Act 1 Commentaries

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Scene 1 Commentary

In what is perhaps the most attention-grabbing opening scene of all of Shakespeare's plays, we are introduced to the Weird Sisters. The witches (as they are known) would have been considered by the Elizabethans to be human representatives of supernatural or dark forces. The thunder and lightening used to mark their entrance emphasizes their "other worldliness." Graymalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad, are mentioned as their special accomplices, as would be dogs, rats, and spiders. This association of animals and insects with horror and evil is still evident in our Halloween decorations and scary movies.

The stage direction gives no indication of where the scene takes place, and the first word, "When," indicates that time rather than place will be a major motif of the play. Although the events in Shakespeare's original source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, cover a ten year period, the play compresses the action so that events quickly follow each other.

The sing-song meter of the lines adds to the witches' mystery and underlines the effect that this opening "spell" will cast over the play. With all this "hurly burly," it is easy to miss a crucial piece of information: the witches will meet Macbeth on the heath at sunset. Why? What do they want with him?

Prophecies are used in Shakespeare's plays for two reasons: (1) to alert the audience to what will definitely happen, and (2) to alert the audience to what may or may not happen. Either way, this playwriting technique sets up the debate of whether characters are fated to meet to their ends or whether they have free choice. Here, however, the audience is only aware that the witches will meet Macbeth. The atmosphere of thunder, lightening, "fog and filthy air" imply that it will not be a good meeting.

As if all this were not enough, this opening scene has thirteen lines!

Scene 2 Commentary

As predicted by the witches, a battle opens this scene. The king, Duncan, and his son, Malcolm, receive a report on the battle with the rebel, Macdonald, from the Captain. The King's language, however, is deceptively simple. He judges from the blood on the Captain that the man "can report/…of the revolt/ the newest state" (1.2.1-3). Duncan is thus established as a man who draws his conclusions from appearances. Malcolm, on the other hand, seems to put his trust in loyalty and tradition: "This is the sergeant/who like a good and hardy soldier fought/'Gainst my captivity" (1.2.3-5). When the bleeding Captain is questioned by Duncan about Macbeth and Banquo, two of his thanes (lords), he says that the two men "doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe" (1.2.38).

The Thane of Ross (known simply as Ross) and his companion, Angus, enter the scene to confirm the report of the Captain, adding that the Thane of Cawdor (another rebel) is defeated. Since a thane received his lands from the king and owed his loyalty directly to the king, the actions of the Thane of Cawdor is a serious offense punishable by death. Duncan not only orders this punishment immediately, but also awards the title, Thane of Cawdor, to Macbeth for his services to the crown.

Thus, the witches' vague prediction, "when the battle's lost and won", is enacted before the audience who now knows about Macbeth's promotion before he does. This knowledge will be especially important for the scene that follows. Here and now, however, it seems a very normal thing for a king to reward "noble" (1.2.66) Macbeth's military service with a promotion. Yet, nagging in the back of the mind is...

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the fact that the meeting of the witches with Macbeth is close at hand. What do they want with him? What will happen next?.

Scene 3 Commentary

Like scene 1, this scene opens with a peal of thunder and the appearance of the Three Witches. Here the audience receives an explanation of what the 'unnatural hags' have been up to since last saw them. The Second Witch has been 'killing swine' (1.3.2), while the First Witch is plotting revenge against a sailor's wife who had refused to share her chestnuts. While the three give many details about just what it is they plan to do to the sailor, Shakespeare is cleverly hinting at the limits of their power. The witches plan to torment the man with buffeting winds, sleeplessness, starvation, and a faulty compass. All these misfortunes are natural events and do not directly cause death. The limit to the witches' power is stated clearly: 'his bark cannot be lost' (1.3.24). Although the witches can inflict malice, it is the sailor's choices in dealing with them that will determine whether his ship sinks.

Immediately following is Macbeth's and Banquo's entrance. We only know the meeting is on the heath in the fog from Act One, scene one. The placement of the entrance here emphasizes the limits of the witches' power over Macbeth and Banquo. The veracity f the prophecies that follow depend on two factors: (1) Macbeth is already Thane of Glamis and does not know that Duncan has made him Thane of Cawdor; (2) Macbeth alone can choose the means to make the leap from 'Thane of Cawdor' to 'King hereafter' (1.3.48, 49).

Banquo reinforces this free will to choose in his lines 'If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not' (1.3.58-59). The prophecy for Banquo, 'Lesser than Macbeth, and greater./ Not so happy, yet much happier./ Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none' (1.3.6567) does not mention titles for Banquo, but rather intangible aspirations such as greatness and happiness which can be achieved by any man. The audience, however, knows that Macbeth's prophecy will soon be confirmed.

The witches disappear without further explanation, but they have made a deep impression on Macbeth, one that shows his initial belief in the prophecies: 'Would they had stayed' (1.3.82), followed by his realization that Banquo's children will be kings. We will learn later that while Macbeth is childless, Banquo does have a son, so that while Macbeth will be king, he will not be able to pass on his regency.

Ross and Angus enter at this point to confirm that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. At first he does not believe the two messengers, but once the events, 'treasons capital, confessed and proved' (1.3.115), are logically explained, Macbeth accepts that it is all in fulfillment of the prophecy. The one sticking point is the prophecy for Banquo. Banquo, however, tells Macbeth that such a vague pronouncement though containing an element of truth, will be harmful in the long run. Macbeth is lost in thought, debating with himself about whether the prophecies are bad or good. Realizing that he can only be King by murdering Duncan, Macbeth decides that 'chance may crown me,/ Without my stir' (1.3.143-144). Technically, murder is the only choice that Macbeth can make to fulfil his prophecy, but he relinquishes an active role, blaming chance for any such treasonous thoughts. The scene ends with Banquo's agreeing to discuss the witches with Macbeth when they have both had time to think about it.

Such a discussion, however, will be unnecessary for Macbeth. Being made Thane of Cawdor has been sufficient proof for Macbeth that he will indeed be King whatever action he decides to take. Furthermore, Macbeth says that the witches have told him 'Two truths' (1.3.127) when in reality, he has heard only one. Clearly, on a subconscious level, Macbeth had already though about killing Duncan and now has made the decision, despite pangs of conscience.

