Explanatory Notes for Act 3, Scene 4
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
From every point of view this superb scene is one of the most remarkable in the whole play. The poetry rises to the highest
pitch, and the theatrical effects are overwhelming. But it is, perhaps, most noteworthy for the light it casts upon Macbeth's state
of mind. As, from the point of view of plot construction, the last scene marked the climax of the play, so, to the student of
character, this scene is the turning-point in Macbeth's career. Up to this time, with all his hesitation and wild fancies and gloomy
suspicions, he has had strength of mind and self-control enough to push forward to his objects and to hide from public view the bloody
means by which he has obtained them. In this scene, however, we see a fatal collapse of his powers.
Confronted by the spectre
of his murdered victim he loses all self-control, and before the assembled nobility breaks out into speeches which must inevitably
betray his guilt. It is interesting to compare his behaviour immediately after the discovery of the murder of Duncan with his actions in
the presence of Banquo's ghost. In the former case he retained all his presence of mind; his speeches, though perhaps somewhat
exaggerated, conveyed the impression of wild grief for the king's death, and his act of putting the bewildered grooms to instant
death was, perhaps, the most practical thing that he could have done at such a time. In the banquet scene, after one feeble effort
to play his part, he loses consciousness of the witnesses and speaks to the ghost as if they were alone together.
Equally noticeable is
the fact that in this scene he passes altogether beyond his wife's control. She had been able to brace him up to the murder of
Duncan and to control and direct him in the outburst of excitement which followed. In this scene, however, she is utterly unable to
restrain him, and is forced to listen helplessly to the ravings that betray his guilty secret.
In the dialogue between Macbeth and his wife which follows the retirement of the guests, we see evident signs of moral degeneration
as well as of the collapse of his mental powers. His expressed determination to seek out the witches and to wade through a sea
of blood to obtain his objects shows how far he has fallen from the Macbeth who was horrified by the suggestion implied in the
witches' greeting, and who needed all the powerful influence of his wife to nerve him to the murder of Duncan. The mention of
Macduff and the witches serves also to link this scene to those of the next act, and so provides for continuity of action.
1. degrees, ranks.
1, 2. at first And last, from the beginning to the end of the feast,
once for all.
3. Ourself, we (the royal plural).
5. keeps her state, remains in her throne; the "state" meant
originally the canopy over the chair in which a king sat.
6. require, ask for.
9. encounter thee with their hearts' thanks, meet thy greeting
with hearty thanks.
10. Both sides, of the long table at which the guests are sitting.
Macbeth is playing the part of the genial king who leaves his throne
to mingle with his nobles. He says he will sit down among them,
but his anxiety to get news of the assault on Banquo keeps him on
his feet. At this moment he catches sight of the murderer at the
door, and telling the nobles that in a few moments he'll drink a
formal toast, a "measure," with them, he turns to the door and converses in low tones with the assassin.
11. large, unrestrained.
11. anon, soon.
14. 'Tis better ... within, An ungrammatical but very emphatic way of saying, "Banquo's blood is better on your face than
in his body."
21. my fit, Macbeth speaks as if he were subject to an intermittent fever. He had hoped to be wholly cured of it by the death
of Banquo and Fleance, but with the news of the latter's escape,
his "fit" of fear attacks him again.
21. I had else been perfect, I would otherwise, i.e. if Fleance had
been killed, have been completely well.
22. founded, firmly based.
23. general, free to go everywhere.
23. casing, enveloping.
24. cabin'd cribb'd, shut up in a narrow space, as in a cabin, or
24, 25. bound in To, confined along with.
25. saucy, insolent.
27. trenched, carved.
29. worm, snake.
29. By Banquo's death Macbeth is, at least, relieved of his present fears. Fleance, although one of the hated house to whom the
witches have prophesied that the kingdom shall descend, is as yet too young to undertake anything against Macbeth.
32. hear ourselves, talk with each other.
