Study Guide

Macbeth Quotes

  • Versions of Reality

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    ALL
    Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
    Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.12-13)

    Clearly, Shakespeare's been traveling to Beijing. (Rim shot.) Unfunny jokes about pollution aside, the witches set us up here to mistrust everything. In the fog, it's hard to tell what's really there. Are they even there?

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (1.3.39)

    Hmm. This sounds familiar. Didn't the weird sisters just say almost the exact same thing? Has Macbeth seen this play before, or does he already have some kind of psychic connection with the weird sisters?

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Duncan

    DUNCAN
                                        There's no art
    To find the mind's construction in the face.
    He was a gentleman on whom I built
    An absolute trust. (1.4.13-16)

    Here, King Duncan says that the former Thane of Cawdor (who turned out to be a traitor) seemed to be a "gentleman" he could "trust"; ergo, it's impossible to know a man's mind by reading his face. Um, Duncan? Maybe you should listen to yourself and stop putting all your trust in the next treacherous Thane of Cawdor.

    Act 1, Scene 5
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
    Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men
    May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
    Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
    Your hand, your tongue; look like th' innocent
        flower,
    But be the serpent under't. (1.5.73-78)

    Whenever flowers and serpents come into it, we're ready to suspect Eve and that pesky snake. And sure enough, here's a woman convincing a man to share in her own, nasty little vision of the way things should be.

    Act 1, Scene 6
    Duncan

    DUNCAN
    See, see, our honour'd hostess!—
    The love that follows us sometime is our trouble,
    Which still we thank as love. […]
                                        Fair and noble hostess,
    We are your guest to-night. (1.6.13-15;30-31)

    Hope you have your highlighters handy, fair Shmoopers: whenever you see the word "fair," it's a good bet you'll want to uncap them. Since we already know that "fair is foul," Duncan's attempted compliment comes with a big helping of dramatic irony.

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
                                I am settled and bend up
    Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
    Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
    False face must hide what the false heart doth
       know. (1.7.92-96)

    Macbeth is starting to get the hang of this whole deception thing: he's calling on his entire body ("each corporal agent") to help him out, telling his "false face" to hide the treachery of his "false heart."

    Act 2, Scene 1
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    Is this a dagger which I see before me,
    The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch
         thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
    To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
    A dagger of the mind, a false creation
    Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
    I see thee yet, in form as palpable
    As this which now I draw.
    Thou marshal'st me the way that I was going,
    And such an instrument I was to use.
    Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses,
    Or else worth all the rest. (2.1.44-57)

    Well, is it? By opening with a question, Macbeth leaves us wondering whether he does really see a dagger—whether there's some supernatural force at work—or whether it's all just a figment of his treacherous brain.

    Act 2, Scene 4
    Macduff

    MACDUFF
    Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's two sons,
    Are stol'n away and fled, which puts upon them
    Suspicion of the deed. (2.4.36-38)

    You may look guilty when you run—but you look a lot worse when you're dead. Malcolm and Donalbain are willing to put up with the appearance of guilt if it means that they'll be able to avenge their father in the end.

    Act 3, Scene 4
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
                               O, proper stuff!
    This is the very painting of your fear.
    This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
    Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts,
    Impostors to true fear, would well become
    A woman's story at a winter's fire,
    Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself!
    Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
    You look but on a stool. (3.4.73-81)

    Okay, Lady Macbeth. It's easy to make fun of your poor husband when he's the one having the visions. You won't be laughing as hard when you're the one trying wash an invisible bloodstain out of your hand.

    Act 4, Scene 1

    FIRST APPARITION
    Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!
    Beware the Thane of Fife! Dismiss me. Enough. (4.1.81-82)

    You'd think that Macbeth would have learned to be wary of weird (in both ways) visions and creepy, bodiless ghosts. Instead, he just takes what they say and runs with it. It seems like he's got a pretty bad case of confirmation bias.

  • The Supernatural

    Act 1, Scene 1
    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    FIRST WITCH
    When shall we three meet again
    In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

    SECOND WITCH
    When the hurly-burly's done,
    When the battle's lost and won.

