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.
He’s unresponsive, and seems lost in his thoughts. She advises him to snap out of it, but he can’t. As he is being led away, he says that “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself” (2.2.70). He means that if he fully understands what he has done, he will see what a monster he has become, and he doesn’t want to know that monster. At the very last, as we hear the knocking again, Macbeth wishes none of it had ever happened, and he calls out “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!” (2.2.71).
Summary of Act 2, Scene 3: The Porter pretends that he is hell’s gatekeeper, then lets in Macduff and Lennox. . . . Macduff discovers King Duncan’s body. . . . Macbeth, in pretended fury, kills the King’s grooms. . . . Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing that they will be murdered next, flee.
+ Enter a Porter.
Porter: “Here’s a knocking indeed!” (2.3.1).
+ Enter Macduff and Lennox.
Macduff: “Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed, that you do lie so late?” (2.3.22-23).
+ Enter Macbeth.
Macduff: “Is the king stirring, worthy thane?” (2.3.45).
+ Enter Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth: “Woe, alas! / What, in our house?” (2.3.87-88).
+ Enter Malcolm and Donalbain.
Macduff: “Your royal father ’s murder’d” (2.3.100).
Enter a Porter:
In the previous scene, we heard a repeated knocking.
(You might be interested in reading Thomas DeQuincey’s famous comments on the significance of the knocking, in his essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.”)
The knocking frightened Macbeth and made Lady Macbeth hurry to cover up their crime. She led Macbeth away to change into nightclothes and to wash King Duncan’s blood off his hands.
The knocking continues, louder and more impatient, and now we see a Porter coming to the gate, but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. Perhaps that’s because he is — as Lady Macbeth was at the opening of the previous scene — still a little drunk. It occurs to him that if he were the gatekeeper of hell, he’d have plenty of opportunities to turn the key. He says, “Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key” (2.3.1-3). Then, instead of turning the key and opening the gate, he describes some people he might welcome to hell.
First there is a farmer who hanged himself “on the expectation of plenty” (2.3.6). Because everyone was going to have plenty of food, the farmer’s prices were going to go down, and he couldn’t stand it. Next, there is an equivocator, the kind of person who thinks it’s not a sin to tell a lie, if what he says is somehow true. (Later in the play, the witches equivocate with Macbeth when they tell him that he cannot be killed by man “of woman born.” That sounds like it means that Macbeth cannot be killed by any man, but he is killed by Macduff, who wasn’t “born,” but from his mother’s womb “untimely ripped.”) After the equivocator is let into hell, there’s an English tailor who steals cloth by making his customer’s pants smaller than he should. Finally, the Porter just gets tired of himself and opens the gate.
We may be a bit tired of him, too. We might say that by showing minor sinners coming to hell-gate, the scene highlights the hellish sinfulness of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan. However, this is hardly something that we’re likely to think of as we’re wondering who’s knocking, and whether the Porter is ever going to get around to opening the gate. Another way to explain the passage is to call it comic relief. The problem with this is that the jokes are all of the “you-had-to-be-there” variety. For example, if you were an Elizabethan Englishman and had a bad experience with a tailor who had sold you baggy pants instead of the extra-baggy ones you really wanted, you might laugh at the tailor joke. Then again, you might not, because there were as many tailor jokes then as there are lawyer jokes now. Stage directors generally understand that the audience is unlikely to get the jokes, so they often give the Porter supposedly funny stuff to do, such as peeing, or talking in an accent so thick that you can’t understand a word. The result is generally just boring.
Or worse than boring. We’ve seen all the blood on Macbeth’s hands, and then on Lady Macbeth’s hands, and we’ve heard the knocking at the gate, and we’re wondering if they’re going to get caught, but then comes this cursed Porter with his dumb jokes.
Enter Macduff and Lennox:
Ironically, when the Porter finally does open the gate, he has the cheek to beg a tip, saying, “I pray you, remember the porter” (2.3.21). It doesn’t seem likely that the Porter gets his tip. Macduff asks him if he was up late, and the Porter answers “‘Faith sir, we were carousing till the second cock [3 a.m.]; and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things” (2.3.24-26). Macduff plays along, and asks what the three things are. The Porter answers, “nose-painting, sleep, and urine” (2.3.28-29). Sleep and urine don’t need explaining; “nose-painting” merely alludes to the fact that drinking a lot makes your face flush.
