Act I Commentary
Scene i: In what is perhaps the most attention-grabbing opening scene of all of Shakespeare's plays, we are introduced to the Weird Sisters. The witches (as they are known) would have been considered by the Elizabethans to be human representatives of supernatural or dark forces. The thunder and lightening used to mark their entrance emphasises their "other worldliness." Graymalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad, are mentioned as their special accomplices, as would be dogs, rats, and spiders. This association of animals and insects with horror and evil is still evident in our Halloween decorations and scary movies.
The stage direction gives no indication of where the scene takes place, and the first word, "When," indicates that time rather than place will be a major motif of the play. Although the events in Shakespeare's original source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, cover a ten year period, the play compresses the action so that events quickly follow each other.
The sing-song meter of the lines adds to the witches' mystery and underlines the effect that this opening "spell" will cast over the play. With all this "hurly burly," it is easy to miss a crucial piece of information: the witches will meet Macbeth on the heath at sunset. Why? What do they want with him?
Prophecies are used in Shakespeare's plays for two reasons: (1) to alert the audience to what will definitely happen, and (2) to alert the audience to what may or may not happen. Either way, this playwriting technique sets up the debate of whether characters are fated to meet to their ends or whether they have free choice. Here, however, the audience is only aware that the witches will meet Macbeth. The atmosphere of thunder, lightening, "fog and filthy air" imply that it will not be a good meeting.
As if all this were not enough, this opening scene has thirteen lines!
Scene ii: As predicted by the witches, a battle opens this scene. The king, Duncan, and his son, Malcolm, receive a report on the battle with the rebel, Macdonald, from the Captain. The King's language, however, is deceptively simple. He judges from the blood on the Captain that the man "can report/…of the revolt/ the newest state" (1.2.1-3). Duncan is thus established as a man who draws his conclusions from appearances. Malcolm, on the other hand, seems to put his trust in loyalty and tradition: "This is the sergeant/who like a good and hardy...
(The entire section is 2556 words.)
Act II Commentary
Scene i: By now the audience is anxious to find out how the Macbeths' murder plan will work, but Shakespeare continues to build the suspense. In this scene we meet Fleance (Flay-ahns), Banquo'' young son. Both father and son are restless and Macbeth too cannot sleep. The time is carefully noted as after 'twelve' (2.1.3), midnight, the witching hour. Banquo delivers a diamond from the King to Macbeth for his wife to thank her for being a 'most kind hostess' (2.1.16)
Now might Banquo and Macbeth have the discussion promised in 1.3. Banquo tells Macbeth that he 'dreamt last night of the three weird sisters' (2.1.20), and that they apparently spoke the truth to Macbeth. Macbeth, however, lies to Banquo: 'I think not of them' (2.1.21), the response completing Banquo's line that ends in the word 'truth' (2.1.21). Macbeth also tells Banquo that now is not the time for their proposed discussion and goes one step further, telling Banquo that when the time comes, he shall gain honour if he sides with Macbeth. Banquo agrees, on the condition that the affair will not compromise his conscience. Banquo and Fleance go off to bed, leaving Macbeth alone.
Macbeth imagines that he sees a dagger before him and questions whether it is a real thing or 'a dagger of the mind' (2.1.28). The remainder of his soliloquy contains many references to witchcraft, as had Lady Macbeth's in 1.5: 'gouts of blood' (46); 'wicked dreams' (50); 'witchcraft' (51); 'Hecate' (52); 'wolf' (53); 'ghost' (56); 'horror' (59). The scene serves a dual purpose. In the first place, it poses Macbeth without a child against Banquo and Fleance, reinforcing the prophecy for Banquo. Secondly, it shows the inner workings of Macbeth's mind. It is a rule for Shakespeare that any time a character is speaking in an aside or to the audience, the character is telling the truth. Macbeth is no longer plagued by any doubt whatsoever, and his instruction to the servant to have Lady Macbeth ring a bell reminds us of her complicity. When the bell does ring, Macbeth describes it as a death knell. On one level it is, but on another, it is the audio signal of the instigation of Lady Macbeth's plan and the herald of her entrance for scene 2.
Scene ii: In the middle of a restless, moonlit night (which we would recognise as the beginning of a horror movie), an owl shrieks and a King is killed. The act that we have waited happens off-stage, while Lady Macbeth describes how...
(The entire section is 1669 words.)
Act III Commentary
Scene i: Structurally, Act III is the mid-point or centre of the five act play. Here we find Banquo thinking that the prophecies of the witches concerning Macbeth have all come true. He wonders if their prophecy concerning him may also be true. Banquo, however, suspects that to make the prophecies come to pass, Macbeth has 'play'dst most foully for't' (3.1.3).
Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast and asks if he can meet with him. Banquo informs the King that he plans to send the afternoon riding with his son, Fleance. Macbeth tells the unsuspecting Banquo 'Fail not our feast' (3.1.27). He also mentions that he learned that Malcolm and Donalbain are in England and Ireland. It is obvious that Macbeth is intent on keeping Banquo and Fleance close to him and under observation, as well as knowing the whereabouts of any others that can challenge his claim to the throne.