    […]

    FIRST WITCH
    I come, Graymalkin.

    SECOND WITCH
    Paddock calls.

    THIRD WITCH
    Anon.

    ALL
    Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
    Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.1-13)

    The audience might not get a look at the stage directions, but all the clues are here: the women speak in rhythmic, chant-like lines (check out "Writing Style" for a close look at their language); they call out to their familiars—and, since "Graymalkin" was a common name for a cat, the audience would have gotten the reference, sort of like saying, "I come, Crookshanks/ Hedwig calls"; and, finally, they end with that creepy inversion: fair is foul, and foul is fair." Supernatural? Super creepy, at least.

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    FIRST WITCH
    I'll drain him dry as hay.
    Sleep shall neither night nor day
    Hang upon his penthouse lid.
    He shall live a man forbid.
    Weary sev'nnights, nine times nine,
    Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
    Though his bark cannot be lost,
    Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.
    Look what I have. (1.3.15-27)

    All the sailor's wife did was refuse to share her chestnuts, and now the sisters are going to make him impotent and infertile. You do not want to tick off a witch. (Oh, but those chestnuts? Sometimes a chestnut isn't just a chestnut, if you know what we mean.)

    Banquo

    BANQUO
    Were such things here as we do speak about?
    Or have we eaten on the insane root
    That takes the reason prisoner? (1.3.86-88)

    Translation: "Are we tripping?" (We would insert a cautionary PSA about saying "No" to drugs, but we think Macbeth is a pretty good cautionary tale on its own.)

    BANQUO
    That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' Earth
    And yet are on 't?—Live you? Or are you aught
    That man may question? 

    […]                            

                                    You should be women,
    And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
    That you are so. (1.3.42-44;47-49)

    If Macbeth were a horror movie—which it kind of is—then Banquo would be the skeptic who gets killed because he refuses to believe. Where Macbeth accepts the supernatural unquestioningly, doing some pretty dumb things like following a floating dagger and arguing publically with a ghost, Banquo isn't to completely discard his reason and rationality. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the wrong choice.

    BANQUO
    If you can look into the seeds of time
    And say which grain will grow and which will not,
    Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
    Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.61-64)

    Let's assume that the witches are actually supernatural beings. (Just go with it.) Banquo is showing us how to approach the supernatural: very carefully. He doesn't want any favors from them, and he's not afraid of ticking them off. Although, considering how they feel about chestnuts, maybe he should be a little more cautious.

    Act 1, Scene 5
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH 

    […] The raven himself is hoarse
    That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
    Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
    Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
    Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
    That no compunctious visitings of nature
    Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
    Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
    And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
    Wherever in your sightless substances
    You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night,
    And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
    That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
    Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark 
    To cry "Hold, hold!" (1.5.45-61)

    Does Lady Macbeth actually believe she's calling on spirits? In other words, is she herself a witch of some kind? Or is this all just a metaphor for evil thoughts? It matters, because it affects how we read her madness at the end. Is she being driven crazy by these spirits, or is she having a psychotic break from realizing how awful her actions were?

    Act 3, Scene 2
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    There's comfort yet; they are assailable.
    Then be thou jocund. Ere the bat hath flown
    His cloister'd flight, ere to black Hecate's summons
    The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
    Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done
    A deed of dreadful note. (3.2.44-49)

    Hmm. It sounds like somebody's channeling the witches. When Macbeth talks about his plans for the murder of Banquo and Fleance, he starts sound a lot like the weird sisters. What's that all about?

    Act 3, Scene 5

    HECATE
    Have I not reason, beldams as you are?
    Saucy and overbold, how did you dare
    To trade and traffic with Macbeth
    In riddles and affairs of death,
    And I, the mistress of your charms,
    The close contriver of all harms,
    Was never call'd to bear my part,
    Or show the glory of our art?
    And which is worse, all you have done
    Hath been but for a wayward son,
    Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
    Loves for his own ends, not for you. (3.5.2-13)

    Even witches have to follow orders. In a way, the witches' disobedience seems like a parallel to the way Macbeth, "the wayward son," is insubordinate to King Duncan. The "supernatural" still has rules and hierarchy; what Macbeth is doing is unnatural, inverting the natural order of king and lord.