Scene 4 Commentary

This scene opens with a second-hand report of Cawdor's death, which serves to confirm once more Macbeth's promotion. Duncan then offers a profound statement:

There's no artTo find the mind's construction in the face:He was a gentleman on whom I builtAn absolute trust. (1.4.11-14)

Duncan, whom we have seen makes judgements from appearances, apparently acknowledges his fault. However, is he speaking about Cawdor or Macbeth? Even though the King realizes he failed to identify Cawdor as a traitor, he will also fail to see the treachery in his new favorite. And at this point, as Macbeth enters, this short-sightedness is all too visible in his telling Macbeth that the King owes him more than he can pay.

Curiously, Duncan uses this moment to declare his eldest son, Malcolm, Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne. After inviting the King to stay at his castle, Macbeth makes another treacherous choice: if he is to be king, 'the Prince of Cumberland... is a step/ On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,/ For in my way it lies' (1.4.48-50). After Macbeth, Duncan praises Banquo as 'true, worthy' and 'valiant' (1.4.54).

Though the scene is only 58 lines long, structurally it is a brilliant sketch of the play. It opens with the old order (Duncan), continues with what will become the new order (Macbeth), and ends with the future of Scotland (Banquo). In addition, the scene shows the weakness of Duncan, the determination of Macbeth, and the quiet fealty of Banquo as interdependent links to each other and the prophecies. Psychologically, the scene also sets the stage for the entrance of the first woman in the play, Lady Macbeth. What will her reaction be to the royal visit?

Scene 5 Commentary

Arguably the most popular Shakespeare role for an actress, Lady Macbeth is introduced in this scene. Ironically, her first words are hers, but her husband's, contained in a letter which she begins with 'They' (1.5.1). Is Macbeth telling her about Ross and Angus, the soldiers in the battle, the King and his court, or someone else? It all becomes clear very quickly, when he writes 'they made themselves into air' (1.5.5). Not only has Macbeth devoted the main part of his letter to a discussion of the witches, but it is also that part which has captured Lady Macbeth's attention.

But there are many other things going on here. Macbeth quotes the prophecy, 'All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter' (1.3.49-50) as 'Hail, King that shall be'. Such a misquote not only alters the words that the witches had used, but also alters their significance. To Macbeth, he was addressed as 'King' and is determined to be so. He also states that 'This I thought good to deliver thee', indicating (1) that he has decided that the prophecies are good; and (2) whatever happens, Lady Macbeth will also profit from it.

By addressing his wife as 'my dearest partner of greatness' (1.5.11-12), Macbeth opens a window on his marriage. At an historical time when women were more prized for the political and financial advantage they brought to a marriage, these two are clearly equals. As such, they would present a unified front in the quest for the crown. However, Lady Macbeth betrays this unity in her next lines. She reveals that she thinks her husband is too weak to follow through on what is required to obtain 'the golden round' (1.5.29). Lady Macbeth has no problem believing the prophecy which she has heard second-hand and which is misquoted. She is determined to convince her husband that 'fate and metaphysical aid' (1.5.30) are the true ways to the murder of Duncan and the crown.

When her reverie is interrupted by news of the King's imminent arrival, she cannot believe her luck. Now she can effect her plan for her husband's further promotion. She calls on the dark powers to 'unsex' (1.5.42) her and kill any feminine feelings of compassion and remorse in her. Her speech is littered with references to evil: 'murd'rng monsters' (49); 'thick night' (51); 'dunnest smoke of hell' (52).

Contrary to Macbeth, Lady Macbeth has already formulated the means of Duncan's death. She further greets her husband with 'Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!/ Greater than both' (1.5.55-56), demonstrating that in her mind, she sees him as King. Assuring her husband that she has the situation in hand, Lady Macbeth advise Macbeth that he must be careful of how he appears to the King, showing us that she too knows he judges from appearances.

The scene ends with Macbeth wanting to discuss her plan further and with Lady Macbeth already in motion. Is Macbeth re-thinking the prophecies or is he truly weak as his wife has described him? There seems to be an element of hope that Macbeth, the great soldier, may have had time on the trip home to re-consider his course of action more carefully. Yet, his wife too has considered hers.

Scene 6 Commentary

Duncan, his son Malcolm, and the court arrive at Inverness, Macbeth's castle. As we have come to expect, the King senses no danger and comments on how good it is to arrive at such a sweet-smelling place, far away from the gun-powder smoke and blood-soaked soil of battlefields. As if to agree with Lady Macbeth's advice to Macbeth in the preceding scene ['Look the innocent flower, But be the serpent under't' (1.5.66-67)], the castle dons the appearance of a safe haven, an image furthered by unaware Banquo.

The preliminaries continue between the unwary King and the future murderess. Although it may seem unnecessary, the scene carefully establishes Duncan as a guest of a thane from whom he should expect not only duty and loyalty, but also thoughtfulness and consideration under the rules of hospitality. These rules, dating back as far as ancient Greece, dictated that a guest was entitled to the full graciousness of his host, paramount of which was safety and good rest. Duncan will get neither of theses from the Macbeths.

Scene 7 Commentary

During the feasting of his guest, Macbeth leaves the table and takes a moment to consider the consequences of his proposed murder of Duncan. He ponders the effects of assassination, realizing that if regicide were the end result, all would be well; however, assassination creates a precedent for his own assassination and makes a martyr out of the one assassinated. Macbeth knows without a doubt the two considerations shown in 1.5, that he is a thane and Duncan is a guest in his house. Even with these cautions, he concedes that his 'vaulting ambition' (1.7.27) drives him on.

Lady Macbeth comes to find her husband when Duncan asks for him and Macbeth tells her he will not kill the King. As she had predicted, she finds him weakened in his resolve. She chides him sternly and repeats her plan to stab Duncan and blame his guards, covering every eventuality. Macbeth, convinced once more, praises his wife's 'undaunted mettle' (1.7.73), and the scene and the Act end.