33. the feast is sold, like a meal at an inn.
33. cheer, welcome.
37. Meeting, a formal gathering.
40. roof'd, under one roof.
40. our country's honour, the best men in the country.
41. graced, gracious.
42, 43. who may ... mischance, I hope I may rather be
obliged to rebuke him as an unkind friend who forgot his engagement to sup with us, than to pity him for any misfortune which may
have prevented him from keeping it. This speech is shamelessly
hypocritical, for Macbeth is secretly rejoicing that his dreaded enemy
will trouble him no more. All the more overwhelming is the effect
when he turns and perceives the ghost.
46. The table's full. Macbeth at first does not realize what has
happened; he only sees that all the seats at the long table are occupied. When Lennox calls his attention to the seat reserved for
him, Macbeth recognizes Banquo's ghost sitting in it.
48. moves, excites.
49. Which of you have done this? At the sight of the ghost Macbeth utterly loses his self-command. He makes, however, one vain
attempt to shake off the overpowering sense of guilt by shifting the
burden of the crime upon some member of the company.
53, 54. my lord ... youth. Note the quick tact with which
Lady Macbeth comes to her husband's help. Laying the blame
of Macbeth's sudden emotion and wild words upon a disorder
which has afflicted him from his youth, she induces the nobles, who
are rising excitedly from their places, to sit down again. Then she
leaves the throne and hurries to Macbeth. Catching his arm, she
draws him aside and attempts in low whispers to shame him into
presence of mind by taunting him with cowardice.
55. upon a thought, in a moment.
56. note, pay attention to.
57. passion, suffering.
57. You shall offend him, you are bound to make him worse, do
60. proper, fine.
61. painting of your fear, an image created by your fear, like
the air-drawn dagger.
62. air-drawn, drawn in the air, imaginary.
63. flaws, outbursts.
64. become, suit.
64. Impostors to true fear, mere counterfeits when compared to
those caused by an object truly to be feared.
66. Authorized, the accent is on the second syllable.
68. stool, chair.
71. charnel-houses, places where the bones of the dead are stored.
72. monuments, tombs.
72, 73. our monuments Shall be the maws of kites, our graves shall
be in the stomachs of carrion crows. Macbeth seems to think that
if the dead body were torn to pieces by kites, it would be impossible
for the ghost to rise.
73. An Alexandrine with the feminine ending.
76. Ere humane statute ... weal, before laws passed by men,
"humane statute," freed the country from anarchy and rendered it
civilized. "Humane" is the regular spelling for "human" with
Shakespeare; "weal" means "the commonwealth," "the nation";
"gentle" is used to characterize the nation as it was after the passage of the laws. The line is a characteristic example of the compact
brevity and force of Shakespeare's later style.
81. mortal murders, deadly wounds. Macbeth is thinking of the murderer's report in line 27.
83, 84. My worthy lord ... lack you. Lady Macbeth sees that it
is useless to try to shame Macbeth back to his senses. She returns to
the throne, and, speaking to him quietly as if nothing had happened,
calls his attention to the fact that he is neglecting his guests. The
appeal succeeds in rousing him, and he turns to the company with
an excuse for his strange behaviour, and proposes a toast. In the
effort to play his part, however, he overdoes it, drinks to the health
of Banquo, and expresses the wish that he were present. This piece
of bravado is promptly and effectively punished by the return of the
85. muse, wonder.
91. we thirst, we are eager to drink.
92. all to all, all good wishes to all of you.
92. Our duties, and the pledge, a formula equivalent to "we pay
our homage to you as king, and drink the health you propose."
93. Avaunt! Note the change in Macbeth's tone. He is no
longer overcome with fear at the sight of the ghost, but rather
roused to wild anger. Lady Macbeth does not dare to address
him, but devotes herself to the almost impossible task of inducing the peers to treat his words and actions as things of no
95. speculation, power of sight.
101. arm'd, clad in armour. The reference is to the thick hide
of the rhinoceros.
