Well, may you see things well done there. Adieu!/ Lest our old robes sit easier than our new."  We get that old clothes/new clothes motif used again to describe the tensions between what Macbeth has been and what he has become.  The old man, a kind of representative for ordinary folks, hopes that Ross will find a change in conditions in Scotland, that the people in charge will now "make good of bad, and friends of foes!" [line 41].

 

Go to Top

Act III, scene 1

 

It is typical that Shakespeare, having set up our expectations to see if Macbeth is crowned king, simply skips over the details of how he won the support and what the coronation was like.  He assumes we can figure out what happened based on our knowledge of Macbeth's character.  He jumps ahead to the first crisis in his reign as king.  [Act III, scene 1, lines 1 -- 43]

 

Banquo now reveals his suspicions to us and balances on a slippery moral slope.  More than anyone else Banquo has knowledge of what may lie behind Macbeth's rise to power: "Thou hast it all  now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all,/ As the weird women promised, and I fear/ Thou play'dst most foully more it" [lines 1 -- 3].  But rather than going public and revealing what the witches told Macbeth, Banquo just remains silent.  He does so because his own prophecy was that he would become the source of his own line of kings.  Now Banquo would argue that he does nothing to actively assist Macbeth in his bloody rise to power, but he clearly does not do all he could to head it off.  What if Banquo had told Duncan of Macbeth's meeting with the witches and their prophecy?  Don't you think Duncan might have taken more care when he stayed in Macbeth's castle? Banquo decides to keep his mouth shut to see if the predictions come true for him.

 

The relationship between Banquo and Macbeth has up to now been one of two equals. They both fought valiantly, and Duncan rewarded both of them.  They were friends. But then the night of the murder in Act II, scene 1 Macbeth blurted out that strange request that if Banquo would side with him when the opportunity came, it would bring him honor.  Banquo's response was not exactly unqualified support, and there is some coolness between the two.  Now, however, Macbeth and his wife both call Banquo their chief guest at a big state dinner that night and desire him to attend.  For his part Banquo sounds like the loyal subject at line 15:

 

                                    Let your Highness

            Command upon me, to the which my duties

            Are with a most indissoluble tie

            Forever knit.

 

Now this is the same kind of standard assurance of loyalty that both Macbeth and Banquo gave to King Duncan back in Act I, scene 4, and we saw how much good that was.  Macbeth takes an inordinate interest in what Banquo is going to be doing that afternoon, and at line 17 he asks if he is riding that afternoon.  He goes on to say at line 20,

 

            We should have else desired your good advice

            (Which still hath been both grave and prosperous)

            In this day's council; but we'll take tomorrow.

            Is it far you ride?

Now when the new king indicated that he wanted you to help him in a council meeting, the correct answer was, "I'll cancel everything else."  You don't say that you're taking some time off to go horseback riding.  The fact that Banquo doesn't change his schedule suggests that he is copping a slight attitude.  He may feel he's got special knowledge about Macbeth that gives him some impunity.  He reminds Banquo not to miss the feast that evening.  After reporting that Malcolm and Donalbain have successfully fled the country and have refused to admit their guilt, Macbeth asks innocently, "Goes Fleance with you?" at line 35.  Remember, it's important that Banquo and his son both die to head off the witches' prophecy about Banquo founding a line of kings.

 

Now we go from Macbeth and his wife making a big show of their public affection for Banquo to the king's private evil.  Notice what reasons Macbeth brings up to justify the murder of Banquo.  We also get his expressions of regret, but they are not enough to stop his continuing evil nor the way he will manipulate the killers to carry out his plan.  What is Lady Macbeth's part in all of this? [Act III, scene 1, lines 44 -- 142]

 

The opening speech at line 48 is revealing.  Macbeth thought that if he took that first step, killing Duncan, that would be all there was to it.  Wrong! "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus --"   So the course of the rest of his life is laid out -- a series of murders designed to protect what he was reluctant to achieve in the first place.  His first target is Banquo for several reasons.  First, at line 50 because "in his royalty of nature reigns that/ Which would be feared." He has a nature which makes him seem like a king and therefore to be feared.  We recall that frequent motif of the ill-fitting clothes; Macbeth is uncomfortable as king and sees Banquo as someone who would do a better job. Although Banquo's willing to act daringly when he has to, "He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor/ To act in safety" [lines 53 --54].  Macbeth feels that just his presence constrains him and makes him unsure; he compares this sense of inferiority around Banquo to the way Mark Antony felt around Octavius Caesar, who ultimately defeated him. (Not surprisingly, Shakespeare was working on Antony and Cleopatra at the time he was writing Macbeth.)  Beginning at line 60 he explains the significance of the witches' prophecy: "They hailed him father to a line of kings./ Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown/….No son of mine succeeding." Macbeth still believes he will have an heir to carry on the family name.  In fact the idea of his having seized the throne for a possible future son becomes even more important.  If Banquo's heirs become kings of Scotland, at line 65,

 

            For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;           [defiled]

            For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered;

            Put rancors in the vessel of my peace                [hatreds]

            Only for them, and mine eternal jewel    [my soul]

            Given to the common enemy of man,                 [Satan]

            To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings!

 

We see here how painful Macbeth's sins have been for him.  Now, to make sense of all that sacrifice, Macbeth must stop the witches' prophecies from coming true.  Rather than considering how he got himself into this mess, Macbeth reverts to that man-of-action mode of responding that we have seen before at line 71: "Rather than so, come, fate, into the lists,/ And champion me to the utterance." "Lists" here refer to the medieval combat arenas for jousting.  Macbeth sees himself as the warrior who will fight to the very last to keep what he has achieved.

 

At line 73 Macbeth meets with two murderers he wants to kill Banquo.  This step represents a small but significant step in traditional Christian morality.  Macbeth has already killed three people unlawfully.  Now he adds to his damnation by encouraging others to commit mortal sins.  Macbeth convinces the murderers to act using some techniques you would expect.  At line 106 he offers royal favor in exchange for the murders with the indirect promise of more tangible rewards. (Kings seldom offered money directly; it was considered lower class.) Macbeth has also gone to a lot of trouble to convince these guys that Banquo is their enemy, lines 76 -- 84.  They had met earlier when Macbeth laid out proof that Banquo had caused all the troubles these men had ever experienced.  At lines 86 -- 91 he uses crude sarcasm to arouse their anger: Are you so religious that you will let him get away with this insult to you and your families?  Perhaps the most interesting technique is an attack on their manhood at lines 91 -- 103, first by asking what kind of dogs they would be.  There are a lot of differences between a poodle and a pit bull.  He then asks what kind of soldiers they would be.  Where else in the play have we see this technique of manipulation by attacking one's manhood as a technique to spur action?

 

Macbeth explains that he hates Banquo but for political reasons cannot appear publicly linked to his death.  He tells them he needs the murder done tonight and some distance from the castle, so he is not implicated.  He explains that Fleance must also die and that in carrying out the killings, they must be sure that Macbeth always has, at line 133, a "clearness," what President Nixon in the Watergate scandal called "plausible deniability," a convincing excuse that he knew nothing about what he just authorized.  Macbeth even tells the murderers where and when they will find Banquo, because, of course, he had questioned him earlier in the scene for just this reason.  The scene ends with another Snively Whiplash rhyming couplet at lines 141 -- 142: "It is concluded: Banquo, thy soul's flight,/ If it find heaven, must find it out tonight." In other words, someone is about to die.

 

Act III, scene 2

 

In reviewing this scene, look at the difference in Lady Macbeth's feelings expressed in private and her feelings expressed to her husband.  Secondly, why does Macbeth refuse to tell his wife about his plans for Banquo? Finally look for one more evocation of the night. [Act III, scene 2]

 

At the beginning of the scene Lady Macbeth, like her husband, instead of being happy to be queen, is profoundly depressed at line 4:

 

                                    Nought's had, all's spent,

            When our desire is got without content:

            'Tis safer to be that which we destroy,

            Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

 

Back in the first lines of Act III, scene 1 Macbeth had expressed a similar sentiment: to be king is nothing, without being king in safety.  At line 108 of the previous scene he had told the murderers that he was in sickly health as long as Banquo was alive.  Here Lady Macbeth is even more despairing.  Having "spent" everything to grab the crown, she and her husband have no happiness in their achievement.  In fact, living with doubt and threat to their titles, they are actually worse off than the people they killed.  Now that's depressing.

 

And yet when her husband comes in at line 8, she immediately reverts back to the old Lady Macbeth, nagging her husband not to feel so depressed by what he can't help.  At line 10 she tells him to stop "Using those thoughts which should indeed have died/ With them they think on."  She continues to play the role of the stimulator, pushing Macbeth to do what he has to. However, Macbeth is no longer troubled the way he was before he killed Duncan.  Now he wrestles with how to maintain his safety.  In a powerful conceit at line 13, he compares his situation in terms of a snake: "We have scorched the snake, not killed it./ She'll close and be herself, while our poor malice/ Remains in danger of her former tooth." Macbeth here alludes to a piece of folklore that snakes are able to regrow their lost parts.  The snake is not a specific enemy, but just the renewed danger of a situation in which he feels himself trapped. Macbeth is not weakened by his guilty conscience; he is empowered by his capacity for evil. At line 16 he boasts:

 

            But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,

            Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep

            In the affliction of these terrible dreams

            That shake us nightly.

