Macbeth Act2:Scene1-4 Essay, Research Paper
Summary of Act 2, Scene 1: Past midnight, Macbeth tells Banquo that they’ll speak of the witches another time, and bids him goodnight. . . . Macbeth sees “a dagger of the mind,” hears his wife’s bell, and goes to kill King Duncan.
+ Enter Banquo and Fleance.
Banquo: “How goes the night, boy? (2.1.1).
+ Enter Macbeth and a Servant.
Banquo: “Give me my sword. / Who’s there?” (2.1.9-10).
+ Exit Banquo and Fleance.
Macbeth: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? (2.1.33-34).
Enter Banquo and Fleance:
The scene opens with some casual conversation which tells us that it’s very dark, and that something bad is about to happen.
Banquo and his son Fleance are in the courtyard of Macbeth’s castle, and Fleance is carrying a torch. Banquo asks Fleance, “How goes the night, boy? (2.1.1). He’s not asking Fleance how he’s doing; he’s asking how late it is. Fleance hasn’t heard a clock strike, but the moon is down, so it must be past midnight. Banquo then hands his sword to Fleance, who is apparently serving as his father’s squire. Banquo also gives Fleance something else, perhaps the belt and sheath for the sword. It appears that Banquo is getting ready to go to bed, and he remarks that “There’s husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out” (2.1.5). “Husbandry” is thriftiness; Banquo means that heaven has gone to bed, and has put out its “candles” (the stars) for the night.
The moon is down, the night is starless, and there are no street lights in Macbeth’s castle. In short, it’s darker than any dark most of us have ever seen. And within this dark is fear. Banquo is dead tired and feels as heavy as lead, but he’s fighting sleep because he’s afraid of his own thoughts or dreams. He asks the powers above to “Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose!” (2.1.8-9), but we don’t know exactly what “thoughts” he’s afraid of. A little later he says that he has dreamed of the weird sisters, so maybe he’s been thinking about their prophecies. Perhaps he fears that Macbeth is planning murder. Or he might fear his own thoughts about how he might become the father of kings. Or maybe he’s just been having uncanny thoughts, such as seem to creep up on us in a very dark night, when every bush can be a bear.
Whatever fear it is that’s keeping Banquo awake, it’s also made him edgy. When he sees another torch, he takes his sword from Fleance and calls out “Who’s there?” (2.1.10). Logically, he should have nothing to fear within the locked gates of Macbeth’s castle, but he still feels the need to have his sword ready, just in case.
Enter Macbeth and a Servant:
When Banquo recognizes Macbeth in the dark night, he wonders why Macbeth is still up, and then tells him how pleased the King is with Macbeth’s hospitality. The King has sent gifts to the cooks and other servants, and Banquo has a diamond which is a gift from the King to Lady Macbeth, to thank her for being a “most kind hostess” (2.1.16). Macbeth, with apparent modesty, replies that he and his wife were unprepared for the King’s visit, so they weren’t able to entertain him as they would have wished to.
Banquo reassures Macbeth that he has been an excellent host to the King, then brings up the subject of the witches. He says that he dreamed of the weird sisters the night before, and tells Macbeth that “To you they have show’d some truth.” Macbeth replies, “I think not of them” (2.1.21), which is a lie. True, we haven’t heard him mention the witches, but he’s been thinking of nothing except how to make their prophecies come true.
After this lie, Macbeth adds, with seeming casualness, that sometime he’d like to talk with Banquo about the witches. Banquo replies that he’s willing, anytime. Then Macbeth almost gives himself away by saying, “If you shall cleave to my consent, when ’tis, / It shall make honour for you” (2.1.25-26). “Cleave to my consent” means “give me your support”; “when ’tis” means “when the time comes”; and “honour,” as it is used here, seems to mean the sort of honor which Macbeth himself received when the King gave him the title of Thane of Cawdor. In short, it looks like Macbeth is offering Banquo a bribe for Banquo’s support regarding something having to do with the witches, who said that Macbeth would be king.
Despite Macbeth’s vagueness about the purpose of the support he might need from Banquo, Banquo senses that something could be very wrong, and replies, “So I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchised and allegiance clear, / I shall be counsell’d” (2.1.26-29). Both the “none” and the “it” refer back to “honor,” so Banquo is saying “So long as I don’t lose my honor (my personal integrity) in trying to gain honor (rewards), and so long as I can act with a clear conscience, I’ll listen to your advice.” This is very nearly an insult to Macbeth. Banquo has very clearly implied that Macbeth could have something dishonorable in mind. Understandably, Macbeth has no more to say to Banquo, and bids him goodnight.
Exeunt Banquo and Fleance:
After Banquo and Fleance leave him, Macbeth sends his servant to tell Lady Macbeth to ring a bell when Macbeth’s drink is ready. The servant is supposed to think that the drink is some sort of toddy that one would have just before going to bed. Actually, there is no drink, and the bell is Lady Macbeth’s signal that the coast is clear for Macbeth to go and murder the King.
