What does the passage in "Macbeth" that begins, "There the grown serpent lies . . . ." mean?

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mshurn's profile pic

Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The passage appears in Act III, Scene iv as an aside when Macbeth learns that Banquo has been murdered, but Fleance has escaped. Macbeth is speaking to himself so that the audience will know what he is thinking:

There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled

Hath nature that in time will venom breed,

No teeth for the present.

When the witches prophesied that Macbeth would be king, they also prophesied that Banquo's heirs, not Macbeth's, would someday rule. Once Macbeth gains the throne by murdering King Duncan, he is tormented by the idea that Banquo's heirs will benefit from Macbeth's terrible deed. Macbeth cannot bear that he has sacrificed his immortal soul so that Banquo's line will rule in Scotland. In order to prevent this from happening, he orders the murders of both Banquo and Fleance, his son. 

The passage refers to Banquo's being dead ("there the grown serpent lies," while Fleance has escaped ("the worm that's fled"). Macbeth knows that Fleance is no threat to him now ("no teeth for th' present"), but in time, as Fleance grows into a man, he will become dangerous to Macbeth ("in time will venom breed") as the prophesied heir to the throne. The aside, then, represents Macbeth's assessing his political situation with Banquo dead and Fleance living.

 

robertwilliam's profile pic

robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Macbeth is talking on one side to the murderer, who has just told him that Fleance has escaped, but that Banquo is dead...

MURDERER
                       Safe in a ditch he bides,
With twenty trenched gashes on his head;
The least a death to nature.

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.

Macbeth's metaphor is simple: Banquo is the "grown serpent", the snake grown to full size. Fleance is at the moment, only a baby snake, the "worm", and he's fled. However, he has a natural predisposition to grow into a poisonous snake with real teeth, though he has none for the present.

In short, Fleance isn't dangerous yet. But he will be. And when Macbeth says "there... [Banquo] lies", he's simply saying that the fully-grown serpent is lying in a ditch: where the murderers leave Banquo's corpse.

The metaphor echoes another of Macbeth's in the play: "we have scorched the snake, not killed it", he says to Lady Macbeth. Snakes, in this play, are difficult to kill, slimy, escaping: and, of course, terrifying and venemous.

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