so fair?” (lines 51-52). Why indeed? Has he already been plotting
to become king? Does he feel the witches have read his mind, and
guessed how much he wants the crown? Or has his mind flashed ahead,
wondering how this could possibly happen? Whatever, his reaction is
that of a guilty man. Banquo, on the other hand, makes fun of the
witches. He is curious about what they have to say, but that is all.
MACBETH: LINES 88-156
Ross and Angus arrive and tell Macbeth that he is now Thane of
Cawdor. The witches told the truth! Look once again at the
difference between Macbeth’s response and Banquo’s. Banquo is
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.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 123-26
He seems to be saying, “This could be a trick.” Fair words can mean
Macbeth is already obsessed with the idea of being king. He knows
Duncan would have to die first, and even though he says that the idea
of murder “doth unfix my hair” (line 135), he’s started to think
about it. From this point on, Macbeth is clearly hiding things.
When Banquo comments that Macbeth is lost in thought, Macbeth lies to
his friend, saying he was thinking about something else.
MACBETH: LINES 1-14
Duncan learns that the traitor Cawdor has been executed. It is
important to note that he repented and asked for Duncan’s forgiveness
before he died. Through his honorable death, he seems to have made
up for his sinful life.
MACBETH: LINES 15-59
Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus enter. In the exchange that
follows, you can see Macbeth’s desire to become king, even if the
The King greets Macbeth with genuine love and gratitude. In the
presence of all the thanes, however, he names his son Malcolm the
Prince of Cumberland. That means that Malcolm will inherit the
throne when Duncan dies.
Macbeth responds to that announcement in an “aside,” which means that
he speaks his thoughts directly to the audience and it is understood
that the other characters don’t hear what he is saying. In his
aside, Macbeth grumbles that Malcolm is now in his way. You begin to
realize nothing will stop him.
NOTE: Notice the imagery of light and darkness in lines 15-52:
“Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep
desires.” Throughout the play, light symbolizes good, and dark stands
for evil. Macbeth has just taken one giant step toward evil.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE V
At Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth gets a letter from her husband
telling her about the predictions. She dedicates herself to helping
Macbeth become king. When she learns that Duncan will spend the
night at their castle, she immediately decides to kill him.
Lady Macbeth tells us something vital about her husband–that, by
nature, he is not ruthless. She says that even if he wants something
so badly he feels like his life depends on it, he will not cheat to
get it. She sees that as a flaw in his character!
Lady Macbeth does not have that problem. The woman’s resolution is
so intense it is frightening. Her speech in lines 39-55 is worth
looking at, because it expresses her determination with some of the
most potent imagery to be found anywhere in Shakespeare’s plays. She
actually asks spirits to “unsex” her and “take [her] milk for gall.”
And look how she picks up the light-dark imagery: “Come, thick
night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.” If Macbeth took
a giant step toward evil, his wife makes a gigantic leap!
Notice how when Macbeth comes in, Lady Macbeth takes charge and
starts talking about the murder right away. She doesn’t even have to
ask if he’s considered it; she knows he has. She does most of the
talking, and several times she tells him to leave everything to her.
Macbeth does not agree to killing Duncan, but he does not refuse,
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE VI
Duncan, his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, and Banquo and some other
thanes arrive at Macbeth’s castle. They comment on what a pleasant
place it is. Lady Macbeth welcomes them warmly.
Here is a scene in which nothing is what it seems. Macbeth’s castle
is really a place of evil and death. The gracious hostess who
delivers such pretty speeches is actually just waiting for the chance
to murder her guest of honor.
NOTE: Shakespeare uses a technique in this scene called dramatic
irony. We as readers know about the double meanings in the scene.
Except for Lady Macbeth, the characters are not aware of them. The
scene is more interesting for us, because we know more than the
characters do. Depending upon the way the scene is played, the
effect can be funny, scary, or both.
MACBETH: LINES 1-28
Macbeth starts this scene in a state of emotional turmoil. As Lady
Macbeth predicted, he wants to be king but he’s afraid to kill
Duncan. Having a vivid imagination, he can picture all the
consequences of the murder before he commits it.
