Explanatory notes below for Act 1, Scene 7
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
This is perhaps the most important single scene of the play. Here for the last time we see Macbeth a free man, still capable of
choice between good and evil. The motives that are at work to
deter him from committing the murder, fear of the consequences in
this world, mingled feelings of kinship, loyalty, and hospitality, admiration for Duncan's goodness, are not, perhaps, of the highest
moral character; but in comparison with the reckless lust of power which urges him on, they are certainly motives for good. The conflict rages in his soul, and it seems as if the powers of good were triumphing, when Lady Macbeth enters.
Instantly she throws into
the scale all the weight of her influence, backed by a relentless
decision to contemplate nothing but the immediate necessity for
action. Macbeth wavers for an instant, and then, not so much
overpersuaded, as stung into action by the taunts of his wife,
plunges headlong into the crime. From this time till the end of
the play Macbeth is no longer a free man. All his remaining
actions spring by the logical necessity of crime from his first deed
* Sewer, chief butler.
1. Note the double meaning of "done" in this line: in the first
instance it means "finished," in the second "performed." Macbeth's meaning, which he goes on to illustrate through the next
seven lines, is that if the whole matter could be settled by one blow, it would be well to strike that blow quickly.
4. his surcease, its cessation. "His" is generally used instead
of the modern "its" in Shakespeare. The antecedent is probably
"consequence" in the preceding line. The passage may be paraphrased thus: "If the murder could ensnare the consequences, so
as to prevent them from occurring, and by stopping them catch success, it would indeed be well to act quickly."
4. that but this blow, if just this blow.
6. But here, only here.
8. that, because.
8. have judgement here, receive our sentence in this life.
9. Bloody instructions, lessons in bloodshed.
11. commends, presents.
14. Strong both, both strong arguments.
17. faculties, royal perogatives.
18. clear, blameless.
21. pity. In this passage where the wild emotions of Macbeth's mind are struggling for utterance, one metaphor crowds upon and
displaces another. "Pity" is first personified as a newborn infant,
naked and miserable, such as would appeal to the sympathy of all
men; then this infant bestrides the wind for a charger to carry the
news of Duncan's murder throughout the world. This figure of a
messenger seated upon the wind calls up a confused memory of a
verse of the Bible (Psalms, xviii. 10.) to Macbeth's mind, and his
imagination embodies pity as an angel riding on the wind.
22. cherubim, [originally cherubin - please click on word above for explanation].
23. sightless couriers of the air, invisible airy messengers, the
winds. The angel is represented like a royal messenger riding
post, i.e. changing from horse to horse to carry his message the
faster. See Textual Notes, p. 252.
24. blow the horrid deed in every eye, proclaim the murder in the
presence of all men.
25. That, so that.
25. tears shall drown the wind. The figure is taken from a burst
of rain which lays the wind.
25. I have no spur. Here again we have a mixture of metaphors
due to the conflict of emotions in Macbeth's mind. He thinks of his purpose to murder Duncan as a charger; but he has no spur,
i.e. no good motive, to urge it into action and so it stands still. Instantly the figure changes and his ambition is pictured as a rider
springing into his saddle, who overleaps himself and falls on the other side of his steed. Macbeth means that his ambition to be
king would, if it led him to murder Duncan, carry him too far.
28. An accented syllable is missing in the third foot. Some editors have wished to supply "side"; but it is better to think of the
speech as interrupted by the entrance of Lady Macbeth.
29. Why have you left the chamber? Macbeth, conscious of his
guilty wish, has been unable to remain in the presence of his benefactor. Duncan has noticed his absence and asked for him. Lady
Macbeth, under the pretense of recalling him to the banquet, comes
to confirm him in his purpose. Her speeches in this scene should
be most carefully studied. A careful analysis of them will show
how she plays upon Macbeth's feelings and appeals to the strongest
She taunts him first with irresolution and lack of love
for her. She charges him with cowardice, — the bitterest possible
charge for a soldier to endure from the woman he loves. She
appeals to him to keep the vow he has sworn, and declares that she
would have stopped at no crime if she had taken such an oath.
Finally seeing that the chief, perhaps the only, cause that holds
Macbeth back from the deed is a fear, not only of failure in the
attempt, but of the consequences in case of its accomplishment,
she points out a plan by which the murder may be safely committed
and the consequences shifted upon the shoulders of others.
