Thunder and lightning crash above a Scottish moor. Three haggard old women, the witches, appear out of the storm. In eerie, chanting tones, they make plans to meet again upon the heath, after the battle, to confront Macbeth. As quickly as they arrive, they disappear.
Analysis: Act 1, scenes 1–4
These scenes establish the play’s dramatic premise—the witches’ awakening of Macbeth’s ambition—and present the main characters and their relationships. At the same time, the first three scenes establish a dark mood that permeates the entire play. The stage directions indicate that the play begins with a storm, and malignant supernatural forces immediately appear in the form of the three witches. From there, the action quickly shifts to a battlefield that is dominated by a sense of the grisliness and cruelty of war. In his description of Macbeth and Banquo’s heroics, the captain dwells specifically on images of carnage: “he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,” he says, describing Macbeth’s slaying of Macdonwald (1.2.22). The bloody murders that fill the play are foreshadowed by the bloody victory that the Scots win over their enemies.
Our initial impression of Macbeth, based on the captain’s report of his valor and prowess in battle, is immediately complicated by Macbeth’s obvious fixation upon the witches’ prophecy. Macbeth is a noble and courageous warrior but his reaction to the witches’ pronouncements emphasizes his great desire for power and prestige. Macbeth immediately realizes that the fulfillment of the prophecy may require conspiracy and murder on his part. He clearly allows himself to consider taking such actions, although he is by no means resolved to do so. His reaction to the prophecy displays a fundamental confusion and inactivity: instead of resolving to act on the witches’ claims, or simply dismissing them, Macbeth talks himself into a kind of thoughtful stupor as he tries to work out the situation for himself. In the following scene, Lady Macbeth will emerge and drive the hesitant Macbeth to act; she is the will propelling his achievements. Once Lady Macbeth hears of the witches’ prophecy, Duncan’s life is doomed.
Shakespeare has the witches speak in language of contradiction. Their famous line “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” is a prominent example (1.1.10), but there are many others, such as their characterization of Banquo as “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” (1.3.63). Such speech adds to the play’s sense of moral confusion by implying that nothing is quite what it seems. Interestingly, Macbeth’s first line in the play is “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36). This line echoes the witches’ words and establishes a connection between them and Macbeth. It also suggests that Macbeth is the focus of the drama’s moral confusion.
Summary: Act 1, scene 5
In Inverness, Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth reads to herself a letter she has received from Macbeth. The letter announces Macbeth’s promotion to the thaneship of Cawdor and details his meeting with the witches. Lady Macbeth murmurs that she knows Macbeth is ambitious, but fears he is too full of “th’ milk of human kindness” to take the steps necessary to make himself king (1.5.15). She resolves to convince her husband to do whatever is required to seize the crown. A messenger enters and informs Lady Macbeth that the king rides toward the castle, and that Macbeth is on his way as well. As she awaits her husband’s arrival, she delivers a famous speech in which she begs, “you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty” (1.5.38–41). She resolves to put her natural femininity aside so that she can do the bloody deeds necessary to seize the crown. Macbeth enters, and he and his wife discuss the king’s forthcoming visit. Macbeth tells his wife that Duncan plans to depart the next day, but Lady Macbeth declares that the king will never see tomorrow. She tells her husband to have patience and to leave the plan to her.
Analysis: Act 1, scenes 5–7
These scenes are dominated by Lady Macbeth, who is probably the most memorable character in the play. Her violent, blistering soliloquies in Act 1, scenes 5 and 7, testify to her strength of will, which completely eclipses that of her husband. She is well aware of the discrepancy between their respective resolves and understands that she will have to manipulate her husband into acting on the witches’ prophecy. Her soliloquy in Act 1, scene 5, begins the play’s exploration of gender roles, particularly of the value and nature of masculinity. In the soliloquy, she spurns her feminine characteristics, crying out “unsex me here” and wishing that the milk in her breasts would be exchanged for “gall” so that she could murder Duncan herself. These remarks manifest Lady Macbeth’s belief that manhood is defined by murder. When, in Act 1, scene 7, her husband is hesitant to murder Duncan, she goads him by questioning his manhood and by implicitly comparing his willingness to carry through on his intention of killing Duncan with his ability to carry out a sexual act (1.7.38–41). Throughout the play, whenever Macbeth shows signs of faltering, Lady Macbeth implies that he is less than a man.
