Summary

Macbeth examines his conscience, to see if he can justify the murder he’s beginning to plan. He considers the consquences in the afterlife, and weighs all the reasons why he should or shouldn’t go forward with the plot. Lady Macbeth enters, and Macbeth decides not to proceed, since Duncan has been so good to him lately. Lady Macbeth chastises him for not being a strong enough man; Macbeth protests that he is as manly as it’s possible to be. Lady Macbeth still urges him on, offering reasons why they’ll be able to get away with the murder. She convinces him that the plan can work, and he agrees to do it. He knows they will have to pretend that everything is going well, so they will appear to be innocent of the crime.

Enter

To come on stage.

Hautboys

Hautboys — French, literally, high woods, high-pitched woodwind instruments — oboes. The music of oboes is heard, providing dinner music.

Pronounced OH-boys.

Torches

It’s early evening, time for dinner, and torches would have been set out to light the dining area.

sewer

Chief servant, food-taster, hand-washer. A sewer would often appear with a pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel.

Pronounced SOO-ur.

divers

Diverse. Of different kinds.

service

Salt shakers, forks, plates, etc. Setting the table.

pass over the stage

Walk around to various places on the stage, setting the table. Eventually, they all leave.

If it were done when ’tis done

Macbeth’s soliloquy (a speech to give us insight into a character’s thoughts — pronounced soe-LILL-oh-kwee) here is one of the most important parts of this play. In this scene, Macbeth finally decides whether or not to kill the king in order to reach the throne.

Scholars debate the best way to punctuate this passage, because it can have one of two meanings, and the original punctuation leaves things unclear.

Meaning 1
Meaning 2
Punctuation

Meaning 1

The first line is a complete sentence, ending after “well.” If it could all be over, truly finished and done, when the murder was committed, then that would be the end of any problems that might follow the murder. (This leaves the next words — “It were done quickly” — belonging to the next line, and saying, in effect, “It would all be over with quickly if the assassination could . . .”).

Meaning 2
Punctuation

Meaning 2

It would be best if the murder was done quickly, so as to bring an end to all the consequences.

Meaning 1
Punctuation

Punctuation

We must not be misled by the punctuation as it stands; punctuation in the Elizabethan era was largely a matter of the printer’s opinion, and could in no way be depended on to be accurate. Also, Shakespeare never saw any printed version of any of his plays, so we cannot rely on even the earliest printed versions as if they had been approved by the author.

Meaning 1
Meaning 2

assassination

The murder of King Duncan.

trammel up the consequence

Bottle up, or contain, or prevent any negative consequences.

divers

catch — include

surcease — end, finish, completion

If the action could achieve both completion and success at once.

that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here

If only this one act (blow), the murder, could be completely self-contained and without further consequence, here and now.

divers

Then here, in this world, in the normal course of events.

The words bank and shoal are meant to bring to mind a picture of a river, on whose bank we stand, looking across to the other side, the afterlife.

We’ld jump the life to come.

We would (somehow) avoid or bypass (jump) the next life, and not have to face the consequences of our actions in this life.

But in these cases / We still have judgment here

But this is not the way it is. We must still face judgment in this life. We must still endure the consequences of our actions in this life.

Macbeth is trying to decide what to do, so he begins to list the reasons why he should or shouldn’t commit the murder.

we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor

The things we teach or invent come back to haunt us (return to plague the inventor). There’s no such thing as “getting away with it.”

this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice / To our own lips.

Justice, being fair, demands that we suffer a penalty fitting the crime — we must also drink the poison we put in the victim’s cup (chalice).

He’s here

Duncan is here in my castle, my home.

in double trust

Trusting me to keep him safe, from at least two different perspectives.

Strong both against the deed

Any kinsman, and any loyal subject of the king, would act quickly and decisively to prevent his murder (the deed).

as his host, / Who should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself.