With clear explanation of the murder plot, the audience now has all the information it needs to understand the rest of the play: the personalities of Duncan, Macbeth, Banquo, Lady Macbeth, and the Witches; the motif of fate versus free-will; the politics of good and evil. It remains to be seen how Macbeth will be as a King and how Banquo will become the father of kings. Also to be revealed is what will happen to Malcolm, the Witches, and Lady Macbeth.

In seven scenes (also a magical number), we have watched Macbeth rise from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor, with the promise of kingship in his future. We have learned that given a moral choice, he will choose that which is most advantageous to him and his ambition, a true Machiavellian. Can such a man gain and retain political power?

Act 2 Commentaries

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Scene 1 Commentary

By now the audience is anxious to find out how the Macbeths' murder plan will work, but Shakespeare continues to build the suspense. In this scene we meet Fleance (Flay-ahns), Banquo'' young son. Both father and son are restless and Macbeth too cannot sleep. The time is carefully noted as after 'twelve' (2.1.3), midnight, the witching hour. Banquo delivers a diamond from the King to Macbeth for his wife to thank her for being a 'most kind hostess' (2.1.16)

Now might Banquo and Macbeth have the discussion promised in 1.3. Banquo tells Macbeth that he 'dreamt last night of the three weird sisters' (2.1.20), and that they apparently spoke the truth to Macbeth. Macbeth, however, lies to Banquo: 'I think not of them' (2.1.21), the response completing Banquo's line that ends in the word 'truth' (2.1.21). Macbeth also tells Banquo that now is not the time for their proposed discussion and goes one step further, telling Banquo that when the time comes, he shall gain honor if he sides with Macbeth. Banquo agrees, on the condition that the affair will not compromise his conscience. Banquo and Fleance go off to bed, leaving Macbeth alone.

Macbeth imagines that he sees a dagger before him and questions whether it is a real thing or 'a dagger of the mind' (2.1.28). The remainder of his soliloquy contains many references to witchcraft, as had Lady Macbeth's in 1.5: 'gouts of blood' (46); 'wicked dreams' (50); 'witchcraft' (51); 'Hecate' (52); 'wolf' (53); 'ghost' (56); 'horror' (59). The scene serves a dual purpose. In the first place, it poses Macbeth without a child against Banquo and Fleance, reinforcing the prophecy for Banquo. Secondly, it shows the inner workings of Macbeth's mind. It is a rule for Shakespeare that any time a character is speaking in an aside or to the audience, the character is telling the truth. Macbeth is no longer plagued by any doubt whatsoever, and his instruction to the servant to have Lady Macbeth ring a bell reminds us of her complicity. When the bell does ring, Macbeth describes it as a death knell. On one level it is, but on another, it is the audio signal of the instigation of Lady Macbeth's plan and the herald of her entrance for scene 2.

Scene 2 Commentary

In the middle of a restless, moonlit night (which we would recognize as the beginning of a horror movie), an owl shrieks and a King is killed. The act that we have waited happens off-stage, while Lady Macbeth describes how she drugged the wine of Duncan's guards and left the doors open, the daggers ready for her husband's use. Curiously, Lady Macbeth explains that she herself would have killed Duncan 'had he not resembled/ My father as he slept' (2.2.12-13). Apparently, her moral code includes regicide but draws the line at patricide. The point that murder is murder and is wrong is lost on her.

What follows is even more curious. The two conspirators have an exchange about the sound of voices. Two of the court guests have awakened, but then prayed themselves back to sleep. Macbeth could not say 'Amen' and this weakness upsets him. His wife's advice is most patronizing: 'Consider it not so deeply' (2.2.29). Macbeth, however, continues to ramble, accusing himself of murdering sleep. Lady Macbeth chides him to get a hold of himself and wash the blood from his hands. She then notices that he has the daggers with him. Angrily she tells him to go back and put the daggers by the guards and to smear the guards with Duncan's blood. When Macbeth refuses, she goes herself. In her absence, Macbeth tries to wash his hands but they will not come clean. When Lady Macbeth returns, she is covered in royal blood and believes 'a little water clears us of this deed' (2.2.66). As someone knocks at the gate, they go to bed, Macbeth obviously shocked at what he has done.

This long-anticipated scene is somewhat disappointing in that we do not see the murder, but we do see is even more terrifying: murder from the point of view of the murderers. The blood on Macbeth's hands is not nearly so shocking as his simple comment on the taking of a human life, 'I have done the deed' (2.2.24). There is no description of the stabbing — Macbeth is totally focused on himself. There is no indication of remorse, only worry about whether he will ever sleep again. This is unlikely, since, if he becomes king, he must be watchful that he is not assassinated. As for his wife, she shares his fear of discovery.

These are cold-blooded killers, assassins not for political change, but solely for personal gain. Such amorality and disregard for human life alienates the audience from any sympathy they may have had for these two, and quickly aligns the Macbeths with the evil that had bee depicted by the witches. The witches are ugly on the outside, the Macbeths within. Another difference is that the Macbeths have consciously, logically, and intentionally chosen to murder their anointed King. The witches may harass, but they will not murder people. As in a classic modern murder mystery, we know who the murderers are. What remains now is how they are found out and how they are punished.

Scene 3 Commentary

Picking up on the knocking at the door from the previous scene, Shakespeare apparently decides to relieve the tension with the comic entrance of the Porter. The Porter is justifiably annoyed by the knocking on the door that has roused him before sunrise. Like most of us, he curses whoever it is that seeks entrance to the Castle. But why would Shakespeare pick this moment for a comedy routine?

Actually, if the language is analyzed closely, we can see that we probably interpret this bit as comic because of the repetition of what we recognize as a 'knock-knock' joke: 'Knock, knock. Who's there?' (2.3.3, 7, 12-13). The Porter, however, paints the Castle as Hell and sees himself admitting grave sinners: a greedy farmer who committed suicide; an 'equivocator' (or Jesuit priest) who allegedly preached for God using treasonous words; a thieving English tailor. The Porter also mentions Satan (Beelzebub: made famous by Queen in 'Bohemian Rhapsody'), another devil, and hell as well as noting the heat and fires of hell. He ends by asking: 'I pray you, remember the porter' (2.3.21).