    Act 4, Scene 1
    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    ALL
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (4.1.10-11)

    And… this is maybe the most famous line in Macbeth. Here, they make all of Scotland sound like some nasty brew that they're whipping up over their fire. But if that's the case—then why does good triumph at the end?

  • Violence

    Act 1, Scene 2

    CAPTAIN
    For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
    Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
    Which smoked with bloody execution,
    Like valor's minion carved out his passage
    Till he faced the slave;
    Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
    Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,
    And fixed his head upon our battlements. (1.2.18-26)

    Basically the first thing we know about Macbeth is that he's disemboweled—"unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps"—and then beheaded someone. We're not sure if we're supposed to be impressed or a little afraid, but Duncan thinks this is so awesome that Macbeth gets rewarded with Cawdor. Hm. We're obviously in a violent, warrior culture here, so maybe we shouldn't be so surprised when Duncan ends up dead.

    CAPTAIN
    But I am faint; my gashes cry for help. 

    DUNCAN
    So well thy words become thee as thy wounds:
    They smack of honor both.—Go get him surgeons. (1.2.46-48)

    Oh, BTW, the captain is totally bleeding through his long recitation about the battle. Notice that the Captain compares the flow of blood that gushes from his wounds to a voice that "cries for help," and King Duncan picks up on the association between "wounds" and "words." Duncan replies that the Captain's gashes and his verbal report of what's been taking place on the field of battle make him an honorable man. It looks like not all violence involves blood, and sometimes words can hurt.

    CAPTAIN
    So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.
    Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
    Or memorize another Golgotha,
    I cannot tell— (1.2.42-45)

    Check out how the captain describes the battle: as "another Golgotha." But Golgotha is traditionally the place where Christ was said to have been crucified. To us, that sounds like a pretty ominous way of describing the battlefield.

    Macbeth

    MALCOLM
    Say to the King the knowledge of the broil
    As thou didst leave it.

    CAPTAIN
    Doubtful it stood,
    As two spent swimmers that do cling together
    And choke their art. (1.2.7-11)

    The Captain waxes poetic with his description here, as though violence is something that can be beautiful and noble—even glorious. Does Macbeth glorify violence?

    Duncan

    DUNCAN
    What bloody man is that? He can report,
    As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
    The newest state. (1.2.1-3)

    (1) We all but start with a bloody man, which doesn’t bode well for the eventual body count (2) This guy is our king. Shouldn't he be a little bloody, too? Is he just letting everyone else fight his battles for him?

    Act 1, Scene 5
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
    [...] Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
    Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
    Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
    That no compunctious visitings of nature
    Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
    Th' effect and it. (1.5.47-54)

    Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to make her "cruel," and what's cool is that, where the men in this play are constantly going around bleeding, Lady Macbeth wants her blood to stop. What does this say about the relationship between violence and gender?

    Act 4, Scene 1
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    [...] From this moment
    The very firstlings of my heart shall be
    The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
    To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and 
        done:
    The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
    Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge o' th' sword
    His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
    That trace him in his line. (4.1.166-174)

    Like potato chips, you can't have just one murder. All Macbeth wanted to do was kill the king, and now he's off to slaughter some innocent babes. (Pro tip: just don't buy the bag of potato chips in the first place.)

    Act 4, Scene 3
    Malcolm

    MALCOLM
    Let us seek out some desolate shade and there
    Weep our sad bosoms empty.

    MACDUFF
                                      Let us rather
    Hold fast the mortal sword and, like good men,
    Bestride our downfall'n birthdom. Each new morn
    New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
    Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
    As if it felt with Scotland, and yell'd out
    Like syllable of dolor. (4.3.1-9)

    Malcolm wants to take a second to weep about his murdered father, but Macduff is ready to get some avenging done. Notice how he talks about it, though. He doesn't say, "Let's go kill us some men"; he says, "Let's go make some widows and orphans." Is this just a poetic way of saying it, or is this Shakespeare slyly reminding us that violence has consequences?

    Act 5, Scene 8

    SIWARD
    Had he his hurts before?

