Explanatory Notes for Act 5, Scene 5
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
In this scene more perhaps than in any other of the play the poet arouses our sympathy for Macbeth. Deserted by his followers,
forced to await the attack of his enemies instead of meeting them "dareful, beard to beard," he is plunged into still greater misery
by the news of his wife's sudden death. He even seems to contemplate suicide, when the shock of the messenger's report brings
him back to himself. He begins at last to realize that the powers of evil have been deceiving him, and with a sudden resolution
to trust henceforth to the- strength of his own arm and to die, if needs be, with harness on his back, he sallies out to meet the foe.
It is worth noting how little is said of Lady Macbeth. We hear
the cry of her women and the brief report of her death, — nothing
more. Shakespeare wishes at this point to concentrate all our interest and sympathy on the hero of the drama. It is not the manner of Lady Macbeth's death, but the way in which it affects her husband that he wishes us to notice.
14. slaughterous thoughts, thoughts of bloodshed.
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17, 18. She should ... word, she must have died sometime;
there must have come a time for such an announcement. This
speech of Macbeth's does not show callous indifference to his
wife's death, as some critics have supposed. It rather shows him
so sunk in misery that he thinks life not worth living. He can
hardly grieve for his wife's death; sooner or later she must have
died, and what does it matter whether early or late? The following
lines continue the same train of thought.
22. lighted, guided, as a servant with a torch guides his master.
23. Out ... brief candle. Dr. Liddell suggests that these
words show that Macbeth is on the point of killing himself.
24. a walking shadow, a flitting unreality.
31. should report, am bound to report to you.
42. pull in resolution, check my courage. Such, at least, is the
meaning of the words as they stand. Various emendations have, however, been proposed, of which "pall" i.e. "languish," "grow weak" is the most plausible.
43. To doubt ... fiend, to fear that the devil (who inspired the
witches when they uttered their predictions) has been equivocating with me.
46. arm, and out. In his rage at having been deceived by the "fiend," Macbeth abandons his prudent plan of permitting the
enemy to waste their strength in a vain siege, and sallies out to meet them. This act throws away his last chance, for it gives his
men a chance to desert him (see v. 7. 25) and brings him face to face with the man who is destined to slay 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_5_5.html >.
The queen, my lord, is dead ... "It is one of the finest thoughts in the whole drama, that Lady Macbeth should die before her husband; for not only does this exhibit him in a new light, equally interesting morally and psychologically, but it prepares a gradual softening of the horror of the catastrophe. Macbeth, left alone, resumes much of that connection with humanity which he has so long abandoned; his thoughtfulness becomes pathetic, -- his sickness of heart awakens sympathy; and when at last he dies the death of a soldier, the stern satisfaction with which we contemplate the act of justice that destroys him is unalloyed by feelings of personal wrath or hatred. His fall is a sacrifice, not a butchery." Anon. (Edin. Rev. as quoted in Furness' Variorum Macbeth)
Points to Ponder ... In this final soliloquy we uncover the ultimate tragedy of Macbeth. "It is the tragedy of the twilight and the setting-in of thick darkness upon a human soul" (Dowden 66). Macbeth's heinous acts throughout the play have resulted in his last, horrible conclusion about life: it is utterly meaningless. Our days on this earth serve no purpose other than to thrust us toward "dusty death." Read on...