What does the quote "there's daggers in men's smiles" mean in Macbeth?

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This takes place in act 2, scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Macduff arrives at Macbeth's castle early in the morning to meet with King Duncan but instead discovers that Duncan has been murdered. Macduff raises the alarm, and within minutes, the castle's courtyard is full of shocked and dismayed people, including Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Lennox, Ross, and Banquo. The last to arrive in the courtyard are Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain.

Malcolm and Donalbain are quickly told about their father's murder, and Malcolm and Donalbain just as quickly decide that standing around in the courtyard is not where they want to be. They're getting suspicious looks from the others, and they're also thinking that, as Duncan's sons, they might be next in line to be murdered...

DONALBAIN: What should be spoken here,
where our fate,
Hid in an auger-hole, may rush and seize us? [2.3.136–138]

Malcolm and Donalbain decide that it's not safe to stay in Scotland:

DONALBAIN: Where we are
There's daggers in men's smiles . . . [2.3.160–161]

They decide to split up and leave the country—Malcolm to England, and Donalbain to Ireland.

Donalbain's next lines express his suspicions about who he thinks murdered his father . . .

DONALBAIN: . . . the near in blood,
The nearer bloody [3.2.161–162].

The nearest in blood to Malcolm and Donalbain is their cousin, Macbeth, whom they suspect murdered Duncan.

A verse in the Bible that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's audience comes very close to the meaning of Donalbain's lines:

And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. [Matthew 10.36, Bishop's Bible*]

Malcolm and Donalbain reasoned that if Macbeth murdered Duncan, he wouldn't hesitate to kill Duncan's sons in order to secure his throne.

* The Bishop's Bible was the Bible in general use in England prior to the King James Version, which was published in 1611, about eight years after Macbeth was first performed. A revised edition of the Bishop's Bible was published in 1602, a year before Macbeth was performed, and would have been very familiar to Shakespeare's audience.

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In act two, scene three, King Duncan is found dead in his chamber and his sons are immediately summoned to learn about their father's assassination. It is initially suggested that the king's chamberlains are responsible for murdering King Duncan and Macbeth admits that he killed them in a fit of rage. King Duncan's sons are aware that the unidentified murderer will surely want them killed too, and they are suspicious of anyone close to the king's court, which includes the Scottish nobles and thanes. While the thanes are discussing the murder among themselves, Malcolm suggests to his brother that they flee Scotland and Donalbain agrees. Donalbain justifies their actions by saying,

There’s daggers in men’s smiles (Shakespeare, 2.3.121).

Donalbain's metaphor means that there are malevolent enemies among them, who are hiding their evil intentions behind pleasant smiles. Donalbain's metaphor is also a motif relating to the theme that appearances can be deceiving. The image of a dagger that Donalbain uses in his metaphor also reflects the murder weapon Macbeth used to assassinate King Duncan. Essentially, Donalbain is saying to his brother that they cannot trust anyone at this time because dangerous men are pretending to be their allies, which is why it is imperative for them to flee Scotland.

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At the end of Act II, Scene 3, Malcolm and Donalbain both decide to flee for their lives. It is Donalbain who says, "There's daggers in men's smiles. The near in blood, The nearer bloody." Both boys obviously know that whoever murdered their father must intend to murder them, as the motive for killing Duncan must have been to usurp the throne, and they both stand in the way. This strongly suggests that Macbeth must have intended to kill them on the same night he killed King Duncan. The most important reason for Macbeth's failure to kill the King's two sons is that he thought he heard a voice crying "to all the house," and therefore crying loud enough to wake everybody, including the intended victims themselves.

Methought a heard a voice cry "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Then there is the ominous knocking, which goes on and on and gets louder and louder. There can be no question of going back and murdering Malcolm and Donalbain when the knocking is sure to wake a lot of people.

Shakespeare solved the problem of having Macbeth become king without murdering the heir apparent Malcolm and his brother Donalbain, who would become the heir apparent if Macbeth only murdered Malcolm. The solution was to have the two boys flee for their lives, enabling Macbeth to pin their father's murder on them. According to Macbeth's accusation, Malcolm and Donalbain paid the two grooms to kill Duncan. Macbeth had killed the grooms before they had any chance to protest the boys' innocence.

Macbeth and his wife spend a lot of time discussing the proposed murder of Duncan, but say nothing about disposing of his two sons. The only indication that they had discussed it at all is in Macbeth's aside in Act I, Scene 4, right after Duncan announces his appointment of Malcolm as the Prince of Cumberland and therefore his successor to the Scottish throne.

