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Essential Passage by Character: Macbeth

MACBETH:
[Aside.] This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
BANQUO:
Look, how our partner’s rapt.
MACBETH:
[Aside.] If chance will have me king, why, chance
may crown me
Without my stir.
BANQUO:
New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.
MACBETH:
[Aside.] Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.
Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 141-162

Summary

Macbeth, along with Banquo, has been visited by three witches who prophesy that Macbeth, now Thane of Glamis, will become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland. Almost immediately, Ross and Angus, two Scottish nobles, arrive to inform Macbeth that the previous Thane of Cawdor has been captured and has forfeited his position through rebellion against King Duncan. The title thus falls to Macbeth as a reward for his services to the crown. Although Banquo initially has some doubts as to the validity of a prophecy from witches, the fulfillment is convincing. He is concerned, however, that it may be an instance of the powers of evil telling the truth in order to recruit a susceptible person to the side of darkness. Macbeth can see only that the witches speak truth, that the three-part prophecy is two-thirds of the way fulfilled.

As Banquo speaks privately to Ross and Angus, Macbeth in the passage above ponders the meaning of the prophecy. He is unsure about the nature of the words of the witches (“This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good”) and is thus in a completely gray area. If it is evil, why is he given assured success, verified by truth? He can see only one way that the remainder of the prophecy (i.e., his succeeding to the throne of Scotland) will come true, and that is through the death of King Duncan. That death, in Macbeth’s mind, can be accomplished by only one manner to assure that Macbeth is his heir: murder. Macbeth trembles at the thought that he must commit this murder. He momentarily sees that, if fate is willing for him to be king, then fate will handle the details without his stirring. However, if the opportunity presents itself through the machinations of fate, he would be wrong not to accept that opportunity.

Analysis

With the use of the aside in this passage, Shakespeare allows Macbeth to have a type of soliloquy, even with others present. The soliloquy presents the path of thought of the character, revealing his inner struggle with the choices that are presented to him. Soliloquies usually present a tipping point for the character. It is the decision that he makes that will decide the course of his life and thus whether the play becomes a tragedy (where the hero is defeated through a fatal flaw) or a comedy (where the hero achieves his goals or overcomes an obstacle to gain an even more honorable position).

Macbeth is at the threshold, the choice of whether to choose good or to choose evil. As the tragic hero, he has achieved through his own efforts great renown and acclaim. He has been honored by his country and his king. To rise to the level of the Thane of Cawdor gives him power, wealth, and respect. The fact that Macbeth rose to this level through the way of honor reflects strongly and positively on his character.

Yet he has now been presented with promise of more. The three witches simply tell him that he will be king. They do not tell him by what route he will arrive at the throne. The implication is that it is already decided, without any concentrated effort by Macbeth. Yet Macbeth is not willing to sit back and do nothing. He received the...

(The entire section is 3,394 words.)