Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
Act 3, Scene 1
The scene opens with a brief soliloquy from Banquo. Banquo reveals that he no longer trusts Macbeth, and he speculates as to whether the witches’ prophecies about him may also be fulfilled now that those which concerned Macbeth have proven true. A trumpet sounds and Macbeth enters for the first time as king, attended by Lady Macbeth as queen, and numerous thanes and courtiers. Macbeth greets Banquo graciously and invites him to a feast that is to take place that evening. Banquo promises he will be there and then departs on an unspecified journey, which he says will take him all day.
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When Macbeth is left alone, he delivers a soliloquy in which he reveals that he is suspicious and afraid of Banquo. Thinking back to the encounter with the witches, he resents the prophecy that Banquo, not he, will be the founder of a great royal dynasty. As the soliloquy ends, two men identified only as murderers enter. In his conversation with the murderers, Macbeth reiterates—seeming to reference an earlier conversation with them—that Banquo is responsible for their personal troubles and hardships. Banquo is their enemy, Macbeth says, and this is something the murderers and Macbeth have in common. Besides, he will pay them, and the murderers are broken men, too disappointed and angry with the world to care much what they do for gain. Convinced by all that Macbeth says, the murderers agree to kill Banquo for Macbeth. Before they leave, Macbeth reminds them that they must be sure to also kill Fleance, Banquo’s son.
Act 3, Scene 2
Lady Macbeth is concerned for her husband’s state of mind and asks him to stop dwelling on what he has done. Macbeth replies that it is impossible simply to put the king’s murder out of his mind. Even with Dunacn out of the way, Macbeth feels that his throne is not secure, and he envies Duncan the peace and oblivion of the grave. The Macbeths agree, however, that they must at least pretend to be carefree among their guests at the feast that night. Macbeth instructs Lady Macbeth to pay particular attention to Banquo, revealing that he has arranged for a dreadful deed to take place. When Lady Macbeth questions him, Macbeth refuses to specify exactly what his plans are, insisting that it’s better if she knows nothing.
Act 3, Scene 3
In a park near the palace, the murderers wait for Banquo’s approach. The two who appeared in act 3, scene 1 are joined by a third murderer, who says he has been sent by Macbeth with instructions to assist them. Banquo and Fleance enter, and the murderers attack. Banquo dies, but Fleance escapes. The murderers realize they have only finished half of their job and return to the palace to report this result to Macbeth.
The content of both Banquo’s soliloquy in the beginning of scene 1 and Macbeth’s longer soliloquy later in the same scene serve to deepen the aura of suspicion that has descended in the wake of Duncan’s murder. In their respective soliloquies, each man says that he no longer trusts the other and wonders whether now that the witches’ predictions for Macbeth have come to pass, the prophecy about Banquo—that his family line will produce kings— will prove equally accurate. Although Macbeth could hardly have failed to notice that he has no children of his own to inherit his crown, it is at this point, after killing Duncan, that he becomes furious at the thought that all his treachery, misery, and paranoia will ultimately benefit Banquo’s family.
Although he has only just become king, Macbeth is already noticeably altered, becoming harsher, more tyrannical, and more confident. Although he remains prey to doubts and fears, the vacillations of act 2 seem permanently behind him. While he once agonized over the morality of killing the king, Macbeth now has no qualms about persuading the murderers to kill his former friend—notably, he questions their manhood as part of his manipulation, echoing the sentiments Lady Macbeth directed toward him earlier in the play. The remarkable changes to Macbeth’s personality are also manifested in his conversation with Lady Macbeth; indeed, the balance of power between them seems to have shifted dramatically. She tells him, as she has done before, that he must dissimulate and appear untroubled (“Be bright and jovial with your guests tonight”), but this time he retorts that she must remember to do the same and proceeds to give her unsolicited advice on how to treat Banquo. Aside from the fact that he appears more confident in his approach to Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s choice to withhold the particulars of his plans for Banquo also signals a significant change in their relationship. While they schemed together to take down the king—with Lady Macbeth taking the lead—Macbeth no longer appears interested in taking direction nor even directly involving his wife in his devious plots.
Act 3, scene 3 is brief and functional, with the notable exception of the first murderer’s lines:
The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day:
Now spurs the lated traveller apace
To gain the timely inn; and near approaches
The subject of our watch.
These lines are a prime example of the way in which Shakespeare introduces great poetry into mundane or ugly situations without any interest in realism. A coarse, brutal man like the first murderer would not say anything remotely like this in real life, but even Shakespeare’s thugs speak with the poet’s voice. Of particular note in this scene is Fleance’s escape, which subtly reinforces the accuracy of the witches’ prophecy. Though Banquo is dead, Macbeth has not succeeded in thwarting the prophecy: Banquo’s line lives on through Fleance.