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.

Shakespeare proably wanted to retain some modicum of audience sympathy for his tragic hero Macbeth and was afraid he would lose it altogether if he had him kill two innocent boys in their sleep—or even talk about doing it onstage.

Malcolm and Donalbain have no idea who bribed the grooms to kill their father. It could have been anyone. It could have been a plot by several of the thanes to establish a new government. Shakespeare, when he finally faced this plot problem, realized the two young men might decide to flee and thus make themselves vulnerable to the accusation that they were responsible for their father's murder. After all, Malcolm was the heir apparent and had the most to gain from his father's death. If Donalbain could be framed as a co-conspirator, he could become the Prince of Cumberland. Both boys are young, inexperienced, shocked, and badly frightened. They have no one to turn to for advice, since they can't trust anyone. Their idea of getting away from Dunsinane is a wise one. As Donalbain tells his brother, "Where we are There's daggers in men's smiles."

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This line is spoken by Donalbain immediately after it is discovered that King Duncan has been murdered.  He and his brother Malcolm are planning to flee to seperate countries because they recognize that someone in that house had killed their father, and would probably want to kill them too.  Donalbain recognizes that although everyone at Macbeth's castle seems to be friendly toward them and their father, someone obviously was hiding a 'dagger' behind their 'smile' of friendship.

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The quotation is part of the appearance vs. reality motif in Macbeth (and we find this motif in many plays of Shakespeare).  We see the motif in the character of Lady Macbeth, for example, who, though she is a woman, desires the heart of a man in order to kill the king; even more, though she behaves with the grace of a lady when called upon to do so, she has already bloodied her hands with a dagger in participating in the death of Duncan.  Without a doubt behind this woman's smiles lie daggers.  The motif occurs again when she imagines she sees blood on her hands for what she "sees" is only in her mind--once more the truth of the situation not in the appearance but hidden, often metaphorically, behind it (in "seeing" blood she feels her guilt).

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Duncan has just been murdered and his sons are watching people weep and wail as if the loss were too great to bear while their own tears remain unshed--they are too shocked and too vulnerable to give them liberty. They suspect that someone in the castle is responsible, and they have reason to mistrust (and fear) everyone that they thought were "friends." There is no way for them to know who the murderer is--especially since Macbeth has just killed the sleepy (drugged) blood smeared "murderers" in a fit of righteous rage (or so he claims). We know otherwise.

My reading of this line is that the "daggers in men's smiles" suggest that the people will smile to their face but those very smiles could kill them. Duncan, their father, was not a good judge of character. He even admitted that, saying of his misplaced faith in the original Cawdor that "there's no art/ to find the mind's construction in the face". In contrast to their innocent father, Malcolm and Donalbain understand that some people may appear friendly but have evil intentions.

In the context of Donalbain's other words, it seems clear that he means that they are unsafe in present company. He refers to the necessity of separation to ensure their safety and, immediately after the dagger reference, says that the "nearer the blood, the nearer bloody" (which I take to mean that he is aware that the closer he stays to this place where his father was killed and men smile daggers, the more likely he is to be killed himself.

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Its important to note that this a continuation of the theme of deceit that Shakespeare began earlier in the play. In the beginning of Act II, Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth he must "look like the innocent flower/yet be the serpent under it." She is instructing him to show a false face to the world, looking innocent but being dangerous. He takes her advice, but Donalbain lets us know that he sees through that disguise.

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This part of a line is spoken by Donabalin in 2.2.120-121. The entire line reads, "Where we are,/There's daggers in men's smiles."

Donalbain is speaking to Malcom. Both are King Duncan's sons. Macbeth, to steer attention away from himself after murdering Duncan, has killed the grooms that had accompanied Duncan and his sons to Macbeth's castle. He falsely accuses the groomsmen of Duncan's murder.

Macbeth simulates great grief but the son sees through him. This is why Donalbain cautions, "There's daggers in men's smiles." Fearing that he and his brother will suffer the same fate as his father and the groomsmen, the pair flee the country.

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A good question. As with many of Shakespeare's great lines, it refers to a physical reality and a deeper meaning.

The physical reality? People have pointed teeth (some of them).

The deeper reality? People sometimes smile to deceive you, when they really mean to attack you. The smile is then a sign of betrayal. Since Donalbain says this line, after his father's death, it means he distrusts Macbeth's show of mourning/ sympathy.

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