Alone now, Macbeth is so obsessed by thoughts of the murder that he starts to hallucinate. He says, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? (2.1.33-34), and reaches for it. Of course he can’t grasp it, and he realizes that he’s seeing the dagger that he plans to use in the murder, a dagger which beckons him toward King Duncan’s door, and a dagger upon which appear thick drops of blood. He understands that “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (2.1.48-49), but he is not horrified. Rather, he wants to be as deadly as that dagger.
The darkness of the dark night suits Macbeth’s purpose and mood. In the dark terrible dreams come, and witchcraft celebrates its rites, and Murder itself stalks the night. In Macbeth’s words:
. . . wither’d Murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. (2.1.52-60)
In his imagination, Macbeth sees Murder as a withered man who is “alarumed,” called to action, by his sentinel, the wolf. Normally, a sentinel would keep an eye out for danger and call out a warning, but Murder’s sentinel keeps an eye out for the opportunity to kill, and his howl is his “watch,” his announcement that another victim has been found for Murder.
At this point, where Macbeth describes Murder as moving “thus with his stealthy pace,” it’s important to notice the “thus.” It doesn’t make sense unless Macbeth himself is now pacing like Murder itself, like the murderous rapist Tarquin, “like a ghost.” He asks the earth to be deaf to his steps, not to “prate [chatter] of my whereabout,” because the present silence of the night suits the horror of what he’s about to do. Thus we see in Macbeth a man who wants to be a silent and deadly figure of horror. If he were alive today, Macbeth would be comparing himself to the Night Stalker, or the Hillside Strangler, or Charles Manson.
But Macbeth hasn’t done the murder yet; he hasn’t even gone to the King’s door yet, and he tells himself that “Whiles I threat, he lives: / Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives” (2.1.60-61). In other words, while he’s saying all these threatening things, King Duncan still lives, and his words haven’t yet inspired him to actually do the deed. Then the bell rings, and Macbeth answers the call, finally moving from horrifying words to a horrible deed only when his wife’s bell tells him it’s time.
Summary of Act 2, Scene 2: Lady Macbeth waits for Macbeth to come with the news that he has killed the King. . . . Macbeth is so shaken by the murder that he brings the bloody daggers with him, and Lady Macbeth takes them from him, to place them with the sleeping grooms. . . . A knocking at the castle gate frightens Macbeth, and his wife comes to lead him away, so that they can wash the blood from their hands.
+ Enter Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth: “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold” (2.2.1).
+ Enter Macbeth.
Macbeth: “I have done the deed” (2.2.14).
Enter Lady Macbeth:
This scene, like the previous one and the next, is usually shown as taking place in the courtyard of Macbeth’s castle. In the previous scene Macbeth had an ostensibly casual conversation with Banquo, but as soon as Banquo went to bed, it became apparent that Macbeth was awaiting his wife’s signal (a bell) to go do the murder. Now, where Macbeth waited for his wife’s bell, she waits for the news that he has killed the King.
The courtyard is apparently quite near the King’s bedchamber, and she listens intently, as though she could actually hear the murder being committed. She is very excited, and says of herself, “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold / What hath quench’d them hath given me fire” (2.2.1-2). The “them” whom she refers to are the King’s two personal servants, his “grooms.” She has given each of them a “posset,” a mixture of wine and milk. It’s something you would drink just before going to bed, to help you sleep, but Lady Macbeth has drugged the grooms’ possets, so that their sleep is the next thing to death. Lady Macbeth herself has also had some wine, but she feels bold and fierce, not drunk and sleepy.
At this moment she thinks she hears something and says, “Hark! Peace! / It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it” (2.2.2-4). A lot happens in these few words. When she says “Hark!” she’s telling herself to listen, and then when she says “Peace!” she’s telling herself to be quiet, so that she can hear what she’s listening for. After she listens, she decides that she heard a screech owl, and she takes that as a good omen, because the screech owl is nature’s own “fatal bellman.” A “fatal bellman” is a night watchman who rings a bell at the door of a prisoner scheduled for execution in the morning, and an owl does the same job in nature, because–according to folklore–the screech of a screech owl foretells the death of a person. Therefore, Lady Macbeth believes that because she has just heard the owl’s screech, her husband must be “about it,” that is, doing it (the murder) at this very moment.
Not only did Lady Macbeth drug the grooms, she made sure that they were fast asleep and that the doors to the King’s bedchamber were open. Then she rang the bell to summon Macbeth. Because of all that she has done, she can practically see each step Macbeth takes. But suddenly she hears her husband say–probably in a hoarse whisper–”Who’s there? what, ho!” (2.2.8). Just as Lady Macbeth thinks she heard something, so now Macbeth thinks he hears someone, and he’s trying to check it out. Immediately, Lady Macbeth assumes the worst, that the grooms have awakened before the murder has been done, and that all will be lost.
