Present a study guide of Acts 1 and 2 of Macbeth which includes quotes and important notes.

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The following guidelines will focus on the most important themes in the play and provide relevant quotes accompanied by a discussion to illustrate their significance. Stage directions and their importance are also mentioned.

Themes in Macbeth:

  • Equivocation and paradox
  • Appearance and reality
  • Ambition
  • Power corrupts
  • Guilt

Act 1, Scene 1:

The scene opens with thunder and lighting used to foreshadow coming disruption. The three witches, who are agents of evil, and who will play a pivotal role in influencing Macbeth and, therefore, the events which will unfold, are also introduced. They plan to meet Macbeth after the war.

Quote:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. 

The quote establishes the themes of equivocation and paradox, and appearance versus reality. The witches' paradoxical statement means that whatever seems good is bad and vice versa. The implication is that one can be deceived by appearances for they might signify something completely different or the opposite. The witches perform magic and concoct potions to affect or alter the natural state of things. 

Act 1, Scene 2: 

The scene is quite informative and tells about the reasons for the war in Scotland. More importantly, it tells us of Macbeth, who is depicted as a loyal and courageous soldier who is unrelenting in his fight against those who wish to harm Scotland and his king. An injured soldier reports the following to King Duncan:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage

Macbeth is clearly held in high esteem. He is a ruthless warrior who will not allow anything to prevent him from fulfilling his task. He is a man of honor who dearly loves his country and his king. Duncan is so impressed by his actions that he decides to reward him with a new title. He tells Ross to greet Macbeth with the title of the Thane of Cawdor, the previous Thane being a man the king trusted who is now to be executed for treason. This further supports the theme of appearance and reality, since the king had been deceived by Cawdor's displays of loyalty and love.

Act 1, Scene 3:

Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches. They extend three (a charmed number) contrasting greetings to each of the two generals. They greet Macbeth with his current title, Thane of Glamis, add the title Thane of Cawdor, and tell him that he will be "king hereafter." Banquo asks why they greet Macbeth with such esteemed titles while they don't address him. The witches then proceed to greet him.

The difference in their greetings is that their salutations to Macbeth are direct and need no further explanation, while their welcome to Banquo is paradoxical:

Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:

The equivocation is obvious, linking with their earlier statement of "fair is foul, and foul is fair." The witches are alluding to future events and are predicting that even though Banquo will have a lesser status than Macbeth, his legacy will be better. He will be happier than Macbeth for he will be at peace while Macbeth will be overwhelmed by turmoil, paranoia, and guilt. 

Later in this scene, Ross informs Macbeth that he has been awarded Cawdor's title. He is overwhelmed by the news and, as Banquo puts it, is "rapt withal." We learn of Macbeth's ambition:

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.

He believes that since the witches' first prediction about becoming the Thane of Cawdor has come true, it naturally follows that he will be "king hereafter."

Macbeth has made up his mind and has decided that, no matter what happens, he will do whatever is necessary to become king.

Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

At the end of the scene, he asks Banquo for an open discussion on the witches' predictions and what has just transpired.

Act 1, Scene 4:

The scene plays out in Duncan's castle. The king warmly greets both Macbeth and Banquo, although Banquo is the one he embraces, which suggests a greater closeness between the two. King Duncan pronounces Malcolm, his eldest son, Prince of Cumberland, which means that he will become the next king. Macbeth is clearly upset at this and says in an 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. 

He sees Malcolm's appointment as a hurdle to his ambition and decides that he has to do something to overcome it. We are informed of the dark side of his goal when he says:

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.

Macbeth is filled with malice, and he pleads to the stars to grow dark so that none may, metaphorically, see his wicked aspiration. 

Act 1, Scene 5: 

In this short scene, we are introduced to Lady Macbeth, who is reading a letter from her husband informing her of the good tidings. She is overjoyed that he has been awarded the title Thane of Cawdor, but fears that, although he has ambition, he lacks the ruthlessness to commit evil to further his goal:

yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it:

She believes that Macbeth is too kind-hearted and sincere to perform as heinous a deed such as a regicide. She is overjoyed when she later hears about Duncan's imminent arrival at her castle. She calls on the powers of darkness to turn her into an evil and ruthless man who has no qualms in committing the greatest villainy.

Come, you spirits
...unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! 

She also beseeches the powers of nature, as much as her husband did, to hide her evil intent.

It is apparent that the wicked couple are of the same mind. They want to kill Duncan or whoever else they need to destroy to gain power. When she meets Macbeth she makes it clear that Duncan will not see the light of day, and further tells him that whatever they are planning should be left mainly to her.

Act 1, Scene 6:

On his arrival at Macbeth's castle, Duncan ironically remarks:

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

His words accentuate the theme of appearance and reality, for what he perceives contrasts directly with what the malicious Macbeths are planning for him. Lady Macbeth extends the irony by stating:

All our service
In every point twice done and then done double

The pun on the word point should be pertinently evident. The evil couple plan to murder the king - a pointy reckoning indeed!