Far from being only comic, the Porter is the bridge between the actual murder and its consequences. All those involved will soon be in a kind of hell. The Porter also reminds us of the supernatural side of the story before us and how it is a story of kings and politics, not everyday people with their everyday concerns, like a farmer, a priest, or a tailor.

We learn that it is Macduff and Lennox who have been knocking so earnestly. These men, members of Duncan's entourage, have been silent in the play so far. Macduff especially now takes on a critical role in the action. he and the Porter share a few quips about lying, foreshadowing the discovery about to be made. Macbeth shows Macduff to Duncan's room, and Lennox comments that in the night, he had heard 'strange screams of death' (2.3.58). Macbeth answers ironically ''Twas a rough night' (2.3.64). Macduff returns screaming at what he has found, Duncan's brutally bloody body, and Macbeth goes to the crime scene.

When he returns, he admits to killing the two innocent guards, excusing the act as irrational behavior out of rage at the guards being drenched in royal blood. Lady Macbeth swoons and while she is tended to, Malcolm and Donalbain, Duncan's sons, realize they are suspects. The two men decide to meet again after getting dressed to decide what to do. Malcolm, the named heir of Duncan, decides to go to England, and Donalbain to Ireland, knowing that 'our separated fortune/Shall keep us both safer' (2.3.140-141). They acknowledge that as Duncan's heirs, they could be next for the assassin's blade.

As the Porter had predicted, the lies in this scene compound on each other and they all issue from the mouth of Macbeth. Where he had stood firm in the face of discovery, his wife has literally faded away in a faint. With the death of his father, Malcolm should be King. His choice to flee creates a power vacuum which Macbeth will gladly fill. Structurally, we are still in the early part of the play, but the suspense of the question, 'What will happen next/' is unrelenting. Duncan's death is just the beginning.

Scene 4 Commentary

This scene begins with an Old Man commenting that in seventy years that he remembers well, he cannot remember a worse night than the one that has just past. Ross addresses the Old Man as father, and instantly, we can see the comparison between this father and son, and the father and sons we have just left.

Ross tells the Old Man that he agrees with him, that the clock says it is daytime, but it is as dark as night. Duncan's horses are behaving wildly, and Ross and the Old Man note that the horses are so crazed that 'they eat each other' (2.3.28). As we know about the witches' ability to influence nature, it is logical that these comments point to the association of Macbeth's murder and the witches. Duncan's murder will affect every aspect of life.

When Macduff enters, he offers a quick summary of 2.2 and, most importantly, informs us that he is not going to Scone to Macbeth's coronation. The Old Man closes the scene with a blessing:

God's benison go with you, and with thoseThat would make good of bad, and friends of foes.(2.4.40-41)

The blessing is a counterpoint to the evils related at the beginning of the scene. It will not, however, be sufficient to neutralize the damage that Macbeth has done.

Furthermore, Macduff's choice not to go to the coronation will arouse Macbeth's rage and suspicion toward him even more. The scene clearly puts Macduff in direct, though not yet open, opposition to Macbeth the murderer.

Act 3 Commentaries

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Scene 1 Commentary

Structurally, Act III is the mid-point or centre of the five act play. Here we find Banquo thinking that the prophecies of the witches concerning Macbeth have all come true. He wonders if their prophecy concerning him may also be true. Banquo, however, suspects that to make the prophecies come to pass, Macbeth has 'play'dst most foully for't' (3.1.3).

Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast and asks if he can meet with him. Banquo informs the King that he plans to send the afternoon riding with his son, Fleance. Macbeth tells the unsuspecting Banquo 'Fail not our feast' (3.1.27). He also mentions that he learned that Malcolm and Donalbain are in England and Ireland. It is obvious that Macbeth is intent on keeping Banquo and Fleance close to him and under observation, as well as knowing the whereabouts of any others that can challenge his claim to the throne.

When Macbeth dismisses the court until 7 PM, his murderous bent becomes all too apparent. He sends his servant to bring in two men who are waiting to see him. While he waits Macbeth reveals that to be King is nothing unless he can be sure that Banquo will not be 'father to a line of kings' (3.1.60). To secure his crown and defeat the witches' prophecy, Macbeth must kill Banquo and Fleance.

When the two men enter, we learn that this is Macbeth's second meeting with them. He has planted the seeds of doubt in their minds concerning Banquo, and asks them now to wreak their revenge on him. Macbeth uses the same psychology as Lady Macbeth had used on him, accusing them of not being men. Resolved, the murderers pledge their lives to Macbeth and agree to kill both Banquo and Fleance.

Significantly, the men are anonymous, as are the witches, a playwriting device that identifies them more as forces and catalysts for the action of the play rather than developed characters. This scene makes us aware of time on two opposing levels. On one level, it seems to take lace soon after Macbeth's coronation. However, some time must have elapsed for Macbeth to have established his court and to have had a previous meeting with the murderers. We also know that Macbeth plans for Banquo and Fleance to be murdered before 7 PM that night. The emphasis on time underscores the urgency that political stability has for Macbeth, a stability that is not predicated on the needs of the ruled but on the personal needs of the ruler. The specificity of time also heightens the suspense for the audience. While we are privy to the details of Macbeth's plan, we are helpless to interfere with or prevent the bloodshed. In turn, this realization of our impotence underscores the horror of the evil before our eyes. In comparison to Macbeth, the witches seem almost benign.

Scene 2 Commentary

Continuing the emphasis on time, this scene finds Lady Macbeth asking to see her husband, a radical change from the scene in which she was her husband's partner in murder. As she was before, Lady Macbeth is concerned about her husband's keeping to himself and the thoughts he may be harboring.

