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Macbeth acts very badly from the time he appears in Act 2, Scene 3. He doesn’t want to be there. He and his wife had both planned to be pretending to be asleep in their chambers when the body was discovered and the outcry was raised. His plan was foiled by the fact that Macduff came knocking at the gate and the Porter was too drunk to let him in. Macbeth finally realized that he couldn’t pretend to have been so sound asleep that he couldn’t hear that increasingly loud pounding. He had to come down in his nightgown to find out what was going on. His wife had warned him, “Only look up clear. To alter favor ever is to fear.” She is good at acting innocent, but she knows her husband is not. In Act 1, Scene 5, she says of him:
Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
Macbeth has always been honorable and innocent. He has no experience in dissimulation. He doesn’t know how to act, and he is so overwhelmed with guilt, remorse, and dread that he can’t appear natural. He looks stiff, frozen, and grim. Macduff naturally thinks that Macbeth is provoked at being awakened by his pounding at such an early hour. He says, “Our knocking has awaked him. Here he comes.”
Macduff and Lennox great Macbeth in a friendly and respectful manner. Lennox says, “Good morning, noble sir.” Macbeth can only bring himself to say, “Good morrow, both.” Macduff asks, “Is the King stirring, worthy thane?” Macbeth says curtly, “Not yet.” He does not greet them with any politeness but seems cold and even angry. We have all had the experience of being greeted with coldness by someone with whom we are normally on cordial terms, and it is natural to assume that the other person is angry for something we have done. Macduff and Lennox can have no suspicion that Macbeth is acting so strangely because of his terrible crime. Macduff offers a veiled apology:
He did command me to call timely on him.
I have almost slipped the hour.
This is a subtle way of saying, “I don’t like being up this early any more than you do, esppecially in this kind of weather. But I am obeying the King’s orders. I have almost slipped the hour because I was sound asleep myself.”
Macbeth seems to ignore the apology. He says, “I’ll bring you to him.”
Now Macduff is really provoked. He says sarcastically:
I know this is a joyful trouble to you,
But yet ‘tis one.
He is daring Macbeth to complain about being awakened because of direct orders from King Duncan.
Macbeth is dreading the moment when Macduff will discover the body and start an outcry that will wake up everybody in the castle. Then he seizes the opportunity to murder the two grooms in order to prevent them from telling anyone that they had been drugged by Lady Macbeth. Everything he says and does betrays his guilt. Macduff will notice his behavior and guilty facial expression but won’t have time to analyze his impressions until later, because of all the turmoil occasioned by the discovery of the body. Then Macduff will feel certain that Macbeth was the murderer, and he will refuse to attend the coronation and the banquet, and soon will flee to England.
Macbeth’s trouble began with the knocking at the gate which forced him to come out of hiding in his chamber and put on an act of innocence for which he had no talent or prior experience.
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