She also assumes the worst about her husband. She says to herself, “I laid their daggers ready; / He [Macbeth] could not miss ‘em. Had he [King Duncan] not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2.11-13). She’s thinking that maybe her husband is so stupid that he can’t find the grooms’ daggers, even though she put them in plain sight. And she’s thinking that she should have done the job herself, which she would have, if the King hadn’t looked like her father. Of course she doesn’t understand the irony of what she is saying, because she thinks that it’s good to be a heartless murderer. Later in the play, we will see that she’s not nearly so tough as she now believes herself to be.
As Lady Macbeth is thinking that she would be a better killer than her husband, he appears, and says, “I have done the deed” (2.2.14). But though he has done the deed, he can’t handle the psychological consequences. For one thing, he is hearing things, or thinks he is. He asks his wife if she heard a noise, and she says she heard only the owl and some crickets. Then he asks her if she was talking as he came down the stairs from King Duncan’s bedchamber, and she says she was. But now he thinks he hears something else, and asks who’s sleeping in the bedchamber next to the King’s. His wife answers that Donalbain has that room, and Macbeth says “This is a sorry sight” (2.2.18).
This last remark of Macbeth’s shows how his mind is jumping around. After worrying about this noise and that, Macbeth suddenly says something is a “sorry sight.” Editors always explain it by inserting a stage direction, “Looking on his hands,” and that’s almost certainly right, because his hands are certainly covered with blood.
His wife tells him he’s a fool, but his mind has already jumped to something else. As he was leaving the King’s bedchamber, Macbeth heard someone in another room laugh in his sleep, and someone else call out “Murder!” These two sleepers then awoke, and prayed, and settled down to sleep again. Meanwhile, Macbeth was frozen in his tracks outside their door, and as the two settled down to sleep, “One cried “God bless us!” and “Amen” the other; / As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands” (2.2.24-25). “As” means “as if” and the idea is that Macbeth felt that the two sleepers could see his bloody hands — and his guilt — right through their door. Now Macbeth wonders why he couldn’t say “amen” to the “God bless us” that he heard.
Lady Macbeth tells her husband that he’ll drive them both crazy if he keeps thinking like that, but he says, “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep’” (2.2.32-33). Now his mind has made a very large leap, not just a jump. This “voice” is a pure hallucination, just as the “dagger of the mind” was. He praises sleep as innocence, as the one sure relief from all of life’s problems, but seems sure that he — who murdered an innocent man in his sleep — will never sleep again.
His wife asks, “Who was it that thus cried?” Apparently he doesn’t answer, or she just quits trying to be reasonable with him, because she says, “Why, worthy thane, / You do unbend your noble strength, to think / So brainsickly of things” (2.2.41-43). She tells him to “Go get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand” (2.2.43-44). The “filthy witness” is the blood of Duncan, which acts as a witness to Macbeth’s crime, but as Lady Macbeth is saying this, she sees another “witness”: Macbeth is still carrying the grooms’ daggers! She tells him he must take the daggers back, put them with the grooms, and smear the grooms with blood, so it will look like the grooms killed the King.
Macbeth, however, is paralyzed with the horror of what he has done. He says, “I’ll go no more: / I am afraid to think what I have done; / Look on’t again I dare not” (2.2.47-49). Now Lady Macbeth is scornful of her husband. She takes the daggers from him and tells him that it’s childish to be afraid of the sleeping or the dead. And she’s not afraid of blood, either. She says, “If he [King Duncan] do bleed, / I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal / For it must seem their guilt” (2.2.52-54). With these bitter words, she goes to finish her husband’s job for him.
As soon as Lady Macbeth has exited, we hear a knocking. Macbeth hears it, too, and it frightens him, but he can do nothing except stare at his hands. He looks at them as though he had never seen them before, and he feels that looking at them is like getting his eyes gouged out. It is the blood on his hands that causes this horrible fascination, and he feels that the blood can never be washed away. Before his hands are clean, they will make all the seas of the world turn red: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red” (2.2.57-60).
As she returns, Lady Macbeth hears what Macbeth is saying to himself, and she comments, “My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white” (2.2.61-62). She means that her hands are red, too (because she has been busy smearing the King’s blood on the grooms), but that she would be ashamed to have a heart as white as Macbeth’s. A white heart is white because it has no blood, and the person with a white heart is a coward. As she delivers this insult, we hear the knocking again, and Lady Macbeth takes her husband away so that they can wash up. In her opinion, it will only take a little water to make them innocent. She also tells him he must put on his night-gown, so that if they have to get up and talk to whoever is knocking, it won’t look like they’ve been up all night.