How is Macbeth's conflict intensified by the events in Scene 4? What lines from his aside in Scene 4 (lines 48-53) develop the audience understanding of this conflict?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Scene 4 of Act 1, King Duncan makes an announcement which includes the following decision:

Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland; 

This disturbs Macbeth because Duncan has thereby proclaimed his son Malcolm his successor to the throne. In an aside, Macbeth reveals his troubled thoughts:

[Aside.] The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

So far in the play, Macbeth and his wife have only talked about killing King Duncan. Nothing has been said about the King's sons, although it should be obvious to the audience that they would be next in line of succession. Shakespeare has evidently not wanted to deal with the problem at this point in his creation of the play because he doesn't want to have Macbeth trying to murder three persons in one night. Furthermore, Macbeth is having a hard enough time forcing himself to think about just killing the King. But Macbeth can see now that killing Duncan achieves nothing. He must do something about Malcolm, and probably about Donalbain. And he should do it right now, while he has a chance of a lifetime to eliminate all three during the one night when he will have them under his roof and at his mercy.

It would appear that Shakespeare did not want to deal directly with that problem in Scene 4 but left Macbeth's plans extremely vague and unspoken, relying on his own incomparable genius to come up with a solution after he had written all the difficult scenes involving the assassination of Duncan and its aftermath. Shakespeare simply has Macbeth suggest that he has plans for the boys in the back of his mind but doesn't want to think about them now because (1) they are too complicated, and (2) they are too gruesome. 

Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

But he must know that once he has murdered Duncan (which he can hardly bear to think about), he can't stop there. He has to kill Malcolm. And then, how can he avoid killing Malcolm's younger brother Donalbain?

When Macbeth encounters Banquo in Act 2, Scene 1, it certainly seems as if he is sounding Banquo out about joining him in his assassination plot. The two soldiers should be able to dispatch Duncan, Malcolm, and Donalbain quickly and easily. Banquo mentions the Weird Sisters, and Macbeth replies:

I think not of them:
Yet, when we can entreat an hour to serve,
We would spend it in some words upon that business,
If you would grant the time.

He continues:

If you shall cleave to my consent, when ’tis,
It shall make honor for you.

But Banquo understands what Macbeth hinting at and turns him down flatly.

So I lose none
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
I shall be counsell'd.

So, Macbeth has to go ahead on his own. He manages to kill Duncan but loses his nerve. If he had planned to kill the two sons, he had to abort for several reasons. He thought he heard a voice crying, "Macbeth doth murder sleep." And then there came that terrible knocking at the gate which threatened to wake up everybody in the castle.

Shakespeare resolved his own plot problem by having Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee for their lives right after they learn their father had been assassinated. This enables Macbeth to pin the crime on them and to get himself elected king instead. But his irresolution and conscience only created more troubles in the end. Malcolm fled to England, raised an army, and came back to overthrow him. As Lady Macbeth said of her oversensitive husband:

Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, “Thus thou must do, if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.   (Act 1, Scene 5)

sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The section that you are referring to is from Act 1 Scene 4.  In the previous scene, Macbeth and Banquo encountered the witches who said that Macbeth is the Thane of Cawdor and would be king.  The statements baffle Macbeth, but he learns soon after that he is indeed the newly appointed Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth then begins to wonder if the prophecy about him becoming king could also be true.  But more importantly, if it is true, how would it happen?  Would it simply fall into Macbeth's lap or would he have to do something sinister to become king (i.e. kill Duncan)?

Macbeth's conflict about how to achieve the throne is made tougher when he hears that Duncan has named Malcolm the heir to the throne.  Now Macbeth more or less has two people between him and throne -- Duncan and Malcolm.

"The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step

On which I must fall down or else o'erleap,

For in my way it lies."

That's the first half of his aside.  If Macbeth weren't conflicted, the aside would have ended there, but the second half of it seems to be Macbeth almost rebuking himself for having those sinister thoughts, or, if not rebuking himself, then telling himself to hide those thoughts from everybody else, because he knows they're wrong.  "Let not light see my black and deep desires."