Two things make Macbeth hesitate: the fact that the murder is
morally wrong, and the fear that he’ll be punished for his crime.
It’s hard to say which reason, if either, is stronger. Though
Macbeth does not seem like a religious man, there is a lot of
religious imagery in this speech, with references to “angels” and
“deep damnation” (lines 19-20).
MACBETH: LINES 29-82
Macbeth tells his wife that he cannot go through with the murder.
She works on him to change his mind.
Lady Macbeth’s first ploy is to mock her husband. She implies that
he is a coward and even questions his manhood. Using the fact that
she is a woman, and his wife, she twists the idea of motherhood into
a way to get at him further:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was sniffing in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
(Act I, Scene vii, lines 54-59)
It is hard to argue with that kind of resolution. Macbeth gives in a
little. Instead of refusing again, he asks “If we should fail?”
Sensing she is about to win, Lady Macbeth coolly recites the details
of their plan; while Duncan’s servants are in a drunken sleep,
Macbeth can kill the king and blame the servants.
Macbeth himself is chilled by his wife’s hard attitude toward the
murder, but he’s also convinced. The scene and the act end on a note
of resolution. Macbeth will kill Duncan.
MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE I
In the first scene of Act II, Shakespeare builds up suspense before the murder.
MACBETH: LINES 1-9
Banquo and his son Fleance talk casually about the night. In their
short exchange, we learn three things: 1. that it is late and
Banquo is sleepy (and we know what will happen once everybody goes to
sleep); 2. that Banquo has some strange uneasiness which makes him
unwilling to go to sleep; and 3. that Banquo has a son (that fact
will become important later).
MACBETH: LINES 10-30
Macbeth comes in and talks with Banquo. Notice how nervous Banquo
is. When he hears somebody coming he calls for his sword, even
though he should feel safe in his friend’s castle.
Shakespeare again uses the technique of dramatic irony. Banquo gives
Macbeth a ring that is a present from Duncan for Lady Macbeth. We
know, as Banquo does not, that the king is giving a gift to his
murderer. We can imagine how Macbeth feels when Banquo says he
dreamed of witches, and we know Macbeth is lying when he claims, “I
think not of them” (line 21).
The two friends move further apart in this scene. When Banquo
mentions the three witches, he is confiding his private thoughts to
his friend. Macbeth dodges Banquo’s honest comments, and begins
hinting around by talking with Banquo about some business that will
“make honor” for Banquo (line 26). Banquo responds politely but
cautiously, saying that whatever he can do for Macbeth with a clear
conscience he will do.
MACBETH: LINES 31-64
After Banquo and Fleance leave, Macbeth sends his servant off to Lady
Macbeth with a message about his nightcap drink. That is probably a
secret signal that everybody has gone to bed.
Macbeth prepares to commit the murder. His speech here is called a
soliloquy because he is alone on stage. When you read or hear a
soliloquy, you can assume that the character is speaking his true
thoughts. Since he is talking to himself, why should he lie?
As soon as Macbeth is alone he has a vision. He sees a dagger
floating in the air in front of him. It melts through his fingers
when he tries to grab it but it will not go away. Then suddenly, the
dagger appears to be covered with blood. Has Macbeth lost his mind?
Or could the dagger be as real as the witches? Is he hallucinating
or has some devil sent it as a sign? You cannot tell; and neither
can Macbeth. He does not know whether to trust his eyes or his
reason: “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the’ other senses, / Or
else worth all the rest” (lines 44-45).
At line 47, Macbeth’s rational will takes over. “There’s no such
thing,” he says about the dagger, and he never mentions it again.
The imagery in the rest of this soliloquy shows that Macbeth knows
exactly what he is doing. He says that “nature seems dead” (line
50). He mentions witchcraft and ghosts.
NOTE: Unnatural means “perverted,” and in Macbeth the word works in
many ways. In Shakespeare’s time, people thought in terms of God’s
plan for mankind. This grand design was the “natural” order of the
world. The devil was always trying to mess it up by tempting people
to sin. So evil was “unnatural”; it corrupted the people God wanted
to be good.