    ROSS
    Ay, on the front.

    SIWARD
                    Why then, God's soldier be he!
    Had I as many sons as I have hairs,
    I would not wish them to a fairer death;
    And so, his knell is knolled. (5.8.53-58)

    If your son has to die in battle, you at least want him to die with his wounds "before," or in front, facing the enemy. For Siward, this is the best possible way for a young man to die. (No word about living to a ripe old age, of course.)

  • Fate and Free Will

    Act 1, Scene 2

    CAPTAIN
    And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
    Show'd like a rebel's whore. But all's too weak;
    For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name) 
    Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
    Which smoked with bloody execution, (1.2.16-20)

    Basically, the captain says here that Macbeth should have died in battle—but he was stronger than his fate. If this is true, then Macbeth has no one to blame but himself. But notice that the captain calls Macbeth "damned quarry": Macbeth may escape fortune this time, but that "rebel's whore" will get him in the end. (Hey, Shakespeare's words, not ours.)

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Banquo

    BANQUO
    Look, how our partner's rapt. (1.3.156)

    "Rapt" comes from the Latin word "raptus," which means to be "seized" or "kidnapped." (Brain snack: It's the same word that gives us "rape," which clues you into the way that women were viewed as property—rape was a crime against a man's property rather than a crime against a woman.) But back to the play: if Macbeth is "rapt," then he's been "seized" by something outside of his control. Does that mean we let him off the hook?

    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    FIRST WITCH
    All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

    SECOND WITCH
    All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

    THIRD WITCH
    All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! (1.3.51-53)

    Million-dollar question: are the witches (1) playing on Macbeth's ambition and planting the idea of murder in his head; (2) really privy to some secret info about the way things are going to go down; or (3) actually controlling fate in some way?

    Macbeth

    MACBETH [Aside]
    If chance will have me king, why, chance may
       crown me,
    Without my stir. (1.3.157-159)

    Here, Macbeth briefly decides to let "chance" take its course rather than fighting things, or, you know, murdering his noble king. Piece of advice, Macbeth: go with this line of thought. But if "chance" is the same as "fate," then it seems to amount to the same thing—and it's not good for Macbeth. Or Duncan. (Decent for Malcolm, however.)

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Macbeth

    MACBETH [Aside]
    The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
    On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
    For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
    Let not light see my black and deep desires:
    The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
    Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.55-60)

    Uh-oh. Once he learns that King Duncan has named Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland and heir to the crown of Scotland, Macbeth isn't content to wait around for "chance" to intervene. He decides that he must take action, or "o'erleap" the obstacles in his path to the throne. By murder. Well, this seems pretty willful to us.

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
                            Prithee, peace:
    I dare do all that may become a man;
    Who dares do more is none. (1.7.50-52)

    When Macbeth tries to insist that the murder plot is off, Lady Macbeth needles him (and makes a few impotence jokes) until he finally gives in. That's right—gives in. Saying "I dare do all that may become a man" sounds a lot like he's made a decision.

    Act 2, Scene 1
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    Is this a dagger which I see before me,
    The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
    I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
    Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
    To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
    A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
    Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
    I see thee yet, in form as palpable
    As this which now I draw.
    Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
    And such an instrument I was to use. (2.1.44-55)

    "The dagger made me do it" isn't a defense we've heard before, but it seems to work for Macbeth. Look at that "Come, let me clutch thee": it sounds a lot like he doesn't have a choice.

    Act 3, Scene 1
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
            If't be so, 
    For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind,
    For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
    Put rancors in the vessel of my peace
    Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
    Given to the common enemy of man,
    To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.
    Rather than so, come fate into the list,
    And champion me to th' utterance! (3.1.69-77)

    Well, this is interesting. Here, Macbeth is calling fate to his aid, asking it to "champion" him, or fight for him, in the "lists," or the tournament grounds. This doesn't sound like a fate-or-free-will situation; it sounds like a fate-and-free-will deal.