Macbeth exclaims that Lady Macbeth should “[b]ring forth men-children only” because she is so bold and courageous (1.7.72). Since Macbeth succumbs to Lady Macbeth’s wishes immediately following this remark, it seems that he is complimenting her and affirming her belief that courage and brilliance are masculine traits. But the comment also suggests that Macbeth is thinking about his legacy. He sees Lady Macbeth’s boldness and masculinity as heroic and warriorlike, while Lady Macbeth invokes her supposed masculine “virtues” for dark, cruel purposes. Unlike Macbeth, she seems solely concerned with immediate power.
A subject’s loyalty to his king is one of the thematic
At the same time, Macbeth is strongly conscious of the gravity of the act of regicide. He acknowledges that “bloody instructions . . . being taught, return / To plague th’inventor” (1.7.9–10). This is the first of many lines linking “blood” to guilt and cosmic retribution.
As her husband wavers, Lady Macbeth enters like a hurricane and blows his hesitant thoughts away. She spurs Macbeth to treason by disregarding his rational, moral arguments and challenging his manhood. Basically, she dares him to commit the murder, using words that taunt rather than persuade. Under her spell, all of Macbeth’s objections seem to evaporate and he is left only with a weak “If we should fail?” to set against her passionate challenge (1.7.59).
The idea of a moral order is present in these scenes,
albeit in muted form. Macbeth knows what he does is wrong, and he
recognizes that there will surely be consequences. As we have seen,
his soliloquy reveals his awareness that he may be initiating a
cycle of violence that will eventually destroy him. Macbeth is not
Summary: Act 2, scene 1
Banquo and his son Fleance walk in the torch-lit hall of Macbeth’s castle. Fleance says that it is after midnight, and his father responds that although he is tired, he wishes to stay awake because his sleep has lately inspired “cursed thoughts” (2.1.8). Macbeth enters, and Banquo is surprised to see him still up. Banquo says that the king is asleep and mentions that he had a dream about the “three weird sisters.” When Banquo suggests that the witches have revealed “some truth” to Macbeth, Macbeth claims that he has not thought of them at all since their encounter in the woods (2.1.19–20). He and Banquo agree to discuss the witches’ prophecies at a later time.
Banquo and Fleance leave, and suddenly, in the darkened hall, Macbeth has a vision of a dagger floating in the air before him, its handle pointing toward his hand and its tip aiming him toward Duncan. Macbeth tries to grasp the weapon and fails. He wonders whether what he sees is real or a “dagger of the mind, a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain” (2.1.38–39). Continuing to gaze upon the dagger, he thinks he sees blood on the blade, then abruptly decides that the vision is just a manifestation of his unease over killing Duncan. The night around him seems thick with horror and witchcraft, but Macbeth stiffens and resolves to do his bloody work. A bell tolls—Lady Macbeth’s signal that the chamberlains are asleep—and Macbeth strides toward Duncan’s chamber.
Analysis: Act 2, scenes 1–2
Banquo’s knowledge of the witches’ prophecy makes him both a potential ally and a potential threat to Macbeth’s plotting. For now, Macbeth seems distrustful of Banquo and pretends to have hardly thought of the witches, but Macbeth’s desire to discuss the prophecies at some future time suggests that he may have some sort of conspiratorial plans in mind. The appearance of Fleance, Banquo’s son, serves as a reminder of the witches’ prediction that Banquo’s children will sit on the throne of Scotland. We realize that if Macbeth succeeds in the murder of Duncan, he will be driven to still more violence before his crown is secure, and Fleance will be in immediate and mortal danger.
Act 2 is singularly concerned with the murder of Duncan.
But Shakespeare here relies on a technique that he uses throughout
Macbeth’s trepidation about the murder is echoed by several portentous sounds and visions, the famous hallucinatory dagger being the most striking. The dagger is the first in a series of guilt-inspired hallucinations that Macbeth and his wife experience. The murder is also marked by the ringing of the bell and the knocking at the gate, both of which have fascinated audiences. The knocking occurs four times with a sort of ritualistic regularity. It conveys the heavy sense of the inevitable, as if the gates must eventually open to admit doom. The knocking seems particularly ironic after we realize that Macduff, who kills Macbeth at the end of the play, is its source. Macbeth’s eventual death does indeed stand embodied at the gate.
The motif of blood, established in the accounts of Macbeth’s and Banquo’s battlefield exploits, recurs here in Macbeth’s anguished sense that there is blood on his hands that cannot be washed clean. For now, Lady Macbeth remains the voice of calculating reason, as she tells him that the blood can be washed away with a little water. But, as Lady Macbeth eventually realizes, the guilt that the blood symbolizes needs more than water to be cleansed away. Her hallucinations later in the play, in which she washes her hands obsessively, lend irony to her insistence here that “[a] little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.65).