Although he shares with her that 'terrible dreams/ … shakes us nightly (3.2.18-19) and calls her 'love' (29), 'dear wife' (36), and 'dearest chuck' (44), we notice that he refers to himself in the 'royal we', as he might speak to someone with whom he did not have a close, intimate relationship. He also withholds from her his murderous plot against Banquo and Fleance. He only urges her to focus her attention on the father and son at the forthcoming feast. Perhaps sensing his intent, Lady Macbeth implores him to leave such deep, dark thoughts and reminds him that Banquo and Fleance cannot live forever. With the murder plot in place, Macbeth finds 'comfort' (39) in his wife's comment: 'they are assailable' (39). He tells her that 'there shall be done/ A deed of dreadful note (43-44) before the night is over, leaving to guess what that deed will be.

Macbeth refuses to tell her more, but indicates that she will 'applaud' (46) his device. She is amazed by what he says, possibly because his language emphasizes black, night, evil, and death. For Lady Macbeth the death of Duncan has had immediate and palpable rewards with which she is satisfied. She is apparently content to let events unfold in light of the regicide. Macbeth, on the other hand, is intent on securing the future by controlling the resent. This control means eliminating all real and all possible challenges to his authority. Thus, the scene marks the beginning of a rift in the Macbeth marriage.

Scene 3 Commentary

Within the structure of Macbeth, this scene and 3.4 are the heart of the play. One of the shortest scenes (23 lines), it has far-reaching effects. We enter the company of the two murderers while they have been discussing the arrival of a third man. This man will make this band of killers equal the number of witches and establishes a real parallel to the unreal or ghostly witches. Since the third man knows the details of Macbeth's orders, the other two decide to let him join them while they wait in ambush for Banquo and Fleance. The three men attack and murder Banquo, but Fleance escapes. Crucially, although they could probably easily overtake and murder the boy, the murderers, while acknowledging that they 'have lost the best half of our affair' (21), decide not to pursue him and return to Macbeth instead.

This tiny detail is of paramount importance not only to Macbeth, but also to us. We know that, even though he is dead, Banquo can still be the father of kings through Fleance. It now becomes clear to us that this event fulfills part of the witches' prophecy for Banquo, and that the rest of the prophecy, 'Lesser than Macbeth, and greater/ Not so happy, yet much happier' (1.3.6566) remains open. If Banquo is dead, how can he be 'greater' and 'much happier' than Macbeth?

Scene 4 Commentary

This banquet scene is perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare's banquet scenes and very different from others such as the conclusion of The Taming of the Shrew, or the magical feast in The Tempest. From this point forward, the events of the play will spiral rapidly toward the play's conclusion.

As the Macbeths welcomes the lords to dinner, two things happen: Macbeth underlines his wife's secondary role, and the murderers return. The arrival of the courtiers and the murderers almost simultaneously shows clearly the duality of Macbeth as King/murderer. The news of Banquo's throat being cut and his being stabbed twenty times and left in a ditch earns praise for the murderer from a pleased Macbeth. Fleance's escape, however, plunges Macbeth back into insecurity. Macbeth consoles himself that it will be some time before Fleance will return to seek revenge.

When Lady Macbeth reproaches her husband for not giving his guests suitable welcome, Banquo's Ghost, apparently in response to Macbeth's request to 'fail not our feast' (3.1.27), sits in Macbeth's place. Lennox asks Macbeth to sit, and Macbeth, knowing full well the whereabouts of Banquo, comments that the murdered man is missing. Ross, echoing Lennox, asks Macbeth again to sit, noting that Banquo has broken his promise to be present. Macbeth responds that 'the table's full' (47). Lennox contradicts the King, saying his place is reserved. At this point, Macbeth realizes that the Ghost of Banquo sits in his place and reacts in horror. As Ross urges the nobles to leave, Lady Macbeth urges them to stay, that they should ignore this fit of Macbeth's, that it will pass. Lady Macbeth upbraids her husband for his comments, referring to the invisible dagger he had seen before Duncan's murder (2.1.33). She tells him to control himself, that 'you look but on a stool' (69). Exasperated, she once more accuses him of unmanly behavior. Suddenly, Lady Macbeth reminds him that the room is full of people and with the Ghost now gone, Macbeth attempts to return to his guests. He sits in the now empty place and asks for a full glass of wine, with which he toasts Banquo. The Ghost appears again, and Macbeth screams at it to be gone since he knows 'thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold' (95). The Ghost leaves, and once again, Macbeth tries to pick up the feast where he left off. His wife, however, says he has 'displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting' (110). Macbeth turns on her and the guests, inquiring how they can be calm in the face of such a horrific apparition. Lady Macbeth, perhaps fearing that her husband will say more than he should, dismisses the guests.

Curiously, Macbeth asks his wife the time. When she responds that it is almost morning, Macbeth questions why Macduff was not at the banquet. He tells her that his spies will inform him and that he intends to see the Weird Sisters again. He also tells Lady Macbeth that he is 'in blood/ Steeped in so far that' (137-138) it is too late to turn back. Lady Macbeth leads him to bed.

As noted previously, it is here that the downward spiral picks up pace. Macbeth, having reaped the benefits of his regicide, is beginning to see the down side of his actions. He is seen publicly as a madman, a fact reinforced by his wife's comments that the fit witnessed has been an illness of long standing. Macbeth also makes referral to 'tomorrow' (32, 133), indicating to the audience that there is more reckoning to come.

It may seem strange that, in this scene, Lady Macbeth leads her husband to bed to sleep after his admission of nightmares. As we will see later, this is the last time that the Queen has any control over her husband in the domestic arena. It is she who tries to keep the gathering together and seems to be the more rational of the two. But she has already lost access to his political decisions, and this was, effectively, a political meeting. Even this last bit of influence will be undermined in the Queen's next appearance.

As a co-conspirator, she cannot and will not escape retribution. Though she had tried to displace the guilt of the regicide to the grooms, that guilt will return to haunt her as Banquo's Ghost now haunts Macbeth. It now becomes apparent that the couple, once so close, is at opposite ends: Lady Macbeth in the past, Macbeth in the future.

The only connection between the two will be the blood spilled in the many murders. Lady Macbeth remains as she was when she plotted Duncan's murder - that one murder solved all her problems. Macbeth, however, has changed from the man who carefully considered Duncan's virtues before killing him to a man who must kill without pity to preserve himself.