This supposed joke falls flat, and the Porter adds, “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes” (2.3.29). He explains that drinking increases the desire for sex as it takes away the ability to perform. Therefore, it can be said that “much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery” (2.3.31-32). This, like most drunk jokes, might be funny to other drunks, but Macduff is not impressed. He remarks that the Porter has had too much to drink, and asks if Macbeth is up.
Just as Macduff is asking for him, Macbeth appears in his nightshirt, as though he had been awakened by the knocking. Macduff asks “Is the king stirring, worthy thane?” (2.3.45). Macbeth says that he’s not, and leads him to the door of the King’s chamber. When Macduff goes in to see the King, Lennox comments on what a terrible night it’s been. The wind has blown chimneys down and it howled so terribly that it sounded like “Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death” (2.3.56), and prophecies of some unknown terror. The owl, bird of darkness and death, was heard all night long, and some said that the very earth shook like a man with chills and fever.
Macbeth doesn’t make much of an answer. He’s probably preparing himself for the moment when Macduff discovers the King’s murder, and it comes soon enough. As Lennox starts to speak again, Macduff rushes in, crying “O horror, horror, horror!” (2.3.64).
The next few moments are often hard for readers to “get.” The important thing is not to understand that King Duncan is dead, but to feel how the characters feel. They may sound a bit melodramatic to us, but of course most of us have never seen the bloody corpse of a someone we loved, and none of us have Shakespeare to help us express our feelings.
For Macduff, King Duncan is “the Lord’s anointed temple” (2.3.68), which has been vandalized and destroyed. He tells Macbeth and Lennox that they must see for themselves. It will make them blind and turn them to stone, but then they will feel and speak has he does. Macbeth and Lennox go, and Macduff calls out to all those sleeping in the castle, “Awake, awake! / Ring the alarum-bell. Murder and treason!” (2.3.73-74). He calls upon Banquo, Donalbain, and Macolm rise from the apparent death of sleep and confront real death, to rise up like ghosts, because the King’s death will be too much for living men.
Enter Lady Macbeth:
As the alarm bell rings out, the stage fills with people. First comes Lady Macbeth, asking why the terrible bell is ringing. Macduff tells her that the news is not for her to hear, because it would kill a woman, but then Banquo appears, and Lady Macbeth hears Macduff tell Banquo that the king has been murdered. At this point, Lady Macbeth strikes a false note. Her response to the news that her king has been murdered is, “Woe, alas! / What, in our house?” (2.3.87-88). After just two words of mourning, the “What, in our house?” comes very quickly, and it sounds defensive, as though someone had hinted that the sheets weren’t clean.
Luckily for Lady Macbeth, what she says is hardly noticed in the atmosphere of crisis and outrage. Banquo pleads with Macduff to tell him it didn’t happen, and then Macbeth returns, saying that “from this instant, / There ’s nothing serious in mortality: / All is but toys: renown and grace is dead” (2.3.92-94). Despite the fact that he is the murderer, this doesn’t sound like play-acting. It really does seem that Macbeth feels that the death of King Duncan has made the world meaningless.
Enter Malcolm and Donalbain:
Just behind Macbeth comes Lennox, now joined by Ross, who was apparently sleeping in the castle. On their heels come Malcolm and Donalbain, the King’s sons. Donalbain, the younger son, asks what’s wrong, and Macbeth answers with a metaphor, “The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopp’d” (2.3.98-99), while Macduff says simply, “Your royal father ’s murder’d” (2.3.100).
Malcolm asks who did the murder. Lennox replies that it seemed that the grooms did, because of the blood on their hands, on their faces, and on the daggers which were lying on their pillows. He says, “They stared, and were distracted; / No man’s life was to be trusted with them” (2.3.104-105). We know the truth that Lennox doesn’t. The grooms were staring at all that blood, and they were distracted because they were still feeling the effects of the drug that Lady Macbeth slipped into their drinks. In that state they weren’t any good as bodyguards, but they didn’t appear guilty of premeditated murder, either, so it’s a shock when Macbeth says, “O, yet I do repent me of my fury, / That I did kill them” (2.3.106-107).