 

Macbeth is willing to risk everything, even the collapse of the cosmos ("frame of things disjoint") and defiance of God's judgment after death ("both the worlds suffer,") but the price is that he must "eat our meal in fear" and more significantly, he has "terrible dreams" every night.  Remember the mysterious warning that "Macbeth doth murder sleep" the night of Duncan's murder? It's come home to haunt him.

 

The price is very high for what he has achieved, so much so Macbeth at line 19 says the same thing his wife did to herself back at the beginning of the scene:

 

                                                better be with the dead,

            Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,

            Than on the torture of the mind to lie

            In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;

            After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.

            Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,

            Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,

            Can touch him further.

 

Both Macbeth and his wife actually express envy for the victims of their evil, specifically Duncan, because the victims are not torn by guilt or anticipating further treason. Apparently the career move into the king business hasn't worked out to Macbeth's satisfaction.

 

When Lady Macbeth reminds him of the big party that night, Macbeth suddenly begins playing a game, telling her to pay special attention to Banquo, even as he expresses his anger at having to hide his real feelings for his former friend.  As he says at line 36: "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!/ Thou know'st that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives." Nevertheless, they are vulnerable to his plots, and at line 40 he once again evokes the spirit of the night:

 

                                    Ere the bat has flown

            His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecate's summons

            The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums

            Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done

            A deed of dreadful note.

 

We have seen before this association of the night with an act of evil.  What's interesting about this particular passage is how Shakespeare expresses the coming-on of night with the small sights and sounds of a bat, one of the creatures connected with witchcraft, and a beetle with a scaly wing, here responding to Hecate's mysterious summons.  The small sound of the beetle's wings represents a "yawning peal," the small sound of a bell [like Lady Macbeth's bell?] which signals the coming on of sleep. It is almost as if evil were simply the extension of the natural world.  When his wife asks him what's going to happen, he tells her to be innocent of the knowledge.  Earlier he could do nothing without her direction; now, he revels in his independence of her.  His decision to kill the grooms was just the beginning of his own journey.

 

Once again, he evokes the spirit of the night in the most powerful of these descriptive passages at line 46:

 

                                    Come, seeling night,

            Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

            And with thy bloody and invisible hand

            Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

            Which keeps me pale!

 

The night is "seeling" or "blindfolding," a term often used to describe the practice of cover the eyes of a trained falcon to keep it calm.  Here the night covers the "pitiful eye of day," or the sun. The idea that the night keeps things from being seen is seen again in the idea of the "invisible hand" which here will cancel by destroying a bond.  The "bond" is a formal agreement, perhaps representing Banquo's life, perhaps the prophecy of the witches that troubles Macbeth.  I think he's referring to the whole moral code, the idea of an agreement to behave in a particular way, especially toward a friend.  Whatever the bond is, and Shakespeare may well have all of this concepts in mind in these lines, its existence makes him pale.  He continues his evocation at line 50:

 

                                    Light thickens, and the crow

            Makes wing to the rooky wood.                       [full of rooks]

            Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,

            Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

            Thou marvel'st at my words: but hold thee still;

            Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill:

            So, prithee, go with me.

 

As at line 40 following Macbeth evokes the night has an extension of the natural world. The image of a black bird flying through the growing darkness is very simple and yet powerful, as if bad things are taking place all around us without our noticing.  The crow is flying to where all the other large black birds gather, birds that were sometimes seen as witches' familiars.  "Light thickens" -- what a marvelous way to catching the image of nightfall.  Macbeth tells his wife it is only through committing more evil that the wicked can strengthen themselves.  Notice her reaction -- she "marvel'st" -- as if she cannot believe what he is saying.  Whatever the cause of her wonder, their relationship has changed dramatically from what it was.

 

Act III, scene 3

 

In reviewing this scene, ask yourself who the third murderer is and where he came from.

[Act III, scene 3]

 

This is the first overt violence that we see in the play.  The earlier acts of violence, such as Macbeth's prowess in battle or the psychologically riveting murder of Duncan or surprising murder of the grooms, were all performed off stage.  Banquo's killing is brutal and short, and according to details furnished in the next scene involved a lot of stab wounds to the head.

 

Who is the Third Murderer and where did he come from?  A lot of suggestions have been offered over the years, some of them rather farfetched.  In one memorable production, one of the witches, disguised as Macbeth's servant Seyton, was the Third Murderer who joined in to make sure it was done right.  In another production, Macbeth himself, unwilling to trust anyone, disguised himself and helped kill his friend.  A purely technical explanation is that Shakespeare needed a third actor to help carry Banquo's bloody body and all the swords off stage.  I think the explanation for this characters is to be found in the opening lines of the scene: "He needs not our mistrust," meaning that Macbeth should not mistrust the first two murderer.  Macbeth is the kind of ruler, like Stalin, who never trusted anyone and always sent several people to do a job in order to keep an eye on each other.

 

At lines 11 -- 12 the murderers observe that people approaching Macbeth's castle usually dismount from their horses and walk the last mile, thus explaining why the characters will not have horses. The actual attack itself has a wonderful verbal component.  Banquo says at line 16, "It will be rain tonight," and the First Murderer responds, "Let it come down" as he jumps on Macbeth. Fleance naturally escapes; otherwise we would have no line of Stuart kings in a couple of hundred years.  The murderers go back to tell Macbeth what they have done.

 

Act III, scene 4

 

In the first 38 lines we get a scene of the Macbeths being jovial hosts at the big State dinner for the thanes of Scotland.  Notice the contrast as the festivities are interrupted by the arrival and report from the murderers. [Act III, scene 4, lines 1 -- 38]

 

Macbeth and his wife are eager to be seen as a fun couple, the hip hosts of eleventh century Scotland, and the party starts well enough but soon turns into the entertainment from Hell. The arrangement at the table is by social status.  When Macbeth says at line 1, "You know your own degrees; sit down," he's referring to the normal custom of the higher the title, the closer you got to sit to the head of the table where the monarch normally sat.  At line 5 Macbeth says he will mingle with society and "play the humble host" while Lady Macbeth stays "in her state" at the head of the table.  This is Macbeth's conscious effort to make the affair informal.  He urges his guests to be "large in mirth" and have a good time at line 12 before he goes apart to speak to the murderers.  We have seen other scenes in the play where a character tried to do very different activities at the same time.  Macbeth congratulates the First Murderer for having Banquo's  blood on his face: "Better thee without than he within."  When the murderer says that he personally cut Banquo's throat, Macbeth makes a tasteless joke at line 18: "Thou art the best of the cutthroats."  Throughout the sequence Macbeth is still using his little verbal dodges, his euphemisms for killing.  At line 16 he asks, "Is he dispatched?" The murderers don't have the same problem with direct language: "his throat is cut."  When Macbeth learns at line 22 that Fleance got away, he is frustrated again: "Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect." The word "fit" refers to his earlier fear about Banquo and his heirs.  Later at line 25 he describes his condition: "now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in/ To saucy doubts and fears." At line 30 he describes the threat that Fleance represented: "There the gown serpent lies; the worm that's fled/ Hath nature that in time will venom breed,/ No teeth for the moment." Banquo is the grown snake, Fleance the baby snake or worm.

 

Lady Macbeth chides her husband from lines 34 -- 38 for not being more hospitable and welcoming.  If the only entertainment people receive is eating the dinner, they might as well have stayed at home.  So Macbeth goes to sit at the table, and as he does so, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the empty chair that Macbeth planned to sit in.  Audiences in Shakespeare's day loved the ghost of Banquo, especially here with a bloody face and head.  (Remember the murderer's description of his death.) You can imagine them saying, "That is so cool!"  For modern audience ghost are more problematic, and we tend to think that they most likely are figments in the minds of seriously disturbed people.  Modern productions make a big technical deal out of getting Banquo onto stage without being recognized by the audience.

In the next sequence notice how Macbeth reacts to the ghost, which he recognizes from the beginning.  [Act III, scene 4, lines 39 -- 145]

 

Don't you hate those dinner parties where the host keeps hallucinating dead people at the dinner table?  At various points throughout this sequence, such as line 40 Macbeth tempts the fates by wondering aloud why Banquo, his chief guest, isn't there.  At one level of  dramatic irony, we know that of all the people present, only Macbeth knows that Banquo is in a ditch, dead.  But the further irony is that we see the ghost, but Macbeth hasn't spotted him yet.  When Macbeth goes to sit down on a supposedly vacant stool he sees what no one else can see, Banquo's bloody ghost.  Look at his first reaction at line 49: "Which of you have done this?" as if someone else was responsible, and then at line 50 directly to the ghost, "Thou canst not say I did it."  Remember Macbeth requiring "plausible deniability"? Of course, it doesn't do any good to deny your guilt to a ghost; he knows better!  With the ruler obviously unwell, Ross at line 53 suggests that the party break up.  However, Lady Macbeth is determined to keep the affair going, and she tells the thanes at line 54:

 

                                    My lord is often thus,

            And hath been since his youth.  Pray you, keep seat.