Act 1, Scene 7:

The scene establishes the finalization of the Macbeths' evil plot and indicates Macbeth's initial refusal and doubt about going through with their malicious plan.

In his soliloquy, Macbeth provides some reasons why he cannot possibly consider murdering Duncan:

  • He is related to the king - they are cousins.
  • He is Duncan's servant (subject).
  • He is Duncan's host and should protect and not harm him.
  • Duncan has been a good king, and his untimely and foul death will provoke a huge outcry.
  • He does not have any real reason to kill the king except ambition.

It is on this basis that Macbeth later tells his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business." She is shocked by his refusal and calls him a coward. She tells him that he is untrustworthy and cannot keep his word whereas she would, if she had vowed to do so, even kill her breastfeeding baby by bashing its brains out. 

Macbeth expresses doubt about the success of their venture, but she assures him that they will not fail. She plans to get Duncan's guards so inebriated that they can be easily blamed for their liege's murder. Macbeth is impressed by his wife's determination and decides to proceed with their malicious plan. He states:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

His words link with the theme of appearance and reality and is a repeat of what his wife had told him earlier, to "look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under't." They must put up appearances of friendship and conviviality while they are planning a very malicious deed.

Act 2, Scene 1:

In this scene, Banquo makes it clear that he will remain loyal to his king. When Macbeth tells him that they should discuss the witches' prophecies and how Banquo can benefit, the latter says, in part:

...but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
I shall be counsell'd.

Banquo wishes to retain his honor and integrity and will not sacrifice these for anything. It is this that makes him a risk to Macbeth. Later in the scene, Macbeth hallucinates, seeing a bloody dagger floating in front of him. He is overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he is about to do. He admits that the image is false and is created by a "heat oppressed brain" and states:

There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

He is, however, determined to follow through and states that while Duncan is still alive, he will not achieve what he desires. Macbeth is driven by what he calls his "vaulting ambition."

Act 2, Scene 2:

Macbeth has committed the murder, and the scene displays his paranoia and fear. The scene also indicates the contrast between his and Lady Macbeth's attitude to the killing. Macbeth is so overwrought that he has brought the murder weapons with him. He is too afraid to return them to Duncan's chamber and states that he has heard all sorts of voices and couldn't say amen. At this point, Lady Macbeth seems to be made of sterner stuff, and she scolds her husband for being so feeble. She takes the daggers back. On her return Macbeth states, in part:

this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

He is overwhelmed by guilt while his wife seems completely unperturbed. She tells him that her hands are just as full of blood but that she's ashamed of him being so cowardly. She states that a "little water" will effortlessly absolve them of guilt. Macbeth hears knocking and wishes that it could awaken Duncan. He most definitely regrets having killed his king.

Act 2, Scene 3:

The scene deals with Macduff and the other lords' arrival at Macbeth's castle. The porter at the beginning introduces some humor which provides a break from the powerful drama and tension of the preceding scene. Lennox, in discussion with Macbeth, discusses strange events he has witnessed which leads to the murderer ironically commenting that:

'Twas a rough night.

He alludes to the terrible ordeal that he has gone through when committing his foul deed. His conscience is sorely charged.

Macduff discovers that the king had been brutally slain and is horrified. Macbeth and his lady put on acts of extreme dismay, and she supposedly faints. Lennox reports that evidence points to the guards as the perpetrators. Macbeth, who previously could not re-enter Duncan's chamber, has seemingly rushed off in that direction and states, on Lennox's declaration, that he has executed Duncan's guards. Macduff is immediately alert and suspicious and asks:

Wherefore did you so?

Macbeth creates the impression that he was overwhelmed by his love for Duncan and ironically provides a glowing report of the dead king. He states that he could not help himself but lash out in fury and revenge. Lady Macbeth senses an uncomfortable situation and calls attention to herself, thus saving her husband from further scrutiny. 

Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons, decide to flee in fear of their lives. Malcolm decides to go to England while Donalbain will leave for Ireland. Their escape places suspicion on them for having had a part in their father's murder.

Act 2, Scene 4:

At the start of the scene, Ross and an old man discuss the disruptions in nature that they have witnessed. It is clear that there has been significant perturbation. Their conversation indicates an overturn in the natural order of things. Duncan's murder is an unnatural deed and foreshadows greater distress and chaos.

In his conversation with Macduff, it becomes quite evident that Malcolm and Donalbain are the chief suspects in their father's murder. It is also apparent that Macbeth has been named the new king and is to be crowned at Scone. Macduff's loyalties are quite pertinent when he tells Ross that he is not planning to attend the coronation and that he will go to his castle at Fife. When Ross tells him that he will be going to Scone, Macduff tells him:

Well, may you see things well done there: adieu!
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!

Macduff is most apparently suggesting that the new rule may be less comfortable than the old. The implication is that Macbeth will not be as good a king as Duncan had been. Furthermore, what Macduff says is even greater confirmation of his distrust for Macbeth.