We understand Macbeth’s motivation. When he was doing the deed he had heard noises. Maybe the grooms had made those noises, and maybe the grooms, even in their stupor, might have seen or heard something. And even if they hadn’t, it was just better to shut them up for good. When Macduff asks why he killed the grooms, Macbeth speaks as though he is his own defense lawyer, and says that anyone would have done the same thing. He describes how Duncan was all covered with blood, and how the grooms were all covered with blood, and then asks rhetorically, “Who could refrain, / That had a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage to make’s love known?” (2.3.116-118).
So Macbeth depicts himself as a man of love and courage. Before anyone can ask just how much courage it takes to kill two dazed and defenseless men, Lady Macbeth punctuates Macbeth’s performance by calling out, “Help me hence, ho!” (2.3.118), and falls down in a faint.
As Macduff and others tend to the lady, we see that Macbeth and his wife have not fooled everyone. Malcolm asks his brother why they aren’t grieving as loudly as everyone else, and Donalbain says what they are both thinking: “What should be spoken here, where our fate, / Hid in an auger-hole, may rush, and seize us?” (2.3.121-122). Now is not the time or place to express their grief, because they could be murdered at any minute. They need to get out of there as quickly as possible. Malcolm adds that when they do express their grief, their “strong sorrow” will be “Upon the foot of motion” (2.3.124-125). In other words, they will express their sorrow when they are able to do something about it, such as take revenge on their father’s killer.
Meanwhile, Banquo appears to be taking charge of the situation. He makes sure that someone carries away Lady Macbeth, and then proposes that the men hold a meeting “when we have our naked frailties hid, / That suffer in exposure” (2.3.126-127). This reminds us that everyone, except Macduff and Lennox, are in their nightclothes. They’re not really “naked,” but night in windy Scotland must be cold enough to make them feel frail and exposed. Banquo wants to discuss the murder, because they have all been shaken by “Fears and scruples” (2.3.129). “Scruples” are doubts and suspicions. Banquo will not just accept the idea that the murder was the work of two drunken grooms, and he assumes that no one else will, either. He says, “In the great hand of God I stand; and thence / Against the undivulged pretence I fight / Of treasonous malice” (2.3.130-132). An “undivulged pretence . . . of treasonous malice” is a secret conspiracy by the evil forces of treason.
Of course everyone agrees to put on their clothes and come to the meeting that Banquo proposes, but as soon as the rest have gone, Malcolm and Donalbain make their plans to escape the place where their father was butchered. Malcolm doesn’t point the finger at anyone in particular, but he feels that someone is faking grief for King Duncan. As he says, “To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy” (2.3.136-137). He’s going to England. Donalbain agrees that “There’s daggers in men’s smiles” (2.3.140), and he’s going to Ireland. That way, they’ll have a little additional safety, because no one will be able to kill them both at once.
In a moment they’re gone into the night, without saying goodbye to anyone, not even each other.
Summary of Act 2, Scene 4: Ross and an Old Man discuss what an unnatural night it has been. . . . Ross and Macduff doubtfully discuss the news that Malcolm and Donalbain are responsible for their father’s murder. . . . Ross heads for Scone, to see Macbeth crowned King of Scotland, but Macduff is going to stay home.
+ Enter Ross and an Old Man.
Old Man: “I have seen / Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night / Hath trifled former knowings” (2.4.2-4).
+ Enter Macduff.
Ross: “Is’t known who did this more than bloody deed? (2.4.22).
Enter Ross and an Old Man:
This short scene is like the rumblings of distant thunder. It reminds you of the great storm that has just passed, and suggests that another may be on the way.
The discovery of King Duncan’s corpse happened shortly after 3 a.m. Now it is daytime, but still strangely dark. The place is somewhere near Macbeth’s castle, and Ross is talking to an Old Man.