    Act 4, Scene 1

    THIRD APPARITION
    Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
    Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. 
    Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
    Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
    Shall come against him. [Descends]

    MACBETH
                          That will never be.
    Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
    Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good!
    Rebellious head, rise never till the Wood
    Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
    Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
    To time and mortal custom. (4.1.103-114)

    When Macbeth comes knocking on the three witches' doors again, he wants another glimpse into his future. They give him riddles. (Thanks, gals.) But look at those riddles: they're designed so Macbeth interprets them to mean that he's safe, which obviously affects his decision-making. Is his death fate? Or is just savvy manipulation?

  • Time

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Macbeth

    MACBETH [Aside]
                             Come what come may,
    Time and the hour runs through the roughest day. (1.3.163-164)

    After hearing the witch's prophesy that he'll become king, Macbeth pushes thoughts of "murder" from his mind and says he won't lift a finger against the present king —instead, he'll leave his future to "chance." Too bad that resolution doesn't last.

    Banquo

    BANQUO 

                            My noble partner
    You greet with present grace and great prediction
    Of noble having and of royal hope,
    That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
    If you can look into the seeds of time
    And say which grain will grow and which will not
    Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
    Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.57-64)

    We kind of love this metaphor of time being like a field of seeds, full of many possible futures. Which ones will grow? And can we affect it, through fertilizer, hoeing, watering, or neglect?

    Act 1, Scene 6
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
                                      My dearest love,
    Duncan comes here tonight.

    LADY MACBETH
                                     And when goes hence?

    MACBETH
    Tomorrow, as he purposes.

    LADY MACBETH
                                      O, never
    Shall sun that morrow see!
    Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
    May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
    Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
    Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent
          flower,
    But be the serpent under't. He that's coming
    Must be provided for; and you shall put
    This night's great business into my dispatch,
    Which shall to all our nights and days to come
    Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom. (1.6.67-82)

    Yeah, King Duncan is not getting out of this castle alive. What caught our attention about this passage is the way the couple talks about the planned murder in terms of time —"Duncan comes here to-night"; "when goes he hence"; "never / Shall sun that morrow see!" The pair talk about their plans as though time will come to a complete halt for King Duncan. Lady Macbeth also puns on the word "time" when she suggests Macbeth should suit his demeanor to the occasion ("To beguile the time, / Look like the time") in order to make Duncan believe he's happy to see him.

    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
    Thy letters have transported me beyond
    This ignorant present, and I feel now
    The future in the instant. (1.6.64-66)

    When Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter (bearing news of the witch's prophesies), her thoughts immediately turn toward the "future" that she imagines for herself and her husband. Her dreams of being the wife of a king are so vivid and so real to her, it's as though time has completely collapsed, and she feels the "future in the instant."

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
    It were done quickly. If th' assassination
    Could trammel up the consequence and catch
    With his surcease success, that but this blow
    Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
    But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
    We'd jump the life to come. (1.7.1-7)

    Even if Macbeth isn't caught after he murders King Duncan, he'll be punished in the afterlife (the "life to come"). So why does he decide that temporary, earthly power is worth eternal damnation?

    Act 4, Scene 3
    Macduff

    MACDUFF
                           Boundless intemperance
    In nature is a tyranny. It hath been
    The untimely emptying of the happy throne
    And fall of many kings. (4.3.80-83)

    Note that the problem isn't the king's death—it's that the king's death was "untimely," thanks to Macbeth's boundless intemperance. In other words, Macbeth simply didn't have the patience. Maybe if he'd waited he would have become king in due time—and not at the wrong time.

    Act 5, Scene 5
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    Hang out our banners on the outward walls.
    The cry is still "They come!" Our castle's strength
    Will laugh a siege to scorn. Here let them lie
    Till famine and the ague eat them up.
    Were they not forced with those that should be
         ours,
    We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
    And beat them backward home. (5.5.1-8)

    Macbeth's strategy during the siege is to hole up in the palace and bide his time "till famine and the augues" (starvation and illness) destroy the enemy soldiers. What's creepy about this is that he's still acting like he has all the time in the world, when in fact his borrowed time is just about up. (Fun fact: plays are bound by time in the way that other works of literature aren't. You can read a novel as fast or as slowly as you want, but when you're watching a play you only get the amount of time that a director has assigned. Almost—we're just saying—as though you're being controlled by fate.)

