Please explain this quote from Macbeth:We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it.(15) She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice Remains in danger of her former tooth. But let the frame...

Please explain this quote from Macbeth:

We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it.(15) She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice Remains in danger of her former tooth. 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(20) That shake us nightly. 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.

Asked on by jaanaa

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Macbeth is speaking here in Act III, scene IV regarding the report he received from the murderers he hired to kill Banquo and Fleance.  The murderers report that Banquo is "safe"--safely dead in the ditch with many gashes.  However, Fleance has escaped.  To this, Macbeth responds, "We have scotch'd the snake, not killed it.  She'll close and be herself, whilst our porr malice remains in danger of her former tooth."  He means they have not taken care of the situation.  Banquo is only part of the problem.  His issue will be Kings, so Fleance still has that opportunity and Macbeth is not safe on the throne.  Fleance, while only a boy, will grow up and become the full-grown snake that will take Macbeth and all his evil plans to get to the throne out, once and for good.  The snake (the threat against Macbeth's place on the throne--Banquo and Fleance) is only wounded, but will return to strength and her "former tooth".

In the rest of the quote, Macbeth references "both worlds."  This could be the worlds of good and evil (which is also symbolized as England and Scotland in this play), the worlds of the living and the dead, or some other interpretation.  Both worlds suffer--Macbeth is not at ease or comfortable in his new position as he thought he would be.  He and his wife have done awful things to get there, and they are suspected of the deeds.  Even Lady Macbeth, the strong and so sure of herself woman, is having trouble adjusting.  Therefore, they "eat their meals in fear and are troubled nightly by horrible nightmares". 

Macbeth goes on to say that it is better to be dead than to be mentally tormented as he is with all the guilt and the memories of the evil he has committed to become King.  He has continued killing (not just Duncan, but also the guards, Banquo, an attempt on Fleance, and later, McDuff's family) in order to gain his "peace"--to secure his throne so he wouldn't have the prophecy and other threats against his position as King--and so he has sent these people to their "peace" where they no longer have any worries at all. 

I hope this helps clarify some things for you.  Enjoy your journey!  Macbeth is one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare plays.  Good Luck!

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