Ross is a minor character who seems to function as an observer of Macbeth. He was the one who appeared in the second scene of the play to tell the final part of the story of Macbeth’s defeat of the rebel forces led by the first Thane of Cawdor. It was Ross (accompanied by Angus) who first greeted Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor. And Ross probably saw Macbeth kill King Duncan’s grooms. At the end of this scene Ross says that he will go to see Macbeth crowned King of Scotland.
The Old Man’s memories go back seventy years, but nothing he can remember compares to what has happened during this night: “I have seen / Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night / Hath trifled former knowings” (2.4.2-4). Ross replies “Ah, good father, / Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, / Threaten his bloody stage” (2.4.4-6). The “heavens” are the heavens above, where God lives, and they are also the upper regions of Shakespeare’s Globe theater. Ross is saying that the heavens frown angrily (”threaten”) as they look down upon man playing his part on the stage of life, which has been made bloody by the murder of King Duncan.
King Duncan should have been honored and loved, so his murder was unnatural, and Ross and the Old Man go on to tell each other of all the unnatural things that have been happening lately. They do not know that Macbeth is the murderer, but as they speak we can see the parallels to Macbeth and what he has done.
Ross points out that though the clock says it’s time for the sun to shine, it’s still dark. Ross thinks that maybe this terrible night is stronger than day, or maybe the day is ashamed to see what has been done in the night. We are reminded that Macbeth wanted a very dark night for the murder, one in which he wouldn’t have to look at what he was doing, and he got such a night. Now that night has lingered into the day.
The Old Man answers that other unnatural things have been happening, too: “On Tuesday last, / A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d” (2.4.11-13). The falcon’s “pride of place” is the highest point of its flight. And the owl, which usually catches mice on the ground, went up instead of down, and killed a falcon. Also, a falcon is a day creature, and a royal companion, while the owl is an untamable bird of night and death. If things in nature stands for things in human life, King Duncan was the falcon, and Macbeth the owl.
Even worse, King Duncan’s horses, “Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, / Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, / Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make / War with mankind.” (2.4.15-18) A “minion” is someone’s favorite. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were King Duncan’s minions. The King showered them with honors and gifts, but they turned wild and made war on their master.
In the end, the horses ate each other. At their ends, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will be eaten up from inside. Macbeth will fall into despair and Lady Macbeth will go mad from thinking about King Duncan’s blood.
As Ross and the Old Man are marveling at the fact that King Duncan’s horses ate one another, Macduff appears. Ross greets Macduff in most ordinary way, saying “How goes the world, sir, now?” Macduff’s reply is edgy: “Why, see you not? (2.4.21). In Macduff’s place we might say “What do you think?” or “Just take a look around you.” After all, a good king has just been murdered.
Ross then asks who did the murder. This is probably not an innocent question. Both Macduff and Ross heard Macbeth explain that he killed King Duncan’s grooms because they killed the King. Just the fact that Ross asks the question seems to show that he thinks that maybe Macbeth’s explanation doesn’t hold water. Macduff repeats the official line: King Duncan was killed by his grooms, who were bribed by Malcolm and Donalbain, whose guilt is shown by the fact that they ran away. Ross exclaims “‘Gainst nature still!” He adds an outburst against “Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up / Thine own life’s means!” (2.4.27-29). Ross means that what Malcolm and Donalbain are said to have done was not only unnatural, it was stupid, because in killing their father, they killed everything he could have given them. That is, if they did kill their father. If Macbeth killed him, then everything would make more sense. But if Ross and Macduff are thinking that Macbeth killed the King, they’re too cautious to say it out loud at the moment.
In any case, the Scottish nobles have already given Macbeth the throne. (This apparently happened in Macbeth’s castle soon after King Duncan was murdered. Once Malcolm and Donalbain had fled, Macbeth, as Duncan’s cousin, had the strongest claim.) Ross is on his way to Scone to see him crowned, but Macduff is going home to Fife. Bidding farewell to Ross, Macduff says, “Well, may you see things well done there: adieu! / Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!” (2.4.38). Macduff is wishing everyone well, but also suggesting that they may find that Duncan was a better king than Macbeth will be.