    MACBETH
    She should have died hereafter.
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. (5.5.20-26)

    You can interpret this speech six ways to Sunday, but it seems pretty clear that, however he feels about his wife, Macbeth is pretty sure that he no longer has a future.

    Act 5, Scene 8
    Macduff

    MACDUFF  
    Hail, King! for so thou art. Behold, where stands
    Th' usurper's cursèd head. The time is free.
    I see thee compassed with thy kingdom's pearl,
    That speak my salutation in their minds,
    Whose voices I desire aloud with mine.
    Hail, King of Scotland! (5.8.65-70)

    When Macduff says "the time is free" he means that Macbeth's reign has come to an end and the people of Scotland now live in freedom from tyranny. But there's also the sense that time had somehow come to a halt when Macbeth murdered Duncan and became king. Now that the rightful heir, Malcolm, will be crowned monarch, linear time (which was disrupted by Macbeth), is back on track, just as lineal succession (also disrupted by Macbeth) is reestablished. And—this might be a stretch, but you know who else is now free, or almost? The audience. Their time is back on track, too. Given how much Shakespeare liked to talk about plays and acting, we think it's a reasonable interpretation. Do you buy it?

    MACDUFF
                               Despair thy charm,
    And let the angel whom thou still hast served
    Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
    Untimely ripped. (5.8.17-20)

    Hey, "untimely"! We just saw it in the "untimely emptying of the happy throne" (4.3.7), so there's definitely something going on with that word. Is an untimely birth the only antidote to an untimely death?

  • Ambition

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Banquo

    BANQUO […] 
                         My noble partner
    You greet with present grace and great prediction
    Of noble having and of royal hope,
    That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
    If you can look into the seeds of time,
    And say which grain will grow and which will not,
    Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
    Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.57-64)

    Uh-oh. Someone's feeling left out. Banquo wants a prophecy, too—although he seems to be much more chill about it, claiming that he doesn't care one way or another. But if that's true, you'd think he wouldn’t bother trying to look into the future.

    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
    Shakes so my single state of man
    That function is smother'd in surmise,
    and nothing is but what is not. (1.3.152-155)

    Slow down there, Macbeth, because these ladies haven't said a word about murder. The fact that his first thought is about killing the king is mighty suspicious—almost as though they've just awoken a murderous ambition that's been there all along.

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Macbeth

    MACBETH [aside]
    The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step
    On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
    For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
    Let not light see my black and deep desires.
    The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
    Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.55-60)

    Macbeth describes his ambition as being "black and deep desires," which makes it sound… well, wrong. Is ambition okay in any context, or are we all supposed to let fate and chance toss us around?

    Act 1, Scene 5
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
    […]
    Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
    What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
    It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
    To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
    Art not without ambition, but without
    The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)

    Here's another count against ambition: After reading the letter from her husband (which recounts the witches' prophesy), Lady Macbeth's thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Macbeth

    MACBETH 

                                  I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
    And falls on the other— (1.7.25-28)

    Time to be real: when Macbeth is honest with himself, he admits that there's no good reason to kill Duncan, because Duncan is perfectly good at this whole king-business. Macbeth just wants that power for himself.

    Act 2, Scene 4

    ROSS
                                  'Gainst nature still!
    Thriftless ambition, that will ravin up
    Thine own lives' means! Then 'tis most like
    The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth. (2.4.39-42)

    Ross is right about one thing: ambition is to blame for Duncan's murder. He's wrong about the most important part, though. Here, he accuses Duncan's kids of going "'gainst nature" and killing their own father—but Macbeth is the one to watch out for. Our question: is Macbeth going against nature, too, by killing the king? Is ambition of any kind unnatural?