            The fit is momentary; upon a thought

            He will again be well. If much you note him,

            You shall offend him and extend his passion.

            Feed, and regard him not.

 

That must have been a comfort to the thanes -- a monarch who frequently yells at an empty stool.  Lady Macbeth very creatively has made up this story of a mental condition on the spot.  She now engages Macbeth in a private conversation while everyone at the table tries not to appear to be listening.  She starts in on him at line 59 in the same way she had before: "Are you a man?" to which he answers,  "Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that/ Which might appall the devil."  Of course, he's the only one that can see the ghost.  She continues in her attack: "This is the very painting of your fears./ This is the  air-drawn dagger which, you said,/ Led you to Duncan." Macbeth has told his wife about the damn dagger, and she will throw it up to him for the rest of their lives as a sign of his weakness.  She continues her attack down to line 65: "[This imaginary ghost] would well become/ A woman's story at a winter fire." Once again he tries to get her to see and acknowledge the presence of a ghost, and  he challenges the ghost at line 71, "If charnel houses and our graves must send/ Those that we bury back, our monuments/ Shall be the maws of kites." The ghost is violating the normal process of life and death with the dead returning to life.  "Kites" were the vultures of that time, being especially notorious for eating the flesh of victims on the gallows.  The last image is difficult to understand, but it suggests something terribly unnatural.

 

The ghost disappears, and Lady Macbeth tries once again to castrate her husband: "What, quite unmanned in folly?" [line 73] But he waxes philosophical again at line 76:

 

           

            Blood hath been shed ere now, in the olden time,

            Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;

            Ay, and since too, murders have been performed

            Too terrible for the ear. The times has been

            That, when the brains were out, the man would die,

            And there an end; but now they rise again,

            With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,

            And push us from our stools.  This is more strange

            Than such a murder is.

 

Macbeth is saying that back in the days before civilization, before the rule of law ("humane statute") got rid of all the evils that endanger mankind, terrible crimes were committed.  Of course, despite civilization, murders have continued to occur, but whenever the killings take place, the rule has always been that "when the brains were out, the man would die." Now, even with twenty fatal stab wounds on their heads, these murder victims return and disrupt the parties.  It's fascinating that Macbeth puts the idea of murder here in a historical context.  The effects of "humane statute" are viewed ironically in that they apparently have not been able to civilize human behavior; the same crimes keep getting committed.  And Macbeth treats the appearance of the ghost as a lapse in polite behavior -- it's not nice to take somebody else's seat.

 

At line 85 Macbeth excuses his behavior to his guests and confirms his wife's story about his infirmity and proposes a toast for "our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss;/ Would he were here" [lines 91 -- 92].   Even as he tempts the fates once again by bringing up Banquo's name, the ghost returns.  Perhaps Macbeth is serious here; he does miss his only friend.  We saw the same expression of regret after the murder of Duncan in Act II, scene 2: "Wake Duncan with thy knocking, I would thou couldst." Macbeth apparently doesn't realize that every time he mentions Banquo, the ghost appears.  This time he orders the ghost away, lines 94 -- 97, and when that doesn't work, he challenges the ghost at line 100:

 

            What man dare, I dare.

Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,

The armed rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;

Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves

Shall never tremble.  Or be alive again,

And dare me to the desert with thy sword.

If trembling I inhabit then, protest me

The baby of a girl.  Hence, horrible shadow!

Unreal mockery, hence!

 

Macbeth evokes three of the most ferocious wild animals known to the English in Shakespeare's time to say he would confront Banquo in those shapes without fear.  If that won't work, he challenges Banquo to return to life and fight a duel with him in a deserted place.  He orders the ghost away, calling it "unreal," even as he feels its reality with all his being.  Lady Macbeth, trying vainly to act as if there is nothing wrong, tells her guests, "Think of this, good peers,/ But as a thing of custom; 'tis no other./ Only it spoils the pleasure of the time" [lines 97 -- 99].  Just don't paying any attention to my husband screaming incoherently; he does it all the time.

 

At line 115 he wonders how his wife "can behold such sights,/ And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks,/ When mine is blanched with fear." Ross finally asks what all the other guests have been dying to, "What sights, my lord?"  That does it!  One of the members of the court begins to question what is happening. The last thing Lady Macbeth wants is for the thanes to find out the nature of the hallucination.  She quickly dismisses the party at line 120.  In the last 25 lines of this scene we see Macbeth and his wife together for the last time.  They are both worn out from the ordeal, and even though she uses the same old efforts to control her husband, her heart just isn't in it. 

 

The ghost having disappeared for a second time, Macbeth speculates on its presence at line 123:

 

            It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.

            Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;

            Augures and understood relations have                          [auguries]

            By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth    [crows]

            The secret'st man of blood.

 

The ghost of Banquo wants revenge, Macbeth's blood.  Shakespeare then describes a natural force that knows and reveals the secrets of humans, evoking the lore of a pre-Christian time, the beliefs of the "old times" which remained in rural England in the form of superstitions and legends.  The natural world, stones and trees or the revelations of "talking" birds or swarming maggots, could reveal our innermost secrets.  It's a powerful set of images, one that was associated with the appearance of witches.

 

Macbeth changes the subject and shares with his wife his suspicions about Macduff.  He reveals that he has paid spies in the homes of all the thanes.  He decides to return to the three witches the next day to get them to expand on their prophecies.  At line 135 he says ominously, "I am bent to know/ By the worst means the worst." The significance of this line will be come clear in a couple of scenes.  Then Macbeth uses what I find to be the most powerful figure of speech in the play at line 137: "I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er."  The image is of a river of blood which Macbeth is trying to cross, and he's in so far, it doesn't make any difference if he goes ahead or goes back.  There isn't any sense of triumph or hope for the future expressed; it's just the same old, same old.  We can see the soldier in Macbeth determined to see it through but without any illusions now: "Strange things I have in head that will to hand,/ Which must be acted ere they can be scanned" [lines 140 -- 141].  He has to act without thinking about it. 

 

Lady Macbeth blames his state of mind on his lack of sleep, and he agrees.  At line 143 he now offers another explanation for the appearance of the ghost: "My strange and self-abuse/ Is the initiate fear that wants hard use."  Banquo's ghost was a form of self-abuse. (Remember that "abuse" could mean a magical spell.)  Macbeth now thinks he caused the ghost to appear because he still has the fears of a beginner ("initiate") in the business of evil.  He needs to lot of practice or "hard use" in order to overcome those fears and self-doubts. As he says in the final line, "We are but young in deed."  We need more experience to harden ourselves.

 

Act III, scene 5

 

[Act III, scene 5] This scene, which takes place in the witches home or "haunt," features Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, here as a kind of shop steward for the Witches Union.  She's upset that our three weird sisters have initiated their manipulation of Macbeth without authorization from higher-ups, especially Hecate herself.  However, she promises that she will now take over the operation and create special spells and deceptions to complete the job.  The key passage in the scene is Hecate's description of her plan at line 28:

 

the strength of their illusion

Shall draw him on to his confusion.

He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear

His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear:

And you all know security                                 [self-confidence]

Is mortals' chiefest enemy.

 

The idea here is that Macbeth will be fooled if he believes he will face no consequences for his evil.  In the scene coming up where the witches provide Macbeth with their equivocal assurances Macbeth is lured into a sense of absolute confidence and will risk everything.

 

This scene is written in an unusual format, with lines with eight syllables rather than the normal ten, and rhymed in couplets.  It provides an opportunity for a little song at the end of the scene, something we haven't seen previously in the play.  The language and dramatic function of the scene have suggested to many scholars that it was not written by Shakespeare but by someone else and inserted into the text of the play.  It is usually dropped from modern productions.

 

Act III, scene 6

 

[Act III, scene 6] This is another short scene, but in this case no one questions that it is Shakespeare's work.  A thane Lennox is talking with an unnamed lord about conditions in the court.  In his opening speech Ross uses very ironic language, saying that Banquo, who made the mistake of going out walking late at night, was murdered by his son Fleance, just as Duncan had been by his sons.  Macbeth murdered the grooms because they would have denied any involvement in the death of Duncan.  The sarcasm here is very heavy, but it has a purpose.  Lennox is checking to see the reaction of the other man.  Is he one of Macbeth's spies or can he be trusted?  The unnamed lord shares with Lennox the news that Macduff has fled to England where Duncan's son Malcolm is attempting to raise an army with the help of the English king Edward to liberate Scotland from the tyranny of Macbeth.  The king mentioned here, Edward the Confessor, was a famous and pious monarch.  King James must have appreciated Shakespeare showing England and Scotland cooperating to end tyranny, even though in historical reality it did not happen.