I also have the obligation to protect him against attack (against his murderer shut the door) because I’m his host; certainly I shouldn’t kill him myself.

divers

And as if that weren’t enough, Duncan has been a good king, gentle and not proud (borne his faculties so meek), clear of mind, etc. — there’s no excuse for killing him, as there might be if he had been a bad king.

that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off

If someone were to kill him, all his virtues would be remembered by everyone; everyone would be all the more outraged that anyone would kill him.

Plead like angels — cry out virtuously, as an angel would, against the crime, with a voice like a trumpet, for all to hear, against the damnable taking of his life.

And pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast

Pity, as innocent as a newborn baby, moved by the great crime . . .

heaven’s cherubim, horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air

The angels, riding the winds.

Cherubim — angels.

Horsed — riding as if on a horse.

Sightless — invisible.

Couriers of the air — winds.

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye

Shall proclaim the murder (horrid deed) to everyone.

That tears shall drown the wind.

Causing such great sorrow that the tears from the general grief will be so great as to drown the wind.

I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent

I don’t have any good reasons in favor of committing the murder.

Macbeth is comparing his intent to riding a horse, which he cannot urge onward, lacking spurs (reasons).

Vaulting ambition

Macbeth recognizes that it is only his ambition that drives him, only his desire to be king. He has no reason to kill Duncan, he only wants the crown. He describes his ambition as vaulting — leaping high.

which o’erleaps itself / And falls on the other.

Leaping so high, in fact, that it will (he hopes) leap over the current situation, and take him all the way to the other side, the other bank of the river (where he can escape judgment). This is a desperate hope, of course.

How now! what news?

What’s up? Have you heard anything?

He has almost supp’d

He (Duncan) has almost finished dinner.

Supp’d — finished eating.

why have you left the chamber?

Why did you leave the dining room?

Hath he ask’d for me?

Has he (Duncan) noticed that I’ve left?

Know you not he has?

Of course he has. Don’t you know this?

We will proceed no further in this business

For the moment, thinking of how well Duncan has treated him lately, Macbeth has decided not to kill him.

He hath honour’d me of late

Duncan has honored me, in front of others, just recently.

I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people

Many people think very highly of me (have golden opinions) right now.

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss

And I want to enjoy that esteem now, while it’s fresh.

Not cast aside so soon.

Not throw it away so quickly.

Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since?

What? Were you drunk when you thought, earlier, it would be a good idea to kill Duncan? Has that hope since died out?

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale / At what it did so freely?

And now that you’ve had a chance to think about it, you’ve decided that it was naive and cowardly? Even though you thought it was a good idea at the time?

green — sickly

pale — weak

From this time / Such I account thy love.

From now on, this is how I’ll think of your love — weak and cowardly.

Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?

Are you afraid to carry out in action what you truly desire?

Wouldst thou have that / Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, / And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Would you really want to gain the thing you want most — the crown — yet know yourself to be a coward?

Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,” / Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

Living constantly undecided, always changing your mind between “I don’t dare” and “I want it”? Like the cat in the old saying, the cat who wanted to catch the fish, but didn’t want to wet its paws?

Prithee, peace

Be quiet!

Prithee — I pray thee, I ask you.

I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none.

I am a man, I dare to do anything and everything that a man may properly do. Anyone who dares to do more than that is not a man.

What beast was’t, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me?

If you’re a man, and a man does not dare to do this, was it some beast, then, that first suggested this? Obviously not!

break — break the news of

enterprise — business, plan

When you durst do it, then you were a man

When you dared to do this, that’s when you were a real man.

And, to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man.

And if you were to become greater than you are (become king), then you would be even more of a man.

Nor time nor place / Did then adhere, and yet you would make both

Nothing would have stopped you then; you were willing to do it any time, and anywhere.

They have made themselves, and that their fitness now / Does unmake you.