Scene 5 Commentary

Literally out of nowhere, Shakespeare returns us to the world of the Three Witches; only here, they are meeting with their boss, Hecate. The Elizabethans would have easily recognized Hecate as the Head Witch. Indeed, she scolds the three witches for not consulting her about the Macbeth situation, telling them:

… all you have doneHath been but for a wayward son,Spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do,Loves for his own ends, not for you. (10-13)

While it may seem a frivolous and gratuitous insertion, the scene reminds the audience of the limited power of the Weird Sisters. In addition, it emphasizes Macbeth's own ability to choose evil without any intervention from witchcraft.

Notwithstanding, Hecate informs her wayward employees that she herself will raise 'artificial sprites' (26) that will make Macbeth's overconfidence his 'chiefest enemy' (33) and lead to his ruin.

In this way, Shakespeare acknowledges that, though Hecate will reinforce the Three Witches, Macbeth can still choose not to do evil. The witches, knowing human nature, are more than equal to the challenge of his continued downfall. It is difficult for us to understand what motivates the witches against Macbeth. If we consider, however, that they represent evil, it is clear that in a world where evil is the diametric opposite of good, they would want damnation for Macbeth not as a punishment, but as a reward.

The placement of this scene after Macbeth's intent to consult the Weird Sisters again 'to know/ By the worst means the worst' (3.4.135-136) signifies the strengthening of the witches' scheme in proportion to Macbeth's strengthening of purpose. They share with audience a hint at the play's outcome:

He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bearThis hope 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear. (30-31)

For the Protestant Elizabethans who believed that a man's fate was determined before his birth, there is no hope for him. For Roman Catholics and others who believed that trusting in God's forgiveness could redeem even the worst sinner, Macbeth appears to throwing his redemption away.

The question now is 'How will all this happen?'

Scene 6 Commentary

Act III ends with yet more threat to Macbeth. In a conversation between Lennox and another Lord, the conditions outside the court are revealed: there is no meat to eat, many restless nights, no freedom or respect for the thanes, Macbeth is preparing for war with England. Macbeth, for the time, is labelled 'tyrant' (22, 25).

Lennox, however, cannot overlook that Malcolm and Donalbain fled following Duncan's assassination, just as Fleance had fled after Banquo's. Surely these flights from justice are an indication of guilty involvement. Lennox asks the Lord to confirm that Macduff is living in disgrace because he defied the King's order to attend the feast.

In his response, the Lord reveals that Malcolm, deprived of his birthright of succession to Duncan who had named him successor before his death, has found refuge at the English court of Edward the Confessor who acknowledges Malcolm as the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. It is to Edward's court that Macduff has gone to seek military assistance to restore peace to Scotland.

Lennox advises the Lord to get a message to Macduff that Macbeth is furious with him and that Scotland looks to Macduff for deliverance from Macbeth's 'hand accursed' (49).

The scene serves as a link to the earlier events of Act II and fills in the background on what has happened outside Macbeth's court. Until now, though we know Macbeth to be a murdering fiend, we have been unaware of his effect on the country he rules. The relentless concentration on Macbeth and his emotional state seems to focus our attention solely on the domestic tragedy. Just as in Hamlet when 'something's rotten in the state of Denmark', the actions of the king have far reaching effect. Shakespeare reminds us that the domestic tragedies of life, especially of a king, can ripple through society.

In Scotland, the conditions have escalated to a point of civil unrest bordering on revolution. This extreme discontent is especially clear in Lennox whom we have just seen at the banquet table. In contrast to his concern over Macbeth's place at the table, here Lennox reveals his concern for his 'suffering country' (48). In a sense Lennox becomes a symbol of those who wonder about a leader's suitability to lead but will not act on his suspicions alone, a situation not unknown in present day politics.

The exchange between Lennox and the Lord further casts Macduff in the role of adversary to Macbeth. But should Macbeth fear him?

Act 4 Commentaries

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Scene 1 Commentary

According to Hecate's wishes, the Three Witches have gathered the ingredients for the spell. Here we see them blend them together to the famous chant:

Double, double, toil and trouble,Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (10-11)

Hecate approves of their efforts and promises them a 'share i'th'gains' (40). Macbeth has questions and asks for answers, not from the Weird Sisters, but from what he thinks are their more powerful masters. The answers take the form of three apparitions: an 'Armed Head', 'a Bloody Child', and 'a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand' (Act IV, stage directions).

The Armed Head tells Macbeth to 'Beware Macduff' (71). The Bloody Child offers some hope: 'none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth' (80-81). The third apparition is even more enlightening:

Macbeth shall never vanquished be untilGreat Birnam Wood to high Dusinane HillShall come against him. (92-94)

Given the prognostications of these visions, Macbeth resolves to neutralize the threat of Macduff by murdering him. He knows, too, that all people are born 'of woman' and that woods do not walk. As Hecate had foretold, he has indeed put 'His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear' (3.5.31). He therefore feels safe. Yet, despite the witches' warning to 'Seek to know no more' (103), Macbeth pushes his luck with his ultimate concern: ''Shall Banquo's issue ever/ Reign in this kingdom?' (103-104). The answer is another vision of 'eight Kings and Banquo' (sds), with the last King holding a mirror in his hand. Macbeth is horrified. There are eight apparitions and 'many more' (120) in the mirror. The ghostly appearance of Banquo 'smiles upon' (123) Macbeth and 'points at them (the kings) for his' (124).

The scene may seem straight forward, but its simplicity betrays its complexity. Up to this point, Macbeth has acted out the end of the original prophecies given to him on the heath as he thought they had promised, and with the help of his wife. Here, without Lady Macbeth's assistance, he actively pursues answers, not prophecies, that will confirm the actions he has already taken and will take.