 

This is one of the few scenes in which neither Macbeth nor his wife appear, so it provides a different perspective. It's similar to the last scene in Act II where an old man talks with Ross and Macduff and expresses the hope that things will be done better.  They haven't been.  It gives us a sense of how ordinary people are reacting to Macbeth's evil.  Lennox and the lord hold out hope that help is on the way and that the people of Scotland will join in the effort to overthrow the evil king.

Go to Top

 

Act IV, scene 1

 

The first 47 lines of this scene give us an inside look at the business of witchcraft.  Look at the ingredients thrown into the cauldron.  Which ones take us beyond the world of the British Isles? [Act IV, scene 1, lines 1 -- 47]

 

In my introductory remarks I mentioned the actors' superstition that bad things happened if you even said the name "Macbeth" in a theater.  This belief seems to have arisen because actors felt this particular sequence was so powerful, they actually had evoked real spirits on the stage. In these lines Shakespeare has the witches begin locally and then extend their evil globally.  In the first three lines we are reminded of the witches' familiars: the brindled cat (remember "Graymalkin"), the hedgepig or hedgehog, and the bird of prey, an owl or hawk named "Harpier." These familiars order the witches to start making the charm for Macbeth.  Remember that English witches avoided even numbers whenever possible, so here we have "thrice and once" for four.  The ingredients, thrown in by the First Witch, are the entrails of a toad that has sweltered under a rock, not surprisingly, for 31 days.  At line 10 the famous refrain of the witches' chant, "Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble," seems to modern audiences to be a comment on the working conditions of the witches: "This is hard work, doubly hard, keeping this fire going and the cauldron bubbling." Actually, the word "toil" refers not to labor but "entanglement," like a net made doubly strong to catch Macbeth's soul.

 

The Second Witch concentrates on things from the natural world, ingredients found around the English village: "fenny" snakes from the swampy area or fen; the famous "Eye of newt and toe of frog" at line 14; and various body parts from other small animals and birds.  To a great extent what we customarily think of as the stuff witches throw in their pots, the stuff kids have imagined every Halloween for centuries, comes from this passage right here lines 4 -- 19.

 

The Third Witch is the one with the really exotic ingredients, and these show how Shakespeare expanded the scope of evil in this particular play to a global level, beyond the English village or the Scottish highlands. "Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf" [line 22] are not things readily available in the English market.  The "salt-sea shark" and the "liver of blaspheming Jew" were more exotic.  (Officially there were no Jews in England and hadn't been for several centuries.) The body parts collected by the Third Witch include "Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips." In many parts of the Middle East punishment for certain crimes was the removal of these facial features.  Other exotic elements are the contents of a tiger's stomach at line 33 and the baboon's blood at line 37.  All these suggest that evil is something found everywhere in the world, and its power is available through witchcraft. 

 

The image of the "Finger of birth-strangled babe,/ Ditch-delivered by a drab" is particularly horrible in the scene it evokes.  Most scholars believe that the passage with Hecate at line 39 -- 43 is almost certainly added by someone other than Shakespeare.  At some time, early in the history of Macbeth, somebody thought that what the play needed at this point was a song and dance called "Black Spirits."  That seems very odd to us nowadays;  I've never seen a production with this musical interlude included.  At line 44 Shakespeare has a marvelous line signaling the approach of Macbeth: "By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes." Macbeth isn't even a human here, just "something."

 

Review the rest of this scene.  It will consist of three different "apparitions" arranged by the witches, each with a prophecy for Macbeth.  What's the connection between what Macbeth sees and what the apparition tells him?  Following this exchange Macbeth will press for full disclosure from the witches, and they will arrange what is called "The Show of the Eight Kings" at line 112 when all the Stuart kings are paraded across the stage.  Do you have any idea how this particular passage was shown on stage? [Act IV, scene 1, lines 48 -- 156]

 

When Macbeth enters he is doing much more than asking the witches for more information.  He is confrontational and combative.  There is a desperate quality about him in this scene. At line 50 he "conjures" the witches, a powerful word that meant calling forth the spirits that served Satan, the same process he assumes they use to predict his future: "by that which you profess,/ Howe'er you come to know it, answer me."  It is as if Macbeth, like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, had already sold his soul to the devil to learn his future. He then proclaims at line 52 his willingness to sacrifice all the processes of life, death and regeneration in order to be satisfied:

 

            Though you untie the winds and let them fight

            Against the churches; though the yesty waves

            Confound and swallow navigation up;

            Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;

            Though castles topple on their warders' heads;

            Though palaces and pyramids do slope

            Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure

            Of nature's germens tumble all together,

            Even till destruction sicken, answer me

            To what I ask you.

           

Once again, Macbeth seems willing to risk anything, even universal destruction.  We have the winds (remember the Scottish witches' fondness for controlling the wind) fighting against the churches or organized religion.  Then the waves generated by the winds swallowing up all shipping ("navigation"), destroying trade. The grain ("corn") about to harvested is destroyed as are the forests.  Even the stone castles, the strongest architecture of that age, will collapse on their owners' heads, along with the palaces, symbols of royal power, and the pyramids, the most massive structures known to mankind.  We can envision this horrendous storm, destroying more and more things in its path, until we get to the "treasure of nature's germens," the seeds of life and regeneration.  "Germens" here is a special word, suggesting the fundamental processes of life.  Even these will be tumbled together and destroyed.  All of this verbal fury to emphasize that Macbeth wants answers.  Some scholars have suggested that Macbeth in this opening speech has in effect become the fourth witch in the play, willing to accept eternal damnation. 

 

In a way this idea that Macbeth has gone beyond the normal bounds of mortality in his willingness to dare damnation is shown at line 64 when he agrees to confront the witches' masters face-to-face: "Call 'em; let me see 'em."  Whatever form these "masters" take, they are all representatives of Satan.  You did not confront Satan unless you were very reckless.

 

The First Apparition appears, an armed head, and tells Macbeth to beware Macduff, the Thane of Fife, Macduff's ancestral home.  Macbeth thanks him and says he was going to get rid of Macduff anyway.  But when Macbeth demands to know more, the witches warn him of the rules: "He will not be commanded."  The Second Apparition comes in the form of a bloody child who assures Macbeth that he will never be defeated by anyone who was born of a woman.  Macbeth realizes he doesn't have to fear Macduff, obviously born of a woman, but he'll kill him anyway.  At line 84, as if he were speaking directly to Macduff, he says, "Thou shalt not live;/ That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,/ And sleep in spite of thunder."  We get another hint at Macbeth's sleep disorder, something in his dreams that will not allow him to sleep soundly.  The Third Apparition appears, a baby who wears a crown and carries a tree.  This one gives the most detailed prophecy of all at line 90: "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him." "Dunsinane" was the hill on which Macbeth's castle stood, and Birnam Wood was a nearby forest.  Macbeth gloats, "That will never be."  There is no way a tree can get up and move.  Therefore, he concludes, he does not have to worry about rebellion and he will live a long life and die of natural causes. 

 

But Macbeth is not willing to let things go unanswered, and he remembers that conflicting prediction about the issue of Banquo becoming rulers.  He demands to know if it is true.  When the witches warn him not to ask, he threatens them with an eternal curse.  As if by signal the magic cauldron disappears (through the trapdoor in the stage), and the royal sounds of the hautboys which usually played at the entrance of a king sound out.  As the witches depart and jeer at Macbeth's grief, we get the "show of the eight kings."  In the introduction to the play I talked about the longevity of the Stuart kings in Scotland.  They had been on the throne for eight generations, and Shakespeare shows these monarchs represented by eight figures, dressed up to resemble Banquo, who also appears.  To be technically accurate the next to the last figure should have been the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, but Shakespeare discreetly uses more symbolic than realistic representation, so as not to remind the audience what happened to King James' mother.  Some scholars claim that the play was first performed for King James at the palace on the occasion of a state visit by James' brother-in-law, the King of Denmark.  The eight actors walk across the stage, and the last of the kings carries a "glass" or mirror at line 120, "Which shows me many more, and some I see/ That twofold balls and triple scepters carry." This is probably a tribute to King James, the ruler of what he hoped would become a united kingdom, represented by the balls (orbs of state) and scepters (showing dominion over three kingdoms --  England, Scotland and Ireland).  I like to think that the eight people who played the eight kings may well have been drafted from members of the court, possibly the royal family.  Furthermore, imagine the last of the eight player kings coming out with a large mirror and standing before the real king who would have been seated right in front of the middle of the stage.  The actor holds up the mirror so that it reflects the real king while Macbeth says that he can see many more descendents of Banquo. There appear to be so many, Macbeth at line 117 cries out, "What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?"  "Doom" here is doomsday, the end of time, and it was the boast of the Stuarts that they would remain on the throne for that long. Macbeth is horrified and realizes he has done all his evil for the benefit of Banquo's descendents.  He questions the First Witch who assures him what he has seen is the truth.  At this point, line 126, the witch says, in effect, "I'm sorry if it's upset you.  How about a little song and dance to cheer you up?" Like the song and dance at line 43 in this scene and to some extent Act III, scene 5 in the witches' haunt this passage really feels unnecessary and inappropriate.  However, it's the kind of thing that was often done as part of the court masque, an aristocratic entertainment using music and dance to present short, allegorical situations.  In some of his later plays Shakespeare seems to include masque elements to appeal to more noble audiences. 

