Explain this quote from Macbeth: "I had else been perfect, / Whole as the marble, founded as the rock... / But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined..."

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Macbeth has been playing the gracious host and is about to sit down to enjoy his own feast when the murderers he hired to kill Banquo and Fleance enter, bringing the good news that they have killed Banquo and the bad news that Fleance has escaped. Macbeth responds,

Then comes...

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Macbeth has been playing the gracious host and is about to sit down to enjoy his own feast when the murderers he hired to kill Banquo and Fleance enter, bringing the good news that they have killed Banquo and the bad news that Fleance has escaped. Macbeth responds,

Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.

The literal meaning is clear. Macbeth would have felt secure and relieved if the murderers had managed to kill Fleance. As things stand, he is doubtful and fearful. The contrasting images he uses are striking. It is only natural to equate a strong, solid position with rock and marble. Freedom from worry, like other kinds of freedom, is symbolized by the opposing image of the air. However, his "doubts and fears," instead of leaving him vulnerable and exposed, have imprisoned him in a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing space. This unusual way of imagining doubt and fear emphasize the way in which these emotions have shut Macbeth away in his own mind.

Macbeth's approach to the Witches' prophesies are, as usual, somewhat illogical. He discovered that Banquo's children would be kings moments after hearing that he would be king. He has no living children of his own to carry on the line. He has not been told, as he will soon be told of Macduff, that Fleance is a threat to him. He has no obvious reason to want to kill Fleance or to be so desperately concerned at his survival. However, Macbeth, as he is to remark later in the same act, is "in blood / Stepped in so far" that killing someone has become his preferred solution to every difficulty he faces.

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In act 3, scene 4, Macbeth is having a conversation with his hired assassins, who reluctantly inform him that Fleance has escaped. Immediately after hearing the news, Macbeth responds by saying,

I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.

Macbeth is essentially saying that if he had not received the bad news about Fleance's escape, he would have been as solid as marble and felt as free as the air around him. Instead, Macbeth says that he feels cramped, confined, and boxed in by unruly fears. Macbeth fears that the witches' prophecies regarding Banquo's descendants will come to fruition—he planned on murdering Banquo and his son precisely to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. Since Fleance is still alive, Banquo's descendants have an opportunity to become kings in the future, which is exactly what Macbeth fears.

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To understand this quote, it is helpful to first look at the context. It comes from Act III, Scene IV, and is spoken by Macbeth after he learns that Banquo has been killed by his henchmen but Fleance has escaped. This is a problem for Macbeth because the witches have prophesied that Banquo's son, Fleance, will eventually become king.

When Macbeth is saying that he had "else been perfect," he is referring to this idea that if Fleance had been killed, his throne would be safe. He uses some similes to reinforce this idea. He talks about how he would be as "whole" as a piece of marble, for example, meaning that he would be strong and secure because Fleance would no longer be a threat to his crown.

In the second part of the quote, Macbeth is saying that he is frightened. With Fleance still alive, he is wondering just how long he has left to be king. He has, therefore, become a prisoner of his own "doubts and fears" because his future is now so uncertain.

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In this scene, Macbeth is informed by one of the murderers he hired to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, that Fleance managed to escape. Macbeth is visibly shaken by the news and states:

 Then comes my fit again: I had else been    perfect,
 Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
 As broad and general as the casing air:
 But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound  in
 To saucy doubts and fears.

The reason Macbeth is "cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears" is that the witches told him that Banquo's descendants would take the crown one day. So, Macbeth's mind is racked by fear that he might lose his position one day, and he won't find peace until he removes every obstacle which seems threatening to his ambitions and plans. Since the murder of Duncan, Macbeth has been directly or indirectly murdering all those who could potentially overthrow him or destabilize him. He will not stop until he kills all his opponents. What he does not realize until the end of the play is that getting rid of his opponents will never bring back the inner peace he had before he surrendered to the power of evil. In the end, life becomes a meaningless tale, "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

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In Act III scene 4 Macbeth is talking with the Murderers.  Remember, he has hired them to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance because the witches predicted that Banquo's sons would one day be king. The First Murderer has returned to report the murder to Macbeth- he has successfully killed Banquo, but Fleance has escaped.

This concerns Macbeth greatly; if Fleance has escaped, his crown is in danger.

I had else been perfect, whole as marble founded as the rock As broad and general as the casing air. But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.

 

This means that if Fleance had died, Macbeth would be okay- perfect, strong, and solid as marble, but since he didn't he has returned to a state of fear and doubts which are confining (think paralyzing) him.

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