In act 3 of Macbeth, there are several “asides.” What do they accomplish?

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An aside in Shakespeare's plays, as well as in any other play, is a brief revelation of a character's private thoughts that the character speaks aloud. An aside can be spoken directly to the audience, or it can be thoughts that a character simply expresses to themselves. A true aside...

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An aside in Shakespeare's plays, as well as in any other play, is a brief revelation of a character's private thoughts that the character speaks aloud. An aside can be spoken directly to the audience, or it can be thoughts that a character simply expresses to themselves. A true aside is not meant to be heard by other characters.

A situation in which a character takes another character aside or speaks to them in confidence while other characters are on stage—such as when Lady Macbeth takes Macbeth aside in the "banquet scene" and chides him for acting like he's seen Banquo's ghost (3.4.70-102)—isn't a true aside. It's simply dialogue which takes place apart from other characters.

Many modern publications of Macbeth include an aside for Macbeth at act 3, scene 4, line 23, which begins, "Then comes my fit again..."

There is no aside indicated at that point in the play in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623, or in the Second (1632), Third (1663), or Fourth Folio (1685), or in any other early published edition of the play.

In 1709, Nicholas Rowe published the first purposely edited versions of Shakespeare's plays (including Macbeth), to which he added act and scene divisions where they seemed appropriate, a list of characters (or dramatis personae), and stage directions for characters' entrances and exits as well as incidental stage directions that he believed would assist the reader in visualizing a performance of the play.

Rowe's edition of Macbeth doesn't include an aside at "Then comes my fit again..."

The modern Folger Shakespeare Library editions of Shakespeare's plays, considered to be highly reliable, scholarly versions of the plays, includes nine true asides in Macbeth, as well as what are termed "asides" but are made to other characters.

Eight of the nine asides belong to Macbeth, and one rueful, comic aside is spoken by the Doctor in Lady Macbeth's "sleepwalking" scene (at 5.3.70-71).

One of the asides that the Folger edition of Macbeth includes is the speech in act 3, scene 4 that begins "Then comes my fit again..."

Whether the speech fulfills the Folger Shakespeare Library's criteria for a true aside or not, what Macbeth says that begins with "Then comes my fit again" seems like an aside. It seems as if Macbeth is talking to himself, even though the Murderer is standing within earshot of Macbeth and could easily hear what he says, even if Macbeth whispers or simply mumbles to himself.

The speech reveals what Macbeth is thinking to himself at that moment, and whether or not he reveals his thoughts to the Murderer, he definitely reveals them to the audience. Macbeth believed that all of his problems would be solved if Banquo and Fleance were murdered, but Fleance has escaped. Macbeth realizes that his problems aren't over yet and that perhaps he was foolish to believe that the situation could be resolved so easily.

Just a few lines later, Macbeth has three lines that appear to qualify as an aside, no less than the "Then comes my fit again" speech.

MACBETH. Thanks for that.
There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for the present. Get thee gone. Tomorrow
We'll hear ourselves again (3.4.31-35, emphasis added)

"Thanks for that" and "Get thee gone. Tomorrow / We'll here ourselves again" are clearly spoken to the Murderer, but "There the grown serpent..." and what follows are either Macbeth's own thoughts to himself about Banquo or something he's confiding to the Murderer to ease his own mind about Fleance's escape.

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In plays asides are statements delivered by an actor to the audience in such a way that it appears that the other actors are unaware of what is being said. Thus, an aside is an important device for plays as they are employed by playwrights to reveal the private thoughts, reactions, and motivations of the character who is speaking. In addition, asides are used to indicate private conversations between characters that others cannot hear.

In Act III, Macbeth decides that Banquo poses a threat to his retaining the crown as the witches have predicted; consequently, he decides to hire murderers who already have a grudge against Banquo to kill him. When they report that Banquo has been slain, but his son Fleance has escaped, Macbeth recalls the words of the witches that Banquo's sons would be kings and his fears are revived.

  • In his first aside of this act, he reveals his growing paranoia, which comes directly after the murderers' report:

Then comes my fit again...
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.—But Banquo’s safe? (3.4.22-26)

Shortly after these private words of Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo appears. This appearance is typical of many of Shakespeare's plays, as ghosts often return to the villains when they are troubled.

After he joins his guests at the banquet table, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in his seat and, becomes terrified by it. Worried about what the guests will surmise, Lady Macbeth attempts to diffuse the situation by telling the guests that Macbeth is merely suffering from a recurrence of a childhood condition which amounts to nothing. She urges them to ignore Macbeth, but whispers to Macbeth to shake him from his fears that draw attention from the noblemen:

                             If much you note him,
You shall offend him and extend his passion.
Feed and regard him not. (aside to MACBETH) Are you a man? (3.4.59-61)
Macbeth answers her by saying that he is, indeed, brave to look upon a specter such as he sees, but Lady Macbeth dismisses the idea in order to return Macbeth to his senses as he is arousing the suspicions of his guests.
 O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan....(3.4.63-66)
She continues in this aside, scolding Macbeth for acting like a frightened woman who tells a scary story handed down by her grandmother; she exhorts Macbeth to look more closely and he will perceive nothing but a stool. But Macbeth persists, saying that she will see it, also. Then Macbeth talks to the ghost, urging it to speak.
So, in another aside Lady Macbeth speaks,

Fie, for shame! [= "Nonsense!" Lady Macbeth tries to embarrass him to act bravely.] (3.4.86,88)

But, when Macbeth continues to insist that Banquo is before him, Lady Macbeth then scolds him aloud for having disturbed the "mirth" of the gathering. After a concerned Ross asks him what he has seen, Lady Macbeth becomes worried about what the noblemen will think, so she asks the guests to leave because her whispered asides to Macbeth have been ineffective in bringing him out of his optical illusions.

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