 

Macbeth calls in Lennox who's been waiting outside and asks if he saw anybody leave.  When Lennox says no, Macbeth curses the witches at line 138: "Infected be the air on which they ride/ And damned all those that trust them."  Remember that description of the Scottish witches riding invisibly on the air and leaving some kind of pollution as evidence of their presence.  Ironically Macbeth, despite the curse, will continue to trust their prophecies.  The news of Macduff's flight to England doesn't surprise us.  Macbeth swears at line 146: "From this moment/ The very firstlings of my heart shall be/ The firstlings of my hand."  No more agonizing over what to do, especially if it involves violence.  He orders that Macduff's castle, family and servants be seized and murdered. Macbeth's evil has now extended to women and children.  At line 155 he adds, "But no more sights!" as if he were through with the witches, even though he continues to act as if their prophecies are true.

 

Act IV, scene 2

 

This scene is set at the castle of Macduff, involving his wife and young son.  We have just heard Macbeth order their deaths, and so this scene is filled with dramatic irony, as we know what is about to happen.  The pace of the scene seems very leisurely as Lady Macduff expresses her anger at her husband's flight to England and agonizes over whether she should flee herself.  In this scene which character provides some comic relief?  [Act IV, scene 2]

 

This scene provides a strange kind of comic relief, sandwiched between two solemn passages.  Once again Shakespeare shows us the consequences of Macbeth's actions on the wider world.  The scene opens with Lady Macduff berating her missing husband and her kinsman Ross defending Macduff, without knowing the specifics of his decision.  Lady Macduff calls his action "madness" at line 3 and observes, "When our actions do not/ Our fears do make us traitors." The implication here is that she believes he fled for fear rather than any act of treason against Macbeth.  When Ross argues that his wisdom might have led him to escape from Scotland, Lady Macduff rejects the idea that it was wisdom to leave his wife and children in danger. At line 9 she says he left because he lacks "the natural touch" (any affection for his family) and adds, "the poor wren,/ The most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl." Once again we get that reminder of potential evil and supernatural threat in the figure of the owl.  Ross describes how difficult conditions are in Scotland now at line 18:

 

            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 times are cruel because we do not know from day to day which acts are loyal and which treasonous, when we believe every rumor because we are afraid.  We do not even know what we fear but are tossed about as if we were on a stormy sea. Given Macbeth's violent actions and capricious behavior, we can see how living under his reign creates a sense of confused dread.

 

The comic relief starts when Ross leaves and Macduff's wife tells her son that his father is dead at line 30.  The little kid, who is very precocious, doesn't believe it, and reassures his mother that he can live on scrapes like the poor birds.  His mother worries at line 34 that he is too innocent to survive long in the world, an ironic realization in light of what is about to happen to him.  When she reiterates that his father is dead and asks, "How wilt thou do for a father," he counters, "Nay, how will you do for a husband?" When Lady Macduff flippantly says she can buy twenty husbands, the clever lad responds at line 41, "Then you'll buy 'em to sell again," the suggestion that his mother will sell out any new husband.  The boy then asks if his father is a traitor, probably because that would be the crime Macduff would be charged with. When his mother explains that traitors lie and swear and must be hanged, the boy asks who will hang the traitors.  Lady Macduff answers "the honest men." The kid's best one-liner is at line 54: "Then the liars and swearers are fools; for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them."  When Mom persists in acting as if her husband were dead, the boy says at line 59, "If he were dead, you'd weep for him.  If you would not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a new father," implying she had a boyfriend on the side.

 

The last 20 lines in this scene are the low point as far as Macbeth's evil is concerned.  In this scene we do see the murder of the little boy who, after cracking wise about whether his father was a traitor, stands up for Dad's honor, calling the murderer a "shag-eared villain" and pays the price.  The undoubtedly grotesque death of Lady Macduff takes place off stage.  The messenger at line 63 complements Ross' earlier appearance, but here there is no hesitation in the warning or the urgency.  At line 67 he advises,

 

            Be not found here: hence, with your little ones.

            To fright you thus, methinks I am too savage;

            To do worse to you were fell cruelty,

            Which is too nigh your person.

 

However, Lady Macduff doesn't take the advice and flee.  Instead she complains that she has done no harm and therefore should not have to run away.  The murderers come in within eight lines and do the deed.  It's probably the same guys who killed Banquo, and one of them calls the boy "Young fry [spawn] of treachery!"  It's very unusual in a Shakespearean tragedy to have the person furnishing the comic relief be murdered in the same scene.  The fact that it's an innocent child and a helpless woman makes it all the worse.

 

Act IV, scene 3

 

This long scene develops several points in the plot.  We see Malcolm welcome Macduff into exile.  We see the development of a strategy for the liberation of Scotland.  There's some interesting historical trivia about the king of England at that time, Edward the Confessor.  The scene ends with Macduff learning about the slaughter of his family.  Review the first 100 lines and determine why Malcolm tells Macduff what kind of king he would make. [Act IV, scene 3]

 

In the opening lines Malcolm welcomes the newest political refugee, Macduff, and invites him to grieve for their country.  Macduff urges Malcolm to act to free Scotland from suffering: "Each new morn/ New widows howl, new orphans cry." Malcolm expresses doubt about Macduff's intentions and suggests the possibility that Macduff may seek to offer him, "a weak, poor, innocent lamb" [line 16] to Macbeth, "an angry god." He questions why Macduff left his wife and children, "Those strong knots of love" [line 27] back in Scotland.  Without answering Malcolm's suspicions, Macduff offers to leave: "I would not be the villain thou think'st/ For the whole space that's in the tyrant's grasp" [lines 35 --36].  Malcolm acknowledges that he has offers of help from England to overthrow Macbeth but fears that should he assume the throne after Macbeth's death, Scotland would be in worse shape because

 

                                    there's no bottom, none,

            In my voluptuousness; your wives, your daughters,

            Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up

            The cistern of my lust.

                                                            [lines 60 --63]

 

Yes, it's the Clinton syndrome in ancient Scotland.  Malcolm points out that Macbeth may be preferable to such a ruler. 

 

Macduff agrees at line 66 that "Boundless intemperance/ In nature is a tyranny."  But goes on to add that political power, as Henry Kissinger observed, is an aphrodisiac and that Malcolm, as king, will find more women willing to sleep with him than he can possibly take advantage of.

 

Now Malcolm reveals that it's not just physical lust which motivates him; he has a "staunchless avarice" [line 78] that would lead him to "forge/ Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal,/ Destroying them for wealth" [lines82 -- 84].  This is a more serious problem than lust, admits Macduff, but nevertheless Scotland has riches enough to satisfy the greediest of kings.

 

Now, at line 91, referring to the graces needed by a king, Malcolm makes the most devastating confession of all:

 

            But I have none: the king-becoming graces,

            As justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,

            Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

            Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

            I have no relish of them, but abound

            In the division of each several crime,

            Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should

            Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,

            Uproar the universal peace, confound

            All unity on earth.

 

Malcolm goes through the whole checklist of virtues the monarch was supposed to possess and declares he has none.  In an echo of "the milk of human kindness" back in Act I, here Malcolm pours the milk into hell.  That does it!  Macduff cannot find some way of excusing this moral failure in Malcolm.  Observing that the prince must have been a disappointment to his parents, Macduff declares at line 112 that "These evils thou repeat'st upon thyself/ Hath banished me from Scotland. O my breast,/ Thy hope ends here." Macduff cannot support the return of such a monster to the throne of Scotland, and so he will never see his country again.

 

Of course, all of this has been a trick by Malcolm to test Macduff.  He has wanted to determine what Macduff's motives were in seeking to join the campaign against Macbeth, and Macduff's "noble passion" at these false admissions demonstrated his goodness.  Malcolm has learned that hard way not to be too trusting.  At line 117 he explains,

 

                                                Devilish Macbeth,

            By many of these trains hath sought to win me

            Into his power; and modest wisdom plucks me

            From over-credulous haste.