    Act 3, Scene 1
    Banquo

    BANQUO 

    Thou hast it now—king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
    As the weird women promised, and I fear
    Thou played'st most foully for't. Yet it was said
    It should not stand in thy posterity,
    But that myself should be the root and father
    Of many kings. If there come truth from them
    (As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine)
    Why, by the verities on thee made good,
    May they not be my oracles as well,
     And set me up in hope? But hush, no more. (3.1.1-10)

    Sure, Banquo didn't murder anyone for self gain, but he may not be as honorable as he seems. He suspects Macbeth of foul play, but does he tell anyone? No. In fact, he tells himself to "hush"—maybe because he's a little too excited about being the "root and father/ Of many kings."

    Act 3, Scene 4
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
                                     For mine own good
    All causes shall give way. I am in blood
    Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
    Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (3.4.167-170)

    In case we still had some lingering doubts, Macbeth clears that up for us: he's doing all this "For mine own good." Great. We'll be sure not to ask him for any favors, then.

    Act 5, Scene 5
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    She should have died hereafter;
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing. (5.5.20-31)

    In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Or something along those lines. Here, Macbeth is realizing that all his striving was literally useless: Malcolm is going to be king; he himself is about to die; and his wife is gone. (So much for her ambition, too.) But if there's nothing to be gained, then what's the point of living at all? Macbeth doesn't leave us with much of answer. Are we just supposed to live our lives hopelessly until we die? Or is there a nobler way of putting up with life's ultimate futility?

    Act 5, Scene 6
    Macduff

    MACDUFF  

                               Either thou, Macbeth,
    Or else my sword, with an unbattered edge,
    I sheathe again undeeded. There thou shouldst be;
    By this great clatter, one of greatest note
    Seems bruited. Let me find him, Fortune,
    And more I beg not. (5.6.19-24)

    This is how to do ambition right: Macduff wants to avenge his family and his king, but he doesn’t seek power for himself. He doesn't want to rule fortune; he's content to be fortune's tool. Clearly, he's going to be the one to take down the boss.

  • Power

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
    Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
    And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
    Against the use of nature? Present fears
    Are less than horrible imaginings.
    My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
    Shakes so my single state of man
    That function is smothered in surmise
    And nothing is but what is not. (1.3.147-155)

    History Snack: Regicide was a pretty common occurrence in 11th-century Scotland, the time period of Macbeth,but it definitely was not common in early 17th-century England. The Divine Right of Kings said that monarchs were God's appointed representatives on earth, so rebellion wasn't just treason—it would actually send you straight to hell. James even wrote about it in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598), where he claimed that "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods." In other words, Macbeth is meddling with power that he should seriously leave alone.

    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    THIRD WITCH 
    All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!
    […] 
    Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
    So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! (1.3.53;70-71)

    Tra-la-la, there goes Macbeth innocently walking along when all of sudden the witches show up to tempt him by talking about the awesome power that's going to be his. Right? Or are they just giving voice to his secret desire?

    Act 1, Scene 4
    Duncan

    DUNCAN
                          My plenteous joys,
    Wanton in fulness, seek to hide themselves
    In drops of sorrow.—Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
    And you whose places are the nearest, know
    We will establish our estate upon
    Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
    The Prince of Cumberland; which honor must
    Not unaccompanied invest him only,
    But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine
    On all deservers.—From hence to Inverness
    And bind us further to you. (1.4.39-49)

    When King Duncan names his son, Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, he's essentially naming him the heir apparent to the throne. Fun fact: he's seriously out of order here, since Scotland was an elective monarchy at the time. This is all Macbeth needs to decide that Malcolm and King Duncan are nothing but an obstacle in his path to ultimate power.

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Macbeth

    MACBETH

                              Besides, this Duncan
    Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
    So clear in his great office, that his virtues
    Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
    The deep damnation of his taking-off; (1.7.16-20)

    Even Macbeth admits that Duncan's done a good job being king: he's been "clear in his great office. But is "meek" really a quality that you want from the most powerful man in your kingdom?

    Act 2, Scene 3

    PORTER
                           Knock, knock! Who's there, in th'
    other devil's name? Faith, here's an equivocator
    that could swear in both the scales against either
    scale; who committed treason enough for God's
    sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,
    equivocator. (2.3.7-11)

    All this talk about "equivocators" is a reference to the recent Gunpowder Plot, the treasonous Catholic plot to blow up Parliament. (See our "Symