Why does Macbeth comment, in act 2 of Macbeth, that he wishes himself dead?  

Macbeth states in act 2 of Macbeth that he would have been happy if he had died before Duncan in order to convey the idea that life without his king is not worth living. This expression of loyalty is so exaggerated and insincere that it invites suspicion, the opposite of Macbeth's intention.

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In act 2, scene 3, Macbeth laments the death of Duncan in the following words:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There 's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

His main point here is not that he wishes he were dead, but that he wishes Duncan was not, something which he has said quite sincerely at the end of the previous scene. Now, however, he is ensuring that he hides his true feelings, as he and Lady Macbeth frequently exhort each other to do:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

In his eagerness to dissimulate, Macbeth overdoes his appearance of grief. This lament is more appropriate to the death of a lover, and, in fact, it rather resembles Cleopatra's speech immediately after the death of Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. The content is also similar to Macbeth's speech in Act V, when he hears of the death of Lady Macbeth, in its expression of what one might call romantic nihilism. This is the attitude that the one who has died was such a central figure in the mourner's life that life without him or her is not worth living. However, Macbeth extends this idea to give it a universal applicability. Life without Duncan is not worth living, not only for Macbeth, but for everyone. This exaggerated expression of grief quickly arouses the suspicion of the other thanes, the opposite of its intended effect.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on April 22, 2020
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Macbeth's sentiment is expressed in scene iii, soon after he and Lennox have returned from the murdered king Duncan's chamber. They have witnessed the bloody and gruesome result of a most pernicious crime. Macbeth cries out:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

He states that if he had lived only up to the moment that he discovered Duncan's bloody corpse, his life would have been blessed, but now, life has become meaningless and everything has lost its true value. In referring to Duncan, he mentions that prestige, honor and elegance have all died with him and cannot possibly exist. What makes life meaningful is now gone and they are left with only the dregs of what made Duncan's presence and their lives purposeful.

Macbeth's comment is a form of situational irony. Irony is found in the fact that the context in which he makes the statement makes it quite clear that he does not, in reality, wish to be dead at all. He actually wants to be more alive than ever since it is he (assisted by his equally heinous wife) who has assassinated the king so that he may claim the Scottish throne. In having succeeded in the first part of this malicious venture, he has achieved a major goal in achieving what he calls his "overriding ambition." 

Secondly, stating that if he "had died an hour before" is dramatic irony since it is he who committed the crime. When he and Lennox went to Duncan's chamber, he already knew that Duncan was dead. Lennox obviously does not know this and Macbeth's remark is clearly made to impress upon them how deeply distressed he is about his king's untimely death. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that the audience knows what he has done and that his so-called trauma is nothing but a blatant lie said only to mislead and confuse.

One may also assume that Macbeth does, at this point, feel some regret for what he has done and does realize to a certain extent that his actions would lead to greater distress. He had previously refused to carry through their pernicious plot but was persuaded by his wife to persevere and take it to its ultimate conclusion. It is quite ironic that Macbeth's words, in this instance, foreshadow what is to transpire later. His life does indeed become meaningless, for he is so tormented by guilt and remorse later that he cannot sleep and actually wishes to die, as he states in Act V, scene lll:

...I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf....

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Macbeth says this in Act 2, sc. 3 right after Duncan's murder is announced: "Had I but died an hour before this chance, / I had lived a blessed time; for from this instant / There's nothing serious in mortality; / All is but toys; renown and grace is dead; / The wine of life is drawn, the the mere lees  / Is left this vault to brag of."  He is saying that he wishes he had died before Duncan because now there is nothing worth living for since the good king has been killed.  What's left, he says, is just the leftovers.  Macbeth says this for effect; it is the politically correct statement to make in front of others.  After all, the king died in Macbeth's house under Macbeth's watch.  Macbeth also feels regret for his actions; a part of him, at this point, truly wishes he had died before Duncan because his conscience is bothering him.  Ironically, he is the one who seems to lose his conscience as the play continues however.

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