 

We see in this passage that Malcolm will be a wiser ruler than his father, that he has learned not to be too trusting. Remember back in Act I, scene 4 where King Duncan lamented that there was "no art/ To find the mind's construction in the face." Duncan's son has had to figure out the art of discovering the mind's construction.  Macbeth's previous efforts to trick Malcolm are referred here to "trains," a word which your notes tell you means "plots or tricks."  In addition, "train" was what the fuse of an explosive device was called, one more example of those references to the Gunpowder Plot.  Malcolm now denies all the allegations he had made against himself earlier.  He places himself at Macduff's direction and pledges himself to save his poor country, with the help of an English army commanded by Old Siward.

 

We now get a strange interlude at lines 139 -- 159 in which a doctor comes in and describes to Malcolm how the English king, Edward the Confessor, passes among a group of wretched souls suffering from scrofula, a skin disease you can think of as something like leprosy.  Anyway, Edward would touch these poor people and his touch, because he was the rightful king, would cure their condition.  From that point on throughout English history the rightful king possessed the royal touch and could cure scrofula, right down to the time of James I.  When James became king, and his royal advisors announced, "Time to go out and touch the lepers, your majesty!" he resisted.  No one wants to go out and touch people with terrible skin conditions.  But then his advisors pointed out that if he wanted to be taken as the rightful king, he needed to do this one little job.  So James sucked it up and went among the lepers.  Now this passage makes no sense; it adds nothing to the plot or character development.  I've never seen it included in any stage production.  However, if we keep in mind for whom the play was originally written and performed, its inclusion does make sense as still one more tribute to King James.

 

The last part of the scene (lines 160 -- 240) shows the arrival of Ross with the devastating news of the murder of Macduff's family.  The last person Ross wanted to see was Macduff to whom he'll have to break the news.  At first Ross is very general in his report about conditions back home at line 164:

 

                                    Alas, poor country!

            Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot

            Be called our mother but our grave, where nothing

            But who knows nothing is once seen to smile:

            Where sighs and groans, and shrieks that rent the air,

            Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems

            A modern ecstasy.  The dead man's knell

            Is there scarce asked for who, and the good men's lives

            Expire before the flowers in their caps,

            Dying or ere they sicken.

 

There are some perceptive observations here.  Fear is so rampant the whole country is afraid to know itself.  Think of the thanes after the banquet from hell; how much did they really want to know about Macbeth's hallucinations?  The only people who can smile are those who are totally ignorant.  No one asks about screams or shrieks, and sorrow seems perfectly ordinary.  Even good men die without any notice, unable to outlive the flowers in their caps. At line 176 Macduff asks about his wife and children, and Ross says at line 179 with great dramatic irony for the audience, "They were well at peace when I did leave 'em."

 

Ross urges Malcolm to return to Scotland where his presence will arouse the people, both men and women, to rebel against Macbeth.  The prince tells him of the army being raised by Old Siward.  Finally, at line 193 Ross announces that he has terrible news to tell: "But I have words/ That would be howled out in the desert air,/ Where hearing would not latch them."  Macduff already suspects that Ross has something awful to tell him and asks if the message pertains to everyone or just him in particular.  Ross finally has to tell Macduff the truth at line 204:

 

            Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes

            Savagely slaughtered.  To relate the manner,

            Were, on the quarry of these murdered deer,

            To add the death of you.

 

Throughout the play many people receive news of the death of family, friends and associates.  As these things go, this one is pretty gentle, although "savagely slaughtered" is fairly graphic.  However, Ross' reluctance to relate any details is presented in an interesting fashion.  He calls the victims a "quarry of murdered deer": "quarry" was a technical term from hunting to designate the bodies of all the game killed in the hunt, as if this were a sport.  Furthermore, we have one of those serious puns that Shakespeare is famous for -- the play on "deer" and "dear." If Ross were to tell Macduff the details, they would kill him.

 

When we recall the passage back in Act II, scene 3, when Macduff announced the news of Duncan's death in that formal language stripped of real emotion, the contrast with this passage is remarkable.  At first Macduff says nothing; instead we get a description from Malcolm of him pulling his hat down on his head, expressing his grief non-verbally.  Then we get these poignant, short questions, as if he were in the first stage of grieving, that of denial:

 

            My children too?                                  [line 211]

            My wife killed too?                               [line 213]

                        All my pretty ones?

            Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?

            What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

            At one fell swoop?                                [lines 216 -- 219]

 

This pattern of repetition is very effective in conveying the tremendous grief Macduff feels and also the guilt: "And I must be from thence" [line 212].  Back in Act III, scene 3, Shakespeare did not want the audience to feel the grief of others over the death of Duncan because we had already experienced it vicariously.  Here, however, Shakespeare does want us to feel Macduff's grief fully to help propel us to his bloody act of revenge in the final scene.

 

Malcolm immediately wants to politicize Macduff's grief, to make it the emotional cause for the liberation campaign.  At line 213 he urges Macduff, "Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge/ To cure this deadly grief."  At line 223 he advises, "Let grief/ Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it."  Macduff's initial response to Malcolm's urging revenge is the simple but chilling, "He [Macbeth] has no children" [line 216].  Later he says when Malcolm urges him to "dispute" his grief, "I shall do so,/ But I must also feel it as a man" [line 220].  Finally Macduff says he will seek out "this fiend of Scotland" for his revenge.  He, Malcolm and Ross leave to lead the invasion.  As Malcolm says at line 237, "Macbeth/ Is ripe for shaking."

 

Go to Top

 

Act V, scene 1

 

The last time we saw Lady Macbeth she was still trying to control her husband and keep him on task, although she had shared with us that, in her despair, she actually envied those who had been killed. In this scene all the powerful feelings and fears she had repressed earlier come spilling out in her sleepwalking and unconscious speech.  What is the equivalent for Macbeth of this unconscious revelation in sleep?  [Act V, scene 1, lines 1 -- 83]

 

Here we find Shakespeare revealing some complex truths about the nature of psychological repression which would not be formally described until Freud 300 years in the future.  Part of Shakespeare's genius was his ability to recreate aspects of the human psyche long before we had the concepts or terminology to name them.  We can see why actresses love to play this role, especially this scene.  They can really let loose and play for the broad dramatic effect.

 

Notice how Shakespeare sets up the scene.  The gentlewoman has observed this strange behavior for some time and has invited the doctor to watch too, in part to confirm what Lady Macbeth does in her sleep. Those guilty secrets are beginning to become public.  What makes the scene work for us is that we know the context in which the events or speeches that Lady Macbeth alludes to took place originally   , and we can see the doctor and gentlewoman guessing at their significance. In a sense all the guilty feelings and fears that Macbeth experienced had come out in his hallucinations, such as the bloody dagger, the voices that murdered sleep or Banquo's ghost; Lady Macbeth can only reveal them in her disjointed memories during sleep.

 

When she first comes in at line 23 we notice two important clues before she opens her mouth: she has a light with her at all times.  For all her macho posturing back during Duncan's murder, she's afraid of the dark.  Then she goes through the motions of washing her hands, sometimes for a quarter of an hour says the gentlewoman.  In fact the first thing she says is, "Yet here's a spot" [line 34].  Now we know the significance of that gesture --  her failure to wash away all the blood. The witnesses can only guess at it. At line 38 she has her first long speech:

 

            Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One: two: why then 'tis time to do it.  Hell is

            murky. Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard? What need we fear who

            knows it, when none can call our power to accompt? Yet who would have

            thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

 

Lady Macbeth does not speak in graceful flowing lines of blank verse, like her husband in similar situations.  Her prose is choppy as she jumps from one image or idea to another. Look at how many different emotional responses are found in this one speech.  We understand the significance of the spot of blood that won't come out, the guilt she cannot entirely repress. Then we jump to her part in the original murder plot, ringing the bell when it was time for her husband to do the deed.  Next she evokes that spirit of the night; in the dark even hell is not illuminated. Next, she jumps to her favor persona, the nagging wife, giving her husband a bad time for having the same fears she obviously experienced herself.  Then the political reality of their situation: no one can accuse them of any of their crimes because there is no power in Scotland that can hold them accountable.  Finally the revelation of how difficult it was for her to go back upstairs to Duncan's body to leave the knives and rub the grooms with blood.  She has had nightmares about how much blood she witnessed.

 

The same mixture of emotions is found in the next speech at line 45: "The Thane of Fife had a wife.  Where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No more of that, my lord, no more of that!  You mar all with this starting."  Lady Macbeth probably had no foreknowledge of the attack on Macduff's castle, but she feels the terrible guilt, a guilt she associates with still trying to get rid of Duncan's blood.  Then it's time to beat up Macbeth for "starting" as if she were immune from the same fears.  When confronted with the sight of  Duncan's blood on his hands, Macbeth had evoked the idea of great Neptune's ocean being unable to wash it away.  Lady Macbeth responds to the same experience with a sense of smell: "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" [line 53]. At line 65 she chides Macbeth once again: "Wash your hands; put on your nightgown; look not so pale!  I tell you again, Banquo's buried. He cannot come out on his grave."