You will see the image of “unnaturalness” multiply around Macbeth as
he mutilates his soul–or you might say his human nature, And since
he’s the king, the country reflects his spiritual sickness. It, too,
becomes mutilated. Also notice as you read how the unnatural acts
are reflected in nature–in animals and weather, for instance.
MACBETH: ACT II, SCENE II
In this scene, the murder takes place. Macbeth is nearly driven mad
by the horror of what he’s done. Lady Macbeth urges him to be
practical: after all, there is no going back. They have killed
NOTE: It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to have Macbeth
kill Duncan offstage. We can only guess why he wrote the scene that
way, but here are two possible reasons: 1. Shakespeare wanted to
focus not on the murder but on Macbeth’s reaction to it; and 2. the
bloody details supplied by our imaginations will be much worse than
anything that could be done onstage.
MACBETH: LINES 1-13
Lady Macbeth waits alone while her husband kills Duncan. She seems
excited by the idea of murder and pleased with herself because of her
part in the plan.
Yet we also get a peek at her softer side. She says that she would
have killed Duncan herself, but the old man looked too much like her
father. This small reminder of Lady Macbeth’s humanity will be
important to our understanding of what happens to her at the end of
MACBETH: LINES 13-56
Macbeth enters, his hands covered with Duncan’s blood. Notice how
the sharp, quick exchange of words between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
underscores the tension:
Lady: Did you not speak?
Macbeth: As I descended?
Act II, Scene ii, lines 16-17
As the scene proceeds, Macbeth and his wife behave in a manner
exactly opposite from what we would expect. According to
conventional logic, Macbeth, who is a soldier and has already killed
many men in battle that day, should not be bothered by the murder.
On the other hand, we would understand perfectly if his wife were
upset by having been involved in a killing.
Look at what actually happens: Macbeth is horrified by what he has
done. He says he has “hangman’s hands” (line 27), and he is afraid
that after having committed such a horrible deed he will never sleep
again. Lady Macbeth is practical. She gives the advice you would
expect to come from a soldier: “These deeds must not be thought /
After these ways; so, it will make us mad” (lines 32-33).
When Lady Macbeth tells her husband to take the daggers he used for
the murder back into Duncan’s room, he refuses. She makes fun of him
and takes them up herself.
We can understand the torture Macbeth is going through by realizing
that he seems to consider the murder one of the most evil deeds ever
committed. We would have to call this statement exaggeration:
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.
Act II, Scene ii, lines 59-62
But he is not consciously exaggerating. That is the way he feels.
Contrast his attitude with Lady Macbeth’s. She says that their hands
can be cleaned with a little water and that he should be ashamed to
be carrying on so. She tries to make him snap out of the state he’s
in and get on with their plan.
Macbeth’s final lines as his wife hurries him off sum up how he feels:
“To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself. [There is a knock at
the gate.] / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”
(lines 72-73) He never thought himself capable of such evil, and he
would love to be able to undo what he has done.
MACBETH: LINES 1-20
The previous scene of horror and murder is followed by a comic scene.
The Porter, one of Macbeth’s servants, is awakened by the same
knocking at the gate which sent Macbeth and his wife scurrying off to
clean up. The Porter is still drunk from the feast. As he weaves
his way to the gate, he talks to himself as if he were the porter at
the gates of Hell.
The comedy of the Porter provides a contrast to the gruesome murder.
By allowing the audience to relax a little, Shakespeare makes the
scenes of horror even more effective.
The Porter also has a serious purpose. The little routine he makes
up about being porter of “hell gate” reminds the audience of the
spiritual consequences of the murder that has just been committed.
NOTE: Audiences in Shakespeare’s time would recognize the “Porter of
Hell-Gate” as a stock character in the so-called morality plays of
the time. Morality plays were simple stories in which good was
rewarded and evil was punished. So Shakespeare is, in effect,
hinting that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not going to get away with
what they have just done.
Let’s take a moment to examine one of the imaginary sinners the
Porter says he lets in: “here’s an equivocator, that could swear in
both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough
for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (lines 8-11).
Equivocation means lying, and we will soon see Macbeth and his wife
doing a lot of that. But remember the Porter’s speech: the liar
cannot “equivocate to heav
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