But now that the opportunity has presented itself, and the time and place are both favorable (have made themselves), now that the time and place are good for our plan (their fitness), you can’t do it, you’re no longer as much of a man as you were, you’re scared of the whole thing — (it) does unmake you.

I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me

I have nursed children at my breast, and I know how beautiful and tender such moments are.

I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this.

But I would have taken the baby away from me while it was still nursing, and killed it, before I would do what you’ve done — swear to do something and then back down.

If we should fail?

What happens if we fail? Or get caught?

We fail!

Then we fail! At least we tried!

Some scholars prefer other interpretations, since (a) the penalty for such a failure would certainly have been death, and (b) the punctuation is uncertain to begin with (see notes regarding punctuation).

Alternative readings include making this a question, echoing Macbeth’s question — “How could we fail?”

Punctuation

We must not be misled by the punctuation as it stands; punctuation in the Elizabethan era was largely a matter of the printer’s opinion, and could in no way be depended on to be accurate. Also, Shakespeare never saw any printed version of any of his plays, so we cannot rely on even the earliest printed versions as if they had been approved by the author.

But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail.

Just tighten up, or gather up, your courage and we won’t fail.

Sticking-place — stopping point, or “all the way.”

Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey / Soundly invite him

His hard journey today will make sleep very appealing to him.

his two chamberlains / Will I with wine and wassail so convince

I’ll get his two servants drunk and confused, with wine and partying.

That memory, the warder of the brain . . . A limbeck only

So drunk and confused that their memories will be only as substantial as a fume.

warder — keeper, guardian. Memory is described as the guardian of the brain because we rely on our memory as a guide.

The receipt of reason — what reason could do with impressions received from the brain; reason would also be defeated by the wine.

limbeck — an apparatus for distilling a liquid, so that its effects are stronger on the thing receiving it.

when in swinish sleep / Their drenched natures lie as in a death

When they’re too drunk to stay awake — passed out and sleeping like pigs, drenched with wine so thoroughly they lie as if dead . . .

What cannot you and I perform upon / The unguarded Duncan?

. . . What can we not do to Duncan, who is left unguarded?

what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

What can we not blame on his officers, who will no doubt be thought guilty of the murder (the great quell) we perform?

spongy — full of liquid (wine), like a sponge

quell — put a stop to, end

Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males.

You should only have sons, not daughters, because you are completely without femininity — your bravery and boldness are appropriate only for men.

undaunted mettle — bold makeup, brave constitution

compose — make

Will it not be received, / When we have mark’d with blood those sleepy two / Of his own chamber and used their very daggers, / That they have done’t?

Won’t everyone think (receive) that the two officers of his chamber are the ones who have killed him?

marked — smeared

Macbeth is planning to smear the king’s grooms with blood, and use their daggers to kill Duncan, to make them look guilty. Then it will be received (thought, believed) that the grooms have done it.

Who dares receive it other . . .

Who would dare to think otherwise . . .

As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar / Upon his death?

Since no one will suspect us, because we’ll be moaning and crying so loudly over his death.

I am settled

I have decided.

and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat

I tighten up each limb, each part of my body, to do the deed.

corporal agent — physical part, bodily capability

terrible feat — the murder

Away, and mock the time with fairest show

Let’s get away from here, and pretend (mock the time) that we’re enjoying ourselves with our company by appearing light-hearted (putting on our fairest show).

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Our false faces — the faces we show to everyone else, appearing untroubled and innocent — will hide the secret we’re keeping (what the false, treacherous heart knows) — that we’re going to kill the king.

Aside

In an aside, the character speaks privately to himself for a moment, or directly to the audience, or privately to some (but not all) of the other characters present.

As a matter of convention, an aside is always a true statement of what the character thinks. A character speaking in an aside may be mistaken, but may not be dishonest.

An aside (again as a matter of convention) cannot be heard by those not spoken to.

Exit

He leaves the stage.

Exeunt

Latin, literally “they leave.” Everyone leaves the stage.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.