 

At line 69 she has her final speech before she leaves the stage.  This is the last time we see Lady Macbeth in the play.  It is appropriate that we leave her as she cries out to her husband about going to bed, a reminder of how their relationship has profoundly changed: "To bed, to bed! There's knocking at the gate.  Come, come, come, come, give me your hand! What's done cannot be undone.  To bed, to bed, to bed!" Her vivid memory of the night of Duncan's murder blends into her sorrow at the estrangement from her husband who no longer needs her psychologically or, apparently, sexually.  It is significant that the doctor tells the gentlewoman to watch her closely and, at line 80, to "Remove from her the means of all annoyance," i.e. any devices that she might use to kill herself. And that will be how she dies, by suicide.

 

Act V, scene 2

 

What imagery is used here to describe Macbeth that we've seen used before? [Act V, scene 2]  The Scottish thanes flock to meet Malcolm and the English army at Birnam Wood.  One of them, Caithness, describes Macbeth's reaction to the invasion at line 12:

 

            Great Dunsinane he strongly fortifies.    [the hill on which Macbeth's castle stood]

            Some say he's mad; others that lesser hate him,

            Do call it valiant fury; but, for certain,

            He cannot buckle his distempered cause

            Within the belt of rule.

 

In a subtle way Shakespeare throughout this final act will reveal a real ambivalence about Macbeth's actions.  Yes, he is a murdering monster, but he is also the man of courage that we saw back at the beginning of the play.  Here we get that image of Macbeth wearing clothes that don't fit properly, in this case the belt that's too small for his body swollen by the poison or distemper of his evil.  No one fights on his side for love, only fear, at line 19.  We get a similar clothing image at line 20 when another thane, Angus, describes Macbeth's growing sense of discomfort: "Now does he feel his title/ Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief."  I think this is a particularly appropriate image to describe how Macbeth has never really been comfortable in wielding power.

 

Act V, scene 3

 

In the preceding scene Macbeth's reaction to Malcolm's return is characterized as either madness or "valiant fury."  Review this scene and decide which diagnosis fits in your opinion.  [Act V, scene 3]

 

The coming battle certainly has energized Macbeth.  Throughout the scene he is shouting orders and hurling verbal defiance.  With the servants and the doctor he is sharp and sarcastic.  But when he's by himself he reveals the depth of his despair.  Paradoxically the more spiritually empty he feels, the more he grasps at the promise of his invulnerability.

In the opening 10 lines he is angry that his thanes are deserting him, but at the same time he revels in the fact that Malcolm, who was certainly born of woman, can do nothing to him. At line 7 he shouts, "Then fly, false thanes,/ And mingle with the English epicures." "Epicures" here is an insult, calling the English "sissies."  At line 10 he vows he will never sag with fear.  When a terrified young soldier comes in to report the approach of 10,000 English soldiers, Macbeth mocks him for the very fear that he had instilled in the soldier, ordering him to prick his cheeks to get rid of his complexion paled by fear.  When Seyton, his right hand man throughout this final act, comes in and confirms the report, Macbeth starts shouting orders and demands his armor although it is too early to put it on.  We can see him assuming that heroic role of the man of action, the soldier, which had led him to great success earlier in his life.  The doctor comes in with the report that his wife suffers from a spiritual affliction, what he calls "thick-coming fancies" at line 38, rather than any physical problem.  Macbeth challenges the doctor at line 40:

 

            Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

            Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

            Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

            And with some sweet oblivious antidote

            Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

            Which weighs upon the heart?

 

Whose symptoms are these?  Lady Macbeth's or her husband's?  He is certainly knowledgeable about "thick-coming fancies," isn't he?  So when the doctor explains that no simple medication can cure these kinds of psychological and spiritual problems, Macbeth angrily cries, "Throw physic [medicine] to the dogs" at line 47.  He now asks the doctor, sarcastically, to use his medical knowledge to get rid of the English enemy: "cast the water of my land," pee in the cup, and prescribe the purgative drug that will expel the invaders.  Macbeth, unwilling to wait for all his armor to be put on him, rushes out shouting defiance and boasting that he will never be defeated until "Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane" [line 60].  Alone, the doctor tells us that if he could get away from Dunsinane, no amount of promised profit could get him to return.

 

Despite this brave front of "valiant fury," Macbeth in reality is profoundly sad.  He may put on a brave show for others, but we see him as having neither hope nor joy.  Alone at line 20 he tells us,

 

                                    This push                                  [coming conflict]

            Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.

            I have lived long enough.  My way of life

            Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf,

            And that which should accompany old age,

            As honor, love obedience, troops of friends,

            I must not look to have; but, in their stead,

            Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,

            Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

 

Macbeth is in the autumn of his years, both chronologically and spiritually.  He has lost the promise of growth and regeneration.  He correctly assesses how the people he commands feel about him, like the young soldier he just savaged.  All the things he thought being king would bring him, the honor and respect, have been denied to him forever.  If he is so filled with despair, why should he even try to resist Malcolm's attack?

 

Act V, scene 4

 

Malcolm continues to approach through Birnam Forest and issues a fateful order to his men to cut down tree branches and use them as a kind of movable camouflage to mask the size of the army as it approaches Macbeth's castle. [Act V, scene 4]

 

Act V, scene 5

 

Back at the castle we get Macbeth, frantic with anger and desperate as his enemies close in on him, learning about the death of his wife.  The most famous speech in the whole play is Macbeth's after he learns of her death at line 17.  What makes it so famous? What significant action follows that speech?  What connection is there between the speech and the action?  [Act V, scene 5]

 

 

As the scene opens Macbeth is his old confident self, hurling defiance and giving orders.  However, there is a subtle change in the situation.  Back in Act V, scene 3 he was sending troops out through the countryside to let the populace know he was still in charge.  Now he hangs his banners on the battlements and says at line 2, "Our castle's strength/ Will laugh a siege to scorn. Here let them lie/ Till famine and the ague eat them up." Macbeth has lost control of the country and has had to retreat into his castle.  He explains this reversal of fortune by saying that if Malcolm's army had not been reinforced by those who have deserted Macbeth's cause, he would have met the invaders in open battle.

 

At line 7 there is a cry from some women off stage, and Macbeth sends Seyton to see what it was.  While he waits Macbeth marvels at line 9 at how much he has changed in his reaction to fear:

 

            I have almost forgot the taste of fears:

            The time has been, my senses would have cooled

            To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair

            Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir

            As life were in it.  I have supped full of horrors.

            Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,

            Cannot once start me.

 

We remember Macbeth's reaction from the very beginning.  The first time we saw his reaction to the witches' greetings his pace had raced and he had felt a terror just at the suggestion of an imaginary murder.  The night of Duncan's murder a "night-shriek" had set off Macbeth's full-scale hallucinatory attack of a voice pronouncing his guilt.  Banquo's ghost had unnerved him, and after that experience he had declared that he needed more experience in evil to conquer his fear.  Apparently it has worked, although one has the sense that this change represents a loss in Macbeth's mind.

 

Seyton returns and rather brutally announces at line 16, "The Queen, my lord, is dead." Even Andy Sipowitz on NYPD Blue, who has numerous complaints in his file for alleged brutality, has more sensitivity than this when he has to tell someone his wife is dead.  Seyton's brusque statement reflects the general state of civility in Scotland under Macbeth's reign.

 

The speech that begins at line 17 is justifiably famous.  It reveals the depth of Macbeth's despair, a view of a world where there is neither justice nor hope.  There is no particular meaning in anything we do or refrain from doing.  The speech opens with the lines, "She should have died hereafter;/ There would have been a time for such a word."  The notes in the Signet edition interpret this to mean, "It was inevitable that she would die."  Another, more cynical, interpretation is that this is an inconvenient time; she should have waited before dying. The "word" here is that of death.

 

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time."  When would have been a more convenient time for her death?  How about "tomorrow"? But one "tomorrow" evokes another and then another, and Macbeth realizes that time has lost significance for him.  It no longer moves as it had at the beginning of the play when he was engaged in grand schemes and courageous actions; now it "creeps" from day to day without majesty or meaning, and it will continue down to the "last syllable," the final word of recorded time.  The passage of human events has become for Macbeth an experience of words only, like the word of his wife's death. There is also an echo here of Act I, scene 5 back when Macbeth returned home and told his wife at line 61 that Duncan was arriving at their castle.  She asked when he proposed to leave, and Macbeth said, "Tomorrow."  His wife declared, "O, never shall sun that morrow see." Now the "tomorrows" have arrived with a vengeance in their petty pace. 

 

How did we get here?  "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death." We have moved from "yesterday" to "tomorrow,"  like fools without any awareness of what was happening, that we were just moving to the same point Lady Macbeth has already reached.  It's not just "death" but "dusty death," with its echo of the Biblical "ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

 

If time leads simply to death, what is the purpose of life?  Macbeth explores life's meaning at line 23:

 

                                                Out, out, brief candle!

            Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

            And then is heard no more.