In addition, unlike his reaction to the first prophecies, Macbeth takes what appears before him as a true picture of the immediate and distant future, and accepts the witches' confirmation without question. He also does not allow for any other interpretation of the apparitions other than his own.Lennox enters to announce that Macduff has fled to England. To ensure the efficacy of the visions, Macbeth becomes 'bloody, bold, and resolute' (79), planning to attack Macduff's castle at Fife and kill all found there. The man who had been urged to 'screw your courage to the sticking place' (1.7.60) now proclaims 'This deed I'll do before this purpose cool' (134).

Not only are we reminded of the evil in Macbeth, but we are also shown that is almost beyond redemption. Aligning himself with the witches by choice, Macbeth can only go deeper and faster into his descent to Hell. Nonetheless, we feel sorry for him, knowing that, in the comfort of our seats in the theatre, we would never be so foolhardy.

Noticeable by her absence is Lady Macbeth, but we hardly notice since Macbeth himself had marginalized her in the events of Act III. Realizing the scope of Macbeth's determination to eliminate all threats to his crown, we are more concerned with Macduff's '…wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls/ That trace him in his line' (152-153).

Scene 2 Commentary

This scene opens with a conversation between Ross and Lady Macduff, who are debating why Macduff has fled to England. Ross tries to comfort his 'pretty cousin' (25), assuring her that her husband has acted for the best. Ross takes his leave of her and her young son. What follows is a touching and tender scene between mother and son that seems almost an oasis in the mayhem of the play.

The two discuss Macduff's absence in a tone that is rather playful, using the child's understanding of how birds live, not only to illustrate the points, but also to underscore the child's immaturity and limited grasp of the political furore. But is it limited?

The conversation switches tone when the child asks his mother 'Was my father a traitor, mother?' (44). Lady Macduff tells him that he was and that a traitor is 'one that swears and lies' (47) 'and must be hanged' (49). The child tells her that 'there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them' (50-51). The audience is aware that they are not only discussing Macduff, but also Macbeth.

A messenger enters to warn Lady Macduff to leave with her children immediately. Lady Macduff, however, does not leave, either because she believes in her innocence or she does not have time, since the murderers enter almost right away. The boy is stabbed and dies in front of his helpless mother who tries to flee. We know she cannot escape the bloodbath.

The scene is one of, if not the bloodiest, in the play, made all the most terrifying because it unflinchingly depicts the murder of an innocent child. Now we are certain beyond any doubt that Macbeth has crossed the line of all sense and morality.

Contrasts abound in this scene. Lady Macduff, the loving, caring mother, is a stark contrast to Lady Macbeth who would have 'dashed the brains' (1.7.58) of her own child. The bigger difference of the Macduffs as a happy family unit from the disjointed Macbeths is glaring. Furthermore, Macduff the good is counterpointed to Macbeth the villain and traitor, even though both are absent from the scene.

Within the play, the scene is placed between Macbeth's resolution to murder Macduff and the reappearance of Macduff, clearly establishing a personal motivation to Macduff's political agenda. There can be no question now that the murderous Macbeth must go, not only for the political survival of Scotland, but also for the peace and safety of her people.

Scene 3 Commentary

The geography of the play changes from Scotland to England. Malcolm and Macduff are contemplating their course of action against Macbeth. Malcolm wants to mourn his exile, while Macduff wants to fight to free the country, prophetically noting that

Each new mornNew widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrowsStrike heaven on the face. (4-6)

Interestingly, Malcolm, who has not been in Scotland since his father's demise, lists Macbeth's faults:

bloody,Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sinThat has a name. (57-60)

Reluctantly, we must agree. Surprisingly, however, Malcolm turns the focus to his faults, saying he has a lustful nature. Macduff defends this admission by saying that Malcolm may indulge his lust with willing women and keep the knowledge from the people, in essence, a victimless crime. Malcolm further confesses to avarice, and Macduff reassures him again that, as King, Malcolm will have more than enough to satisfy him. For a third time, Malcolm says that he has none of

the king-becoming graces,As justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude. (91-94)

Macduff can stand no more. He bewails the fact that the rightful king, son of a sainted father and mother, should 'blaspheme his breed' (109). Malcolm, touched by Macduff's 'good truth and honor' (117), retracts his confessions as he is really still a virgin, has never broken a promise, and 'delight[s]/ No less in truth than life' (128-129). He tells Macduff that he will indeed fight for his people and his country. Shocked by the denial coming on the heels of the admissions, Macduff cannot answer Malcolm. But this is only one shock.

After the Doctor enters to comment on Edward the Confessor's healing power, Ross enters to tell Macduff of the events at his castle in Fife. With the deaths of his entire family, Macduff is doubly motivated to overthrow Macbeth. Malcolm decides that the time is right to accept Edward's offer of help.

This scene raises many questions: Why does Malcolm admit to sins he has not committed? Why does a Doctor enter and offer comments on Edward the Confessor? Why has Malcolm waited to depose Macbeth? We have already seen the evil perpetuated by a man who unlawfully usurped the throne. By admitting to sins of the flesh and spirit, Malcolm still seems a viable choice for King. In our political world, lust and avarice are forgivable sins in the sense that they do not threaten individual liberty. When Malcolm admits to some of the same sins of which Macbeth is guilty, however, he seems to be testing Macduff's loyalty to him. If Macduff would overthrow Macbeth, it is likely that he would overthrow a king with similar tendencies. We recall that at the beginning of the play, Macbeth had had the same concern. With the last admission and Macduff's reaction, to abandon Scotland since all hope for peace is dead, Macduff proves his loyalty to Malcolm who can then recant and assume his rightful place.

The introduction of the Doctor at this point is a commentary on the goodness and saintliness of both the English king and the Scottish heir, as well as commentary on the state of the people under such a king. If they are sick, the King miraculously cures them, clearly illustrating that such a King rules with God's favor. As he can cure physical ills, the King can also cure political, social, and economic ills. If Malcolm is crowned, the same outcome is promised for Scotland.

The extension of the metaphor from England to Scotland also reflects the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne of Elizabeth I in 1603. As Elizabeth had guided England through its most prosperous and influential period, James, now James I of England, brings unity and continued peace.

