Summary

Macbeth trusts to the strength of his castle, to withstand the siege by the English forces. But he is also beset with bad news from within — his courage is failing, he learns that Lady Macbeth is dead, and finally, he hears that Birnam wood is moving toward Dunsinane. Macbeth is consumed with fear and despair, and doesn’t know what to do next. His speeches show us the depths of his understanding of life, of the world. He continues to alternate between hope and despair. At the end of the scene, he is still determined to fight.

This scene contains many of the most famous quotations in the entire play.

Enter

To come on stage.

Dunsinane

Dunsinane is the name of Macbeth’s castle.

Hang out our banners on the outward walls; / The cry is still “They come:” . . .

We’ll continue preparing for war. The lookouts still cry out that the English are coming. The castle is strong, we can laugh at their siege. Let them stay down there until they die of hunger and disease (till famine and the ague eat them up).

Were they not forced with those that should be ours . . .

If our troops could have been reinforced (forced) by those soldiers who should have fought for us (those that should be ours), we could have met the English daringly, face to face, and beaten them back.

A cry of women within.

From offstage (within), we hear the cries of women.

What is that noise?

Macbeth wants to know what noise is distracting him from his worries.

I have almost forgot the taste of fears .  .

I’ve become so used to horror and fear that I’ve forgotten what fears feel like (the taste of fears). I used to feel horror, like anyone else, if I heard a shriek in the night; the hair on the back of my neck would, when I heard a frightening story (a dismal treatise), rise up and move, as if it were alive.

I have supp’d full with horrors; / Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts / Cannot once start me.

I have had my fill of horrors. Fearful things (direness) are so familiar to my murderous thoughts that I can no longer be startled (cannot once start me).

Wherefore was that cry?

What was the reason for that new cry?

The queen, my lord, is dead.

Lady Macbeth is dead. We’re not told whether the scream came from her, or from someone close to her. Later, we learn a little more about her death, but Macbeth seems almost unable to respond to the terrible news.

She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word.

If only she had died later, after this battle is over, there would have been more time to spend on it. There’s not much time here and now to deal with this.

Macbeth seems less disturbed at the news than we might expect, but he is also deep in thought about the nature of life and death, and perhaps has time only for himself. He must recognize that his death is imminent.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow . . .

Macbeth reveals his disgust with the pace of life, with how long life takes (creeps in this petty pace . . . to the last syllable of recorded time, the very last moment of life), seeming to yearn for death. He also recognizes that everything we’ve done, everything we’ve lived through (all our yesterdays), all our experience, serves only as a useless guide, showing fools the way to their death.

Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow . . .

Burn out, like a short-lived candle! Life is nothing more than a shadow that moves, a bad actor (poor player) who overacts for a while on the stage of life, and then is gone forever (heard no more). Life is a story told by an idiot, with lots of drama (sound and fury), but which in the end has no meaning (signifying nothing). (Or, perhaps, indicates that the state of not being, the state of nothingness, is the only true reality.)

This is also an echo of Macbeth’s earlier speech, when he said Nothing is, but what is not. (Act 1, Scene 3)

Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.

You’ve come here to speak, to use your tongue; do it (give me your story) quickly.

I should report that which I say I saw, / But know not how to do it.

I need to report what I saw, but I don’t know how to say it.

As I did stand my watch upon the hill, / I look’d toward Birnam . . .

I was standing guard, on the hill, and as I looked toward Birnam wood, it soon seemed to me (methought) that the wood began to move.

Liar and slave!

Macbeth insults the messenger in his fury. He cannot allow himself to believe these words, which, if true, signal the beginning of the end.

Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so . . .

Punish me (Let me endure your wrath) if I’m not telling the truth (if’t be not so), but you can see it for yourself, not three miles away. I tell you, the wood is moving (a moving grove).

If thou speak’st false, / Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive, / Till famine cling thee

If you’re lying, you’ll be strung up alive on the closest tree (upon the next tree), and left there to starve to death (till famine cling thee).

cling — shrivel

if thy speech be sooth, / I care not if thou dost for me as much.

If what you say is true (if thy speech be sooth), I don’t care if you do the same to me (dost for me as much).

I pull in resolution, and begin / To doubt the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth . . .

I’m becoming less and less sure of myself (pull in resolution), and I start to doubt the speech of the devil who lies like the truth (referring to the apparitions, who told him the truth, but let him believe he really understood their messages when he did not).

Arm, arm, and out!

Get your weapons and your armor and get out to the battlefield!

If this which he avouches does appear, / There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.

If what the messenger says (avouches) is true (comes to pass, does appear), there’s no point in running away (flying hence) or in staying (tarrying) here. There will be no safe course.

I ’gin to be aweary of the sun, / And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.

I begin to tire (to be aweary) of seeing the sun, and wish the whole world would come to an end.

Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack! / At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

Ring the bell! Sound the alarm! Come on, storm and ruin (wrack)! At least we’ll die like soldiers, wearing our gear in battle.

Macbeth swings back and forth between despair and determination to fight to the last.

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.

Exeunt, marching.

Latin, literally “they leave.” The soldiers leave the stage, marching to the battle.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.

Exeunt all but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Latin, literally “they leave.” Most of the players leave the stage, leaving Macbeth alone with Lady Macbeth.

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.

Exeunt

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

Pronounced EX-ee-uhnt.