101. Hyrcan, Hyrcanian. Hyrcania was a district in central
Asia supposed to be full of tigers.
102. nerves, muscles.
105. If trembling I inhabit then. There has been an immense
amount of discussion over this passage. If "inhabit" is taken intransitively in the sense of continuing in a certain place, the meaning of the passage is plain enough. "Come to life again," says Macbeth, "and challenge me to a duel. If I remain trembling at
home, call me a coward."
105. protest, declare.
106. The baby of a girl, a little girl's doll, or, perhaps, the baby
of a girlish mother, i.e. a puny infant.
109. displaced, driven away.
110. disorder. The word applies to Macbeth's conduct, not to
any disorder among the nobles.
110. admired, amazing.
111. overcome, pass over.
112-115. You make me ... cheeks, you make me seem a
stranger to myself, i.e. forget my natural quality of manhood,
when I see that such a sight has no effect on you. Macbeth
is addressing his wife, not the guests, whom he no longer
113. disposition, character.
113. owe, own, possess.
117. speak not. Lady Macbeth interposes hastily lest Macbeth
should tell the nobles plainly what it was he saw. She herself has
not seen the ghost, but from what she knew of her husband and
his hatred of Banquo, and from the hints he had dropped in the
afternoon, it was not difficult for her to guess what the vision was
that had so affected him.
119. stand not ... going, do not depart ceremoniously in the
order of your ranks.
122. It will have blood. With the departure of the guests Macbeth relapses into melancholy brooding over the consequences of
his deed. He feels sure that the murder of Banquo will be discovered and that he will have to pay the penalty. Note that Lady
Macbeth makes no effort either to reproach or to comfort him; she sees plainly that her influence over him is gone. All she can do is
to try to get him to sleep and forget his thoughts.
124. Augures, auguries.
124. understood relations, the secret relations between things,
understood by diviners and soothsayers.
125. maggot-pies, magpies.
125. choughs, jack-daws.
126. What is the night? What time of the night is it?
127. Almost at odds with morning, so near day that you can
hardly tell whether it is night or morning.
128, 129. How say'st thou ... bidding? What do you say to
Macduff's refusing to accept our royal invitation to the feast.
130. by the way, incidentally, i.e. I have not received a direct
refusal from Macduff, but I know that he will not come. Macbeth explains the source of his information in the following reference to the paid spies he keeps in the houses of his nobles.
139. Strange thirds. Macbeth is perhaps referring to his designs against Macduff.
142. My strange and self-abuse, my strange self-deception.
Macbeth speaks as if he were now convinced that the vision of
Banquo was only a deception of his senses,
143. the initiate fear, the fear of the novice.
144. young in deed, inexperienced in deeds of bloodshed.
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_3_4.html >.
"The antithesis between the two is that between the practical life and the intellectual, and the effects of this difference are everywhere apparent. Macbeth is bold and resolute in the moment of action; he can kill a king, and he has a curious gift of ready speech throughout, which avails him to answer unwelcome questions. But when there is nothing to be actually done he is devoid of self-control; he cannot wait nor stand still; he becomes a prey to countless terrible imaginings; he is wildly superstitious. In all this Lady Macbeth is the exact converse; she has banished all superstition from her soul; she is strong enough of will to quell her husband's cowardly fears; she can scheme and plot, but she cannot act; she must leave the actual doing of the deadly deed to Macbeth." E. K. Chambers. Read on...
O, Proper Stuff! ... "Lady Macbeth does not at any time see the ghost of Banquo, and that Macbeth's vision is but the fear that arises from his guilty conscience. Lady Macbeth has apparently had no part in the murder, for it is not on her conscience, but only on her lord's. With the murder of Duncan her superior moral nature had all but collapsed, and Macbeth had to commit all the other crimes himself. The play is therefore primarily the story of Macbeth and his crimes." A. W. Crawford. Read On...