With Malcolm's assurance that Macduff is firmly in his camp, the future King knows that now is the time to his launch his attack. If he had acted sooner, Malcolm may have been perceived to be responsible for his father's death. The time spent in England has given him the opportunity to prove his innocence to Edward and to work on establishing vital alliances. With these questions answered, only one remains: what about the apparitions?

Act 5 Commentaries

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Scene 1 Commentary

Having set us up for the invasion of Scotland by its rightful king, Shakespeare returns us to the domestic tragedy and another famous scene. When we last saw Lady Macbeth, she was leading her husband to bed to sleep. This scene opens, ironically, with another Doctor and a Gentlewoman discussing a female sleep-walker. When the Doctor asks the Gentlewoman to repeat what she heard the sleep-walker say, she steadfastly refuses, since there were no witnesses.

Here enters Lady Macbeth with a lit taper which she has ordered to be constantly by her side. In her sleep, Lady Macbeth relates details of Duncan's murder and her husband's part in it, the murder of Banquo, and the holocaust at Fife. The Doctor tells the Gentlewoman that the Queen is beyond his help and, like the Gentlewoman, the Doctor will 'dare not speak' (83).

What we witness is the descent of Lady Macbeth into a distinctly female Hell. Without her husband's support, there is no one to whom she can unburden her guilt. This guilt is so intense that it manifests itself in her sleep-walking. Although we cannot determine whether or not she is mad, the Doctor hints at her probable end by warning the Gentlewoman to

Remove from her the means of annoyanceAnd still keep eyes upon her. (80-81)

If we are expected to feel sympathy for Lady Macbeth, the expectation is defeated by her recounting the murders to which we have been witness. We can only pity her so far before concluding that she has indeed earned her punishment.

Scene 2 Commentary

The scene now returns to the revolution about to be launched. We are updated on the military preparations which have gone according to plan. We learn that Donalbain, Malcolm's brother and not mentioned since the assassination of Duncan, is not with his brother. We assume that he remains in Ireland. It does not matter where Donalbain is. The army is on its way to Birnam Wood. The name strikes a chord in the audience, since now we realize that Macbeth's visions are about to come to fruition.

Scene 3 Commentary

Macbeth, who has been absent from the play since his last meeting with the witches, appears now, contemplating his lack of fear in the face of the marching army. He is confident he is safe 'Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane' (2). He also recalls that the thanes leading the army were all born of woman.

The Doctor reports that Lady Macbeth is sick of mind and that he cannot help her. Macbeth orders him to cure her and sets off in his armor to wage battle.

This scene points to Macbeth's ultimate fall and the hopelessness of his and his wife's situation. Though he maintains his brave stance toward the imminent battle, clearly Macbeth has lost a more important battle, self-deception. He has lost all perspective on his ability to postpone retribution for his evil deeds.

Scene 4 Commentary

Short but essential, this scene solves the mystery of how a forest can move. In order to conceal the numbers of his men, Malcolm orders every soldier to cut down a tree bough and carry it in front of him. With his allies, Siward and Macduff, Malcolm moves toward Dunsinane.

Macbeth's defeat is only a matter of time. Had he not been so ego-centric, Macbeth would have worked out the witches' riddle. What else has he neglected?

Scene 5 Commentary

Thinking himself safe behind strong castle walls, Macbeth receives the news of his wife's death. He takes a moment to comment on her passing without questioning how she died. His emphasis on 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' reveals he is still thinking about the future, but not as confidently as before. He is interrupted by a messenger, and his news is not good: Birnam Wood seems to be moving.

Macbeth now knows that the witches spoke the truth, but not the truth he had heard. Yet, he is determined to die fighting. There is, however, hope that he has interpreted the remaining visions correctly.

Scene 6 Commentary

This ten-line scene elaborates the battle plan for Malcolm's troops. Macduff and Siward are sent forward to charge the castle. But what about Macbeth? (Jump to the text of Act V, Scene vi)

Scene 7 Commentary

Young Siward meets Macbeth and they duel. Young Siward is slain and Macbeth's confidence is bolstered when he realises, as we do, that the youth, Siward's son, was born of woman.

Macduff is on the hunt for Macbeth, while Siward leads Malcolm into the castle, signalling the end of the battle. Will the visions be fulfilled? Or will Macbeth be finally dethroned?

Scene 8 Commentary

Here Macbeth finally confronts Macduff and admits that he has been avoiding the Thane of Fife. Foolishly, he urges him to get back since Macbeth has already shed enough of his blood, as if Macduff really needed to be reminded of his enormous loss. Almost ridiculously, Macbeth tells the man that he leads a 'charm-ed life which must not yield/ To one of woman born' (12-13). Macduff tells him that he 'was from his mother's womb/ Untimely ripped' (15-16). Suddenly, Macbeth realizes that he has failed to recognize the witches' double meaning and blames them for his failure. He then refuses to fight, Macduff asks him to surrender and face execution. Macbeth refuses and they fight, Macbeth falling on Macduff's sword.

Siward is informed of his son's death, but refuses to mourn him since he died a hero's death. Macduff enters with Macbeth's head and all proclaim Malcolm King of Scotland. Malcolm makes the thanes earls, the first in Scotland, and promises to recall exiled friends and mete out justice to Macbeth's supporters. The play ends with an invitation to attend Malcolm's coronation at Scone.

Or does it end? What about Macbeth's final vision and Banquo's prophecy? Elizabethans would have known the story of Macbeth's treachery and demise from Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) by Raphael Holinshed, Shakespeare's source for the play. They would have also known, as we do not, that James VI of Scotland, now James I of England, could trace his ancestry back to Banquo. According to a family tree printed in 1578 by John Leslie entitled De Originiae Regiae … Scotorum, James VI was the sixth king of that name to rule Scotland and was descended from Banquo, Thane of Lochaber, who lived in the eleventh century under King Macbeth. Holinshed confirms Leslie's genealogy by interrupting his story with a similar genealogy of 'the orginall line of those kings, which have descended from …Banquho,' in all about sixteen kings, ending with James VI. It would seem then that Banquo, not Malcolm, has the last word.


Key Ideas


Historical and Social Context