 

When Macbeth was first performed at court it was done inside using the illumination of candles or torches.  These would have cast very strong shadows of the actors on the floors and walls.  Life in its shortness has often been compared to a candle which burns itself out.  In this passage Macbeth, played by an actor looking at a literal candle, characterizes life as a piece of theater, something performed by a "poor player," someone who goes through the motions, probably overacting as he "struts" and "frets" his allotted stage time and then disappears from the play.  Shakespeare throughout his career was fascinated by the idea of theater as a metaphor for life.  Here we have a character looking at the shadow he casts on stage, seeing his life in terms of a piece of make believe without meaning or substance like a shadow.

 

Shakespeare could have ended his comparison here with the actor commenting on his acting.  But he has Macbeth give the comparison one more twist.  What was the play all about?  What story did it tell?  What was its moral?  "It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing."  In every English village the mentally defective person, called "the village idiot," tried to survive by begging or extorting money from passers-by.  Often their communications were just mad ramblings or shouted incoherence.  Macbeth has looked into the cosmic abyss to perceive what meaning life might have, and he finds it has none.  The play the actor was performing is just noise; there is neither truth nor justice, and nothing has any meaning -- it "signifies nothing."  Yet this is what Macbeth wanted to be master of, what he sacrificed his soul for.

 

As powerful as the speech is, it is only part of what is happening here.  People have been so impressed by the poetry of Macbeth's language that they overlook the significance of its context.  At line 30 a messenger comes in and tells Macbeth that Birnam Wood is rapidly approaching the castle.  Macbeth's view of the world in which there is no justice, truth or meaning turns out not to be true.  There is a force for justice in the world and it is on its way.  At line 43 he begins "To doubt the equivocation of the fiend/ That lies like truth." Belatedly he realizes that he has been lied to by our old friend "equivocation." At line 49 he expresses his despair again in rhymed couplets: "I 'gin to be aweary of the sun,/ And wish the estate of the world were now undone." Remember back in Act IV, scene 1 when Macbeth called forth the specter of universal destruction, the churches and castles blown down in the storm, to articulate what he was willing to sacrifice for the witches' assurance.  Now he wishes for the same destruction, the "estate of the world" being undone to stop what is happening. In other tragedies the tragic heroes gauge the state of the universe by what is happening to them individually; Macbeth does the same thing here.  And once again, in a time of uncertainty, the old soldier reasserts himself, and Macbeth ends the scene defiantly crying, "Blow winds! Come wrack! [destruction in battle]/ At least we'll die with harness on our back" [lines 51 -- 52].

 

Act V, scene 6

 

[Act V, scene 6] Malcolm's forces arrive at the castle, and he orders his men to drop the tree camouflage.  He and Macduff lead one part of the army, and the English general, Old Siward, is in charge of the other part.  They go into battle determined to win.

 

Act V, scene 7

 

[Act V, scene 7] In the opening lines Macbeth compares himself to a bear in a bear baiting contest, tied to a stake and attacked on all sides by dogs. Yet, he continues to trust to his final assurance from the witches that he is vulnerable only to someone not born of a woman.  Young Siward enters and enthusiastically fights Macbeth because of his reputation; however, he is in over his head and pays with his life.  Macbeth brutally taunts Young Siward as he dies at line 11, "Thou wast born of woman." As Macbeth exits, Macduff enters, desperately seeking Macbeth, says at line 15, "If thou be'st slain and with no stroke of mine,/ My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still."  Refusing to fight against the poor paid mercenaries, "kerns," who are fighting for Macbeth, Macduff exits, listening for the loudest clamor of battle, figuring that is where Macbeth can be found.  At the end of the scene old Siward and Malcolm marvel that the fight against Macbeth's army is going so easily.  Macbeth's soldiers are refusing to fight, or as Malcolm says at line 28, "We have met with foes/ That strike beside us," deliberately missing with their swords.

 

 

 

Act V, scene 8

 

This scene really sets the tone for this play as a tragedy.  To put it simply, if the play works, the good guys at the end of this scene will cheer the death of Macbeth.  The audience will, however, feel a sense of loss.  Why should we have this reaction?  Because we have seen where Macbeth began and how he has chosen incorrectly throughout the play.  We know that his life might have ended differently if he had been wiser or stronger.  However, he has retained that courage which made him a great soldier.  How does Macbeth redeem his character here at the end?  [Act V, scene 8]

 

Now Macbeth is by himself, deserted by all his army.  In the opening lines he compares his situation to that of defeated Roman heroes: "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die/ On mine own sword?  Whiles I see lives, the gashes/ Do better upon them."  The English were very impressed by the strict code of personal honor which led Roman soldiers who were defeated to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured. Perhaps the fascination was because suicide was such an extreme sin for the English at that time; perhaps it was because the suicide option emphasized a rigid code of personal honor. Now Macduff finally finds Macbeth, who does not wish to fight the bereaved husband and father: "My soul is too much charged/ With blood of thine already" [lines 5 -- 6].  Macduff lets his sword speak for him.  They fight, and Macbeth taunts Macduff with his promised vulnerability.  Macduff at line 13 burst the final bubble of Macbeth's misplaced faith:

 

                                    Despair thy charm,

            And let the angel that thou still hast served

            Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb

            Untimely ripped.

 

The "angel" here referred to is Satan, the fallen angel, to whom Macbeth has dedicated his life.  Macduff was delivered by C-section when he was torn from his mother's womb, and therefore, technically not born of a woman.

 

Macbeth is undone by the news, and his first reaction is to once again condemn the witches.  At line 19 he declares,

 

            And be these juggling fiends no more believed,

            That palter with us in a double sense;                             [equivocate]

            That keep the word of promise to our ear,

            And break it to our hope.  I'll not fight with thee.

 

We can see why Macbeth refuses to fight.  The witches have cheated him; he would have done things differently if he had known what was really going to happen to him.  However, too much has happened for Macbeth simply to walk away.

 

Macduff offers an option at line 23:

 

            Then yield thee, coward,

            And live to be the show and gaze of the time:

            We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,

            Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,

            "Here may you see the tyrant."

 

Perhaps Macduff is serious in his offer, but it is more likely that he proposes this way for Macbeth to save his life because he knows how proud the soldier Macbeth was before he became the evil king.  The idea of being gawked at must have been terrible for someone like Macbeth.  Macduff's use of the term "monster," in a sense "freak," must have been calculated to arouse Macbeth's anger.  The prospect of spending the rest of his life in a sideshow, as a curiosity, is unacceptable.  Macduff wants to goad him into a final fight.

 

And so Macbeth hurls his final defiance at line 27, despite everything that had happened:

 

                                    I will not yield,

            To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,

            And to be baited with the rabble's curse.

            Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,

            And thou opposed, being of no woman born,

            Yet will I try the last.  Before my body

            I throw my warlike shield.  Lay on, Macduff,

            And damned be he who first cries "Hold, enough!"

 

These are Macbeth's last words.  They remind us that at the beginning of the play he was a national hero who fought against overwhelming odds.  And he is going out in the same way.  He knows he will lose the fight; supernatural forces have guaranteed that Macduff will win.  Yet Macbeth chooses to die bravely, fighting to the last, even though no one else on stage acknowledges or appreciates what he is doing.

 

Rather than showing the final battle between Macbeth and Macduff, Shakespeare gives us a substitute action, demonstrating Macbeth's courage by the parallel with young Siward's death.  When old Siward learns that his son has died in battle, he asks at line 46, "Had he his hurts before?" In other words did young Siward die giving battle (wounds in front) or running away (wounds in back)?  Satisfied that his son had died bravely in battle, old Siward concludes, "They say he parted well and paid his score" [line 52]. It's a simple epitaph, very similar to the former Thane of Cawdor, back in Act I, scene 4, who also died well.  Despite the fact that he was a traitor, Malcolm at line 7 says, "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."  So it is also with Macbeth.  What a great loss was this man who might have been both great and good.  At least he died well.

 

Macduff enters with Macbeth's head, hailing Malcolm the new king of Scotland.  Malcolm has the last speech in the play.  (Whoever has the final speech in a Shakespearean tragedy is a key figure; he's the one we're supposed to see re-establishing order in the world of the play.)  Malcolm has a couple of political acts to bring closure to the play.  First, he makes all his thanes earls.  "Earl" was an English title, so this move helps establish the Scottish dependence upon English governance, which in turn helps support King James' political agenda to push the idea of the united kingdom.  Malcolm promises to reward his friends and allies, saying at line 64, "What's more to do,/ Which would be planted newly with the time…." That's the same image that his father had used back in Act I, scene 4 to describe his rewarding of Macbeth and Banquo.  Malcolm also promises to punish Macbeth's ministers who help keep the tyrant on the throne and reveals the cause of Lady Macbeth's death as suicide.  So the play ends with the glowing image of Scotland and Malcolm grateful for the help of the selfless English friends, a picture that, of course, had no basis in historic reality.  After all, Macbeth is one of literature's great examples of historical fiction.

Go to Top

 Return to Sample Home Page