Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 2
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
There is really no change of scene here. Lady Macbeth enters
the courtyard as Macbeth leaves it and waits there for his return
from Duncan's chamber. Her soliloquy fills up the time during
which the murder is performed and her dialogue with her husband
on his return carries us on till the knocking at the gate shows that
the day is dawning and the inmates of the castle awaking.
1. That which, etc. Lady Macbeth has fortified herself with a
draught of wine against the strain of these terrible hours. This is
another proof of her physical weakness.
5. the stern'st good-night. The grimmest good-night, or farewell. The owl's cry was then and long afterward considered an
omen of death.
5. He is about it. Macbeth is actually committing the murder.
6. The doors are open. Lady Macbeth must have unlocked the
doors into Duncan's room. Her words in lines [14, 15] show that
she had been in this room after the king had gone to sleep.
5. the surfeited grooms, the drunken attendants of the king.
7. mock their charge, turn their care of the king's person into
8, 9. The sleeping-potion which Lady Macbeth had mingled in
the possets was so strong that the grooms were half poisoned by it.
11. Who's there? Macbeth utters these words as he is returning
from Duncan's chamber. As he says in line , he heard a noise,
and he probably thought for a moment that some one had surprised him.
13. the attempt and not the deed, an unsuccessful attempt.
16. Had he not resembled. This reference to her father is one
of the few traces of womanly feeling that Lady Macbeth shows.
It is a genuinely Shakespearean touch which saves even so wicked
a character from utter inhumanity.
25. Hark! This line is usually accompanied in stage representations by a clap of thunder. This really detracts from the
horror of the scene. Macbeth's nerves are so overwrought that
he starts at imaginary noises. His next words show that he fancies
he has heard a voice.
26. the second chamber, the room next to Duncan's.
27. Donalbain, the second son of Duncan, here mentioned for
the first time.
30. There's. Macbeth is perhaps referring to the "second
chamber." As he descended he heard some people in it talking in their sleep.
33. address'd them, turned themselves.
25. two lodged together. Lady Macbeth, who is trying to quiet
her husband, remarks calmly that there are two men sleeping in
the second chamber, Donalbain and an attendant.
37. hangman's hands, bloody hands. In Shakespeare's day the
hangman not only adjusted the noose and pushed the victims from
the ladder, but in cases of treason chopped up the bodies of the
criminals. Thus this phrase suggested a vivid picture to Shakespeare's hearers.
38. 'Amen.' The phrase "God bless us" was used as a charm
against witchcraft and the devil. Macbeth, who has sold himself
to evil, cannot say amen to this prayer.
44, 45. thought After these ways, thought of in this fashion.
45. mad. There is a dreadful irony in these words; Macbeth
is half mad already; and before the play closes, Lady Macbeth's
strong mind breaks down utterly. Cf. v. i.
50, 51. nature's second course, Chief nourisher, etc. In Shakespeare's day the second course of a dinner was the most
52. What do you mean? Macbeth is talking so wildly that his
wife cannot follow him.
56-60. Lady Macbeth tries to recall her husband from his
ravings by pointing out the necessity for prompt action if they
are to escape discovery.
59. witness, evidence; the king's blood which would testify to
70, 71. gild ... guilt. The pun on "gild" and "guilt" was
doubtless plainer to Shakespeare's hearers than to us. Gold was
regularly spoken of in the old songs as "red." Lady Macbeth's
ghastly jest was perhaps intended to rouse her husband to a perception of his cowardice; he is afraid to re-enter the chamber
of death, she is ready not only to go there, but even to jest
72. knocking. This knocking is explained by the dialogue of
the next scene. De Quincey has a famous essay upon The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, in which he points out that the knocking makes known that the reaction against the world of unnatural horror, which we have been contemplating, has commenced; that
the pulses of life are beginning to beat again. The whole essay should, if possible, be read by every student of the play.
78. one red, entirely red.
81, 82. With these lines compare the broken utterances of the
sleep-walking scene, v. i. 35, 39, 48, 49, and 68-70.
84, 85. Your constancy ... unattended. Your firmness has
87. nightgown. In Shakespeare's day people went to bed
naked. The "nightgown" was the garment they threw around
them on first rising, corresponding to our dressing-gown. Lady
Macbeth wants her husband to undress and put on his "nightgown"
so that he may appear, when the alarm is given, just to have
sprung from his bed.
87, 88. lest occasion ... watchers, lest necessity summon us, and
reveal the fact that we have not been in bed.
90. To know, etc. This obscure line is an answer to Lady Macbeth's reproach that he is "poorly lost" in his thoughts. Macbeth
says in effect that he had better remain lost, "not know myself," than awake to a full realization of what he had done, "know my
91. I would thou couldst. This is the first note of genuine
remorse that has appeared in Macbeth's speeches in this scene.
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_2_2.html >.
"When the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them." Thomas De Quincey. Read on...
Did You Know? ... In Renaissance England the hoot of an owl flying over one's house was an evil omen, and meant impending death for someone inside. Shakespeare refers to the owl as the "fatal bellman" because it was the bellman's job to ring the parish bell when a person in the town was near death. Read on...