Study Guide

Macbeth

by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Quotes

Important Quotations

Nothing in his life
became him like the leaving of it.

(1.4.7-8)

Act 1, scene 4 is a continuation of the battle scene of Act 1, scene 2. Sandwiched in between is Macbeth's first encounter with the witches and their prophecy that he will be Thane of Cawdor. In scene 2, King Duncan has ordered Cawdor's execution, and here in scene 4, Malcolm, Duncan's son reports on how the execution went. For the Jacobeans who frequently witnessed executions by beheading, the prisoner pledging loyalty at the last minute was frequently rewarded with pardon. Cawdor, however, does not survive, in spite of confessing 'his treasons', imploring the King's 'pardon', and showing 'a deep repentance'.

...the milk of human kindness.
(1.5.15)

As Lady Macbeth waits for her husband to arrive home after she has received his letter with the news of his promotion and the prophecies, she decides that her husband will be king only through her iron determination since he is sometime too full of compassion, a very unmanly trait. The phrase is therefore at the top of Lady Macbeth's insult list so that when we use the phrase to approve of someone's compassion, we are changing it from an insult to a compliment.

The be-all and the end-all
(1.7.5)

According to the OED, Shakespeare invented this phrase and all subsequent uses by other authors are borrowed from the playwright. In the play, Macbeth is debating with himself about committing the murder of Duncan and becoming king without getting caught. If killing the King would have no consequences, he would have no other problems. But Macbeth knows regicide can never be so simple. For us, it means an event or person that is the beginning and end of all things in one package; an ego maniac; a conceited person.

Knock, knock. Who's there…?
(2.3.5-6)

In one of the very few comedy bits in Macbeth, the Porter is roused to open the gate just after the murder of Duncan. As he goes to the gate half asleep, he engages in a conversation with himself and several others of his own creation. It seems that Shakespeare is responsible for the beginning of the 'Knock Knock' joke. Variety, an entertainment industry magazine, reported on 19 August 1936 that America was caught up in a 'knock-knock craze', and on 14 November 1936, England fell for the tasteless pun answers to the question 'knock-knock' when radio comedian Wee Georgie Wood told several of the jokes on a radio show. Nowadays, the 'knock-knock' joke is an integral part of panto (short for pantomime), a form of interactive theatre that stages children's fairy tales, especially at Christmas in Great Britain.

What's done is done.
(3.2.12)

Here a very calm Lady Macbeth chides her husband for still thinking about Duncan's murder. She tries to tell him that there is nothing that can be done about it: dead is dead. Interestingly this advice to her husband emerges in a negative sentence in her sleep-walking: 'What's done cannot be undone' (5.1.68). Her guilty conscience is even more forceful than the seemingly simple advice she gives Macbeth. Not only can nothing be done about Duncan's murder, but...

(The entire section is 1360 words.)

Macbeth Essential Quotes

Essential Passage by Character: Macbeth

MACBETH:
[Aside.] This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, 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? 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 smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

BANQUO:
Look, how our partner’s rapt.

MACBETH:
[Aside.] If chance will have me king, why, chance
may crown me
Without my stir.

BANQUO:
New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.

MACBETH:
[Aside.] Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 141-162

Summary
Macbeth, along with Banquo, has been visited by three witches who prophesy that Macbeth, now Thane of Glamis, will become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. Almost immediately, Ross and Angus, two Scottish nobles, arrive to inform Macbeth that the previous Thane of Cawdor has been captured and has forfeited his position through rebellion against King Duncan. The title thus falls to Macbeth as a reward for his services to the crown. Although Banquo initially has some doubts as to the validity of a prophecy from witches, the fulfillment is convincing. He is concerned, however, that it may be an instance of the powers of evil telling the truth in order to recruit a susceptible person to the side of darkness. Macbeth can see only that the witches speak truth, that the three-part prophecy is two-thirds of the way fulfilled.

As Banquo speaks privately to Ross and Angus, Macbeth in the passage above ponders the meaning of the prophecy. He is unsure about the nature of the words of the witches (“This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good”) and is thus in a completely gray area. If it is evil, why is he given assured success, verified by truth? He can see only one way that the remainder of the prophecy (i.e., his succeeding to the throne of Scotland) will come true, and that is through the death of King Duncan. That death, in Macbeth’s mind, can be accomplished by only one manner to assure that Macbeth is his heir: murder. Macbeth trembles at the thought that he must commit this murder. He...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

Essential Passage by Theme: The Hero

MACBETH:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. 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,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other—

Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 1-28

Summary
King Duncan has triumphed over the attacks of the Norwegian troops, aided by the rebel Scots who are led by the previous Thane of Cawdor, Macdonwald. In celebration of his victory, as well as of the accession of Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor, Duncan proposes to honor Macbeth with a visit to his castle in Glamis. Macbeth goes ahead to prepare a feast, sending a letter to his wife of the coming company. Macbeth also relates to his wife the full extent of the three witches’ prophecy. Immediately she has jumped ahead of her husband and is more than willing to aid in the murder of the king so that Macbeth can take the throne. More corrupt that her husband, Lady Macbeth has completely sold her soul to evil without regret.

The same cannot now be said of Macbeth himself. He begins to have doubts, becoming somewhat shaky in his resolve. In the soliloquy quoted above, Macbeth contemplates the full extent of his actions. He hesitates, but he knows that if the murder is to be done, it would be best to do it quickly and get it over with. He believes that if Duncan’s assassination would result in complete success, without any consequences, he would be satisfied. But Macbeth now fears that to do so will put his eternal soul at risk, and he realizes that there are likely to be earthly consequences to Duncan’s...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)

Essential Passage by Character: Macbeth

SEYTON:
The Queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 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. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Act 5, Scene...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster