Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954
Act 1, Scene 4
In the palace at Forres, Malcolm reports to Duncan that the former thane of Cawdor has been executed. Macbeth, Banquo, Ross and Angus arrive and Duncan greets Macbeth, then Banquo, with great honor. He announces that he is conferring the title “Prince of Cumberland” upon his eldest son, Malcolm. Macbeth, in an aside to the audience, notes that this official recognition of Malcolm as Duncan’s heir is an obstacle that lies in the way of his becoming king. He then leaves to prepare his castle for Duncan, who is coming to visit him, and to tell his wife that the king is to be their guest.
Act 1, Scene 5
At Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, Lady Macbeth is reading a letter from her husband. The letter contains an account of his meeting with the three witches and their prophecies for his future. Lady Macbeth is delighted by what she reads, but worries that Macbeth is too honorable a man to do what is necessary to win the crown. She resolves to persuade him otherwise. A messenger brings news that Duncan is coming to spend the night at the castle, and Lady Macbeth calls upon the spirits that “tend on mortal thoughts” to render her utterly heartless and evil in the face of the challenge to come.
Macbeth enters, and Lady Macbeth greets him with enthusiasm. He tells her that Duncan will come to stay with them that evening and leave the next day, but Lady Macbeth ominously declares that Duncan will never leave their castle. She tells Macbeth that he can leave the planning to her but that he must be more devious and deceitful, hiding what is in his heart so that they may achieve their purpose.
Act 1, Scene 6
Act 1, Scene 7
In the castle, dinner is being served, but Macbeth has left the table and is alone with his thoughts. Still debating whether or not to kill the king, Macbeth rehearses to himself all the arguments against it: the king is not only his ruler, to whom he has sworn loyalty, but also his cousin, and now his guest whom he ought to protect. Moreover, Duncan has always been an excellent king. Any change would necessarily be for the worse, and Macbeth has no reason but his own ambition to want to replace Duncan. In the end, he is persuaded by his own arguments, and when Lady Macbeth comes out to join him, he tells her: “We will proceed no further in this business.”
Furious, Lady Macbeth scornfully disparages her husband for his failure to see their plan through. She says that she has been a mother (though none of their children survive), but she would rather have murdered her child in the most brutal manner imaginable than broken a solemn oath, as Macbeth is doing. Macbeth asks what will happen if they fail, but Lady Macbeth dismisses the possibility of failure and outlines her plan to ensure that Duncan’s servants will take the blame: She plans to make the servants drunk to ensure they pass out and remember nothing. Macbeth will then sneak into Duncan’s room while he sleeps and, after stabbing Duncan, cover the drunk servants with blood to implicate them in the murder. Amazed by the brillance of his wife’s ruthless plan, Macbeth finally agrees to murder Duncan.
In scene 4, the audience sees again the contrast between Macbeth and Banquo. The king greets Banquo with honor, yet he does not reward Banquo as he has rewarded Macbeth. Banquo makes no complaint, private or public, for this omission. When Duncan confers a higher title, Prince of Cumberland, on his son Malcolm, however, Macbeth immediately remarks in an aside that this is an obstacle to his ambition. One of the great debates about Macbeth concerns who is ultimately responsible for Macbeth’s regicide and, more specifically, whether he would have killed Duncan without the constant pressure to do so exerted by Lady Macbeth. Those who blame Lady Macbeth for the crime, however, must deal with this aside, in which Macbeth exclaims “Let not light see my black and deep desires,” before ever speaking to his wife about the matter. Though he has by no means decided to act, Macbeth appears to be well-aware that securing the crown and fulfilling the witches’ prophecy may require him to kill the king.
Scene 5 introduces Lady Macbeth, while scene 7, after Macbeth’s soliloquy, consists of a dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In both these scenes, Lady Macbeth shows a force of character which is both formidable and terrifying. She knows she is ambitious and hard-hearted yet actively seeks to be more evil, asking malign spirits to fill her with “direst cruelty.” Lady Macbeth famously calls upon these demons to “unsex” her, equating femininity and womanhood with weakness. She makes this point again when she sneers at Macbeth for lacking the masculine fortitude and firmness needed to kill Duncan. When he finally agrees to do her bidding, Macbeth remarks on her ruthless determination, a trait he agrees is masculine:
Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
Many critics are intrigued by Lady Macbeth’s reference to her own motherhood in scene 7. Whatever happened to Lady Macbeth’s children, however, there is no suggestion that their mother actually dashed their brains out against the castle walls. This chilling image is intended to demonstrate, in the most brutal and unmotherly way imaginable, how seriously Lady Macbeth expects her husband to take his commitment to her.
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