32. bought, gained.
34. would be worn, should be, ought to be, worn.
35. cast aside, as they would be if Macbeth exchanged his fame
as a warrior for a murderer's infamy.
35, 36. drunk ... dressed yourself, another mixture of metaphors. "Hope" is first presented as a person intoxicated with the
prospect of success, and then a robe in which Macbeth arrayed himself. The latter figure is caught from his own phrase of "wearing" golden opinions" in the preceding speech.
37. green and pale, sickly and pale, as a man might look on waking from a drunken slumber.
38. At what it did so freely, at what it, i.e., "hope," faced so
boldly before it fell asleep.
39. Such, so "green and pale"; i.e. so sickly and weak. She
declares that she will henceforth consider his love for her no
stronger nor more enduring than his weak ambition for the crown.
42. the ornament of life. This phrase may either refer to the
crown or to the "golden opinions" of line 33. The latter interpretation is probably the better.
45. the adage. A familiar proverb in Shakespeare's day ran:
"The cat would eat fish, and would not wet her feet."
46. I dare do all, etc. Note how bitterly Macbeth resents the
taunt of cowardice.
47. Who dares ... none. He who dares do more than is
proper for a man, is unhuman.
48. break, disclose.
48, 49. It seems plain from these lines that at some period before the beginning of the play Macbeth had actually proposed to
his wife the murder of Duncan. She seems to have induced him to abandon the project as ill-timed, cf. lines 51, 52. Now she reverts
to this occasion in order to stimulate him to action at the present favourable opportunity, reminding him, lines 58, 59, of the oath that
he had sworn to kill the king.
50. to be more than what you were, by being more than you then
were, by actually performing the deed which you then dared to
52. you would make both, you wanted to force time and place
into accordance with your plan for the murder. It is highly characteristic of Macbeth that his first plan for murdering Duncan was
rash and unsuitable. As the report of his deeds in battle shows, he was a headstrong and impetuous warrior. His wife, on the
other hand, was a cool and determined nature; she waited for a
good opportunity and then struck home. Observe that it is she,
not Macbeth, who plans the details of the treacherous murder.
52. adhere, suit.
53. that their fitness, their very fitness.
54. Does unmake you, renders you incapable of action.
59. If we should fail? Macbeth reverts to his old anxiety as to
the consequences of the deed, or rather as to the consequences of
an unsuccessful attempt. Lady Macbeth's answer has been variously interpreted. It may be rendered either as a contemptuous
question, or as a scornful exclamation with the accent on "we," or
lastly as a real answer to her husband's question. "What will
happen if we fail?" he asks; "We fail, and that's the end of the
matter and of us," she answers. I prefer this last interpretation as
eminently characteristic of the cool determination of Lady Macbeth,
who can look even failure in the face. Note, however, that she
will not dwell upon the possibility of failure for fear of discouraging
her husband; she goes on at once to assure him of the practical
certainty of success.
60. But screw, etc. But brace your courage up to the point
where it holds fast. The metaphor is, perhaps, taken from the
screwing up of the string of a crossbow.
62. the rather, the earlier.
63. chamberlains, grooms of the chamber, attendants.
64. wassail, revelry.
65. memory, the warder. According to old anatomists the faculty
of memory was situated in the hindmost part of the brain by which
that organ is connected with the rest of the body. Memory stands
therefore like a warder, or guard, at the gate of the brain. Drunkenness turns memory into a "fume," i,e, a mere smoke, and this rises
into that part of the brain where the reason is situated, "the receipt," i.e. receptacle, "of reason," as the fumes from a retort rise
into the "limbec," i.e. alembic or cap, of the vessel.
68. lies, an old plural form of the verb, called the Northern plural,
from its occurrence in the Northern dialects of Englan'd. It appears
very frequently in Shakespeare, but is often altered without comment
by the editors into our modern form.
70. put upon, attribute to.
72. quell, murder.
73. mettle, temper.
73. compose, form, give birth to.
74. received, accepted as true.
77. other, otherwise.
78. As we shall make, seeing that we shall make.
80. Each corporal agent, every bodily power.
81. time, world.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_1_7.html >.