When Macbeth dismisses the court until 7 PM, his murderous bent becomes all too apparent. He sends his servant to bring in two men who are waiting to see him. While he waits Macbeth reveals that to be King is nothing unless he can be sure that Banquo will not be 'father to a line of kings' (3.1.60). To secure his crown and defeat the witches' prophecy, Macbeth must kill Banquo and Fleance.
When the two men enter, we learn that this is Macbeth's second meeting with them. He has planted the seeds of doubt in their minds concerning Banquo, and asks them now to wreak their revenge on him. Macbeth uses the same psychology as Lady Macbeth had used on him, accusing them of not being men. Resolved, the murderers pledge their lives to Macbeth and agree to kill both Banquo and Fleance.
Significantly, the men are anonymous, as are the witches, a playwriting device that identifies them more as forces and catalysts for the action of the play rather than developed characters. This scene makes us aware of time on two opposing levels. On one level, it seems to take lace soon after Macbeth's coronation. However, some time must have elapsed for Macbeth to have established his court and to have had a previous meeting with the murderers. We also know that Macbeth plans for Banquo and Fleance to be murdered before 7 PM that night. The emphasis on time underscores the urgency that political stability has for Macbeth, a stability that is not predicated on the needs of the ruled but on the personal needs of the ruler. The specificity of time also heightens the...
(The entire section is 2567 words.)
Act IV Commentary
Scene i: According to Hecate's wishes, the Three Witches have gathered the ingredients for the spell. Here we see them blend them together to the famous chant:
Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (10-11)
Hecate approves of their efforts and promises them a 'share i'th'gains' (40). Macbeth has questions and asks for answers, not from the Weird Sisters, but from what he thinks are their more powerful masters. The answers take the form of three apparitions: an 'Armed Head', 'a Bloody Child', and 'a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand' (Act IV, stage directions).
The Armed Head tells Macbeth to 'Beware Macduff' (71). The Bloody Child offers some hope: 'none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth' (80-81). The third apparition is even more enlightening:
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dusinane Hill
Shall come against him. (92-94)
Given the prognostications of these visions, Macbeth resolves to neutralise the threat of Macduff by murdering him. He knows, too, that all people are born 'of woman' and that woods do not walk. As Hecate had foretold, he has indeed put 'His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear' (3.5.31). He therefore feels safe. Yet, despite the witches' warning to 'Seek to know no more' (103), Macbeth pushes his luck with his ultimate concern: ''Shall Banquo's issue ever/ Reign in this kingdom?' (103-104). The answer is another vision of 'eight Kings and Banquo' (sds), with the last King holding a mirror in his hand. Macbeth is horrified. There are eight apparitions and 'many more' (120) in the mirror. The ghostly appearance of Banquo 'smiles upon' (123) Macbeth and 'points at them (the kings) for his' (124).
The scene may seem straight forward, but its simplicity betrays its complexity. Up to this point, Macbeth has acted out the end of the original prophecies given to him on the heath as he thought they had promised, and with the help of his wife. Here, without Lady Macbeth's assistance, he actively pursues answers, not prophecies, that will confirm the actions he has already taken and will take.
In addition, unlike his reaction to the first prophecies, Macbeth takes what appears before him as a true picture of the immediate and distant future, and accepts the witches' confirmation without question. He also does...
(The entire section is 1701 words.)
Act V Commentary
Scene i: Having set us up for the invasion of Scotland by its rightful king, Shakespeare returns us to the domestic tragedy and another famous scene. When we last saw Lady Macbeth, she was leading her husband to bed to sleep. This scene opens, ironically, with another Doctor and a Gentlewoman discussing a female sleep-walker. When the Doctor asks the Gentlewoman to repeat what she heard the sleep-walker say, she steadfastly refuses, since there were no witnesses.
Here enters Lady Macbeth with a lit taper which she has ordered to be constantly by her side. In her sleep, Lady Macbeth relates details of Duncan's murder and her husband's part in it, the murder of Banquo, and the holocaust at Fife. The Doctor tells the Gentlewoman that the Queen is beyond his help and, like the Gentlewoman, the Doctor will 'dare not speak' (83).
What we witness is the descent of Lady Macbeth into a distinctly female Hell. Without her husband's support, there is no one to whom she can unburden her guilt. This guilt is so intense that it manifests itself in her sleep-walking. Although we cannot determine whether or not she is mad, the Doctor hints at her probable end by warning the Gentlewoman to
Remove from her the means of annoyance
And still keep eyes upon her. (80-81)
If we are expected to feel sympathy for Lady Macbeth, the expectation is defeated by her recounting the murders to which we have been witness. We can only pity her so far before concluding that she has indeed earned her punishment.
Scene ii: The scene now returns to the revolution about to be launched. We are updated on the military preparations which have gone according to plan. We learn that Donalbain, Malcolm's brother and not mentioned since the assassination of Duncan, is not with his brother. We assume that he remains in Ireland. It does not matter where Donalbain is. The army is on its way to Birnam Wood. The name strikes a chord in the audience, since now we realise that Macbeth's visions are about to come to fruition.
Scene iii: Macbeth, who has been absent from the play since his last meeting with the witches, appears now, contemplating his lack of fear in the face of the marching army. He is confident he is safe 'Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane' (2). He also recalls that the thanes leading the army were all born of woman.
The Doctor reports...
(The entire section is 1111 words.)