Explanatory notes below for Act 1, Scene 4
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
This scene is supposed to be laid in the royal palace at Forres. The time is perhaps on the morning after the events recorded in
the previous scenes. The chief purpose of the scene is to bring Macbeth and Duncan together and, by showing the touching
gratitude of the old monarch toward his chief warrior, to give us a double sense of the wickedness of the crime which Macbeth
is already meditating against his sovereign.
Two incidents in the scene contribute directly to the perpetration of this crime. The first of these is Duncan's proclamation of
his son, Malcolm, as heir to the throne. So long as no heir was named it was possible for Macbeth to wait patiently, hoping that
at the king's death, which could not be far distant, he might be chosen as his successor. But the nomination of Malcolm implied
that all the nobles must take an oath to support his succession to his father's throne; and thus Macbeth feels that it will no longer
be possible to wait for chance to crown him. If he is to be king at all, he must make himself king. The second incident is Duncan's
sudden resolve to visit Macbeth's castle. This step puts him into Macbeth's hands and offers such an opportunity for the murder as
may not occur again. Macbeth realizes this, and under pretense of hurrying home to make preparation for the king, departs to consult
with his wife as to what should be done.
2. Those in commission, the committee of nobles entrusted
with the execution of Cawdor. It was common in Shakespeare's
day to intrust the trial of important personages to a special commission.
6. set forth, declared.
9. studied. The phrase is, perhaps, taken from the technical
language of the theatre. Cawdor played his part on the scaffold
like an actor who has studied his part well; he had, so to speak,
rehearsed his death.
10. owed, owned.
11. careless, worthless.
11-14. There's ... trust. Note the tragic irony of the situation.
Duncan is lamenting that he had been so deceived in Cawdor. At
this moment Macbeth enters, and Duncan turns to greet this far
more dangerous enemy with a glad welcome.
14. A foot is wanting in this line. The lack is due to the pause
on Macbeth's entrance.
18-20. Would ... mine! I wish that you had done less for
me so that I might be able to thank and pay you proportionately.
22-27. The service, etc. We should not consider this speech of
Macbeth as a pure piece of hypocrisy. He has, indeed, contemplated the possibility of murdering Duncan, but he has decided to
wait and trust to chance. And now, at the affectionate welcome
of the old king, his natural impulse of loyalty breaks out, and, for
the time at least, he means what he says.
27. Safe toward, with a sure regard to.
34. Wanton in fulness, capricious because they are full.
35. drops of sorrow, tears. There is something very pathetic in
the figure of the good old king weeping for very joy as he stands
between the two warriors, one of whom is to murder him and the
other to let the murder go unrevenged.
36. whose places are the nearest, who are next to the king in
37. establish our estate, settle the succession to the throne.
39. Prince of Cumberland, Cumberland, a county in the northwest of England, was for a long time held by the Scotch under the
suzerainty of England. The title. Prince of Cumberland, like that of Prince of Wales today, served to distinguish the heir to the
39, 40. which ... only. He, Malcolm, must not be the only
man to be invested with a new title of honour.
42. Inverness, a town in Scotland, some twenty or twenty-five
miles from Forres. Macbeth is supposed to have had a castle here,
and as a mark of royal favour Duncan now proposes to visit him.
43. bind us further to you, lay us under still greater obligations
to you, i.e. by acting as our host at Inverness.
44. the rest, etc. The leisure time which is not spent in your
service is no leisure, but rather labour. It may be that this stilted
compliment marks the agitation of Macbeth's mind. We see a few
lines below that he has resumed his plan of the murder.
45. harbinger, originally a messenger sent ahead to provide a
lodging for a king on his travels.
47. My worthy Cawdor. Duncan bids farewell to Macbeth by
his new title and then turns to Banquo. This gives Macbeth an
opportunity before he leaves the stage for the 'aside' of lines 48-53.
This 'aside,' it should be noted, represents the thoughts that are
passing through Macbeth's mind, rather than any words actually
48-53. The Prince ... see, Macbeth realizes that the naming
of Malcolm as heir-apparent leaves him no other choice than that
between renouncing his ambition or taking violent action to realize
it. He is by no means disposed to abandon his hopes of the crown,
and instantly his heart is filled anew with "black and deep desires,"
which he fears to expose to the light.
52. The eye wink at the hand, let the eye refuse to see what the
hand is doing. It is as if Macbeth already saw himself stabbing
the king, and wished to close his eyes to the sight.
54. he is full so valiant, he is quite as brave as you say. Banquo
seems to have been telling Duncan of some brave deed of Macbeth.
57. Whose care. Macbeth's carefulness for the king's welfare is
here personified by the kindly monarch, and thought of as a harbinger riding ahead to prepare a welcome for him.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_1_4.html >.
Did You Know? ... Shakespeare is careful to illustrate Duncan's status as divinely appointed king throughout the play. Duncan's goodness is necessary to enhance Macbeth's feelings of guilt and remorse. Read on...