Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874
Act 2, Scene 1
Night has fallen, and most of Macbeth’s guests are asleep after the royal feast. Banquo and his son Fleance wander the halls, as Banquo cannot sleep. Macbeth meets them by chance and discusses the witches' prophecy with Banquo once more; Banquo indicates that he has dreamed about them, but Macbeth lies, saying, "I think not of them." Bidding goodnight to Banquo and Fleance, Macbeth prepares to go to Duncan’s bedchamber and murder the king. He sees a vision of a dagger floating in the air, pointing the way. He tries to grasp the dagger and wonders what it is before concluding that it is only a hallucination brought on by the pressure of the deed he is about to perform. He hears the ringing of a bell, Lady Macbeth’s signal, and feels it pulling him to do what must be done. He makes his way to Duncan’s chamber.
Act 2, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth waits while Macbeth does the deed. She has already drugged Duncan’s servants so heavily that their sleep seems close to death, and she laid out their daggers, which Macbeth will use to stab Duncan. She remarks that if the sleeping Duncan had not looked like her father, she could have killed him herself.
Macbeth enters and tells his wife that he has done the deed and killed Duncan. He is highly agitated, believing he has heard various disturbing sounds, including a cry of “murder.” He also thought he heard someone praying and wanted to say “Amen” but could not. He takes this as a sign that he is cursed, since he was in need of blessing but could not speak the sacred word.
Lady Macbeth largely ignores his nervous babbling, more concerned with practical matters. She tells her husband to wash the blood from his hands and angrily asks why he brought the daggers back with him, when he was supposed to leave them beside Duncan’s sleeping servants. Macbeth is afraid to return to the scene of the crime, so Lady Macbeth takes the daggers herself and returns to Duncan’s chamber to plant them on the servants. As she leaves, Macbeth thinks he hears the sound of knocking. He reflects that, however much he washes his hands, they will never be truly clean again.
Lady Macbeth returns, having planted the daggers and smeared Duncan’s servants with blood. She too hears the knocking, which turns out to be not a figment of Macbeth’s imagination, but someone really demanding entry at the castle gate. She takes charge of the situation and hurries Macbeth off to bed so that they may both appear to have been sleeping when Duncan’s dead body is discovered.
Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 2, scene 1 shows that, although he has renewed his promise to his wife that he will kill Duncan, he is actually full of anxiety and misgivings. The second half of his speech becomes almost incoherent with its talk of Hecate, Tarquin, wolves, ghosts and talking stones. The murder itself, as is common in a Shakespeare play, takes place offstage. The next time the audience sees Macbeth, in act 2, scene 2, he has finally done the deed—though he is even more apprehensive than before.
At the beginning of act 2, scene 2, Lady Macbeth shows her first hint of human weakness. Although she later berates Macbeth for his weakness, he actually kills Duncan, whereas she could not, as she says, because Duncan looked too much like her father as he slept. Despite this brief flash of humanity, she is mostly indifferent to Macbeth’s remorse and nervousness and remains committed to carrying out their plan as efficiently as possible.
Macbeth is implied to be a man of action; the captain’s description of his brave conduct in act 1, scene 2 suggests that he is not usually one to stop and philosophize about morality in the heat of battle. Now, however, while Lady Macbeth’s thoughts are exclusively focused on escaping detection, Macbeth can’t help but meditate on his own spiritual pollution. Unable to focus on the practical matters at hand, he worries about why he could not say “Amen” upon hearing a prayer and waxes eloquent on the joys of peaceful sleep, which he fears he will never enjoy again. While Lady Macbeth is returning the daggers to Duncan’s chamber, he thinks about how his new role as a traitor and murderer has marked him forever:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
The image of the blood on his hands turning the oceans of the world red underscores just how unnaturally Macbeth—who is no stranger to killing on the battlefield—has acted in killing his king. It’s clear that Lady Macbeth has no similar qualms about the enormity of what they have done: when she returns from the King’s chamber, she remarks briskly, “A little water clears us of this deed.” At this point, Lady Macbeth is still firmly in charge, directing her husband on what he must do next, while he continues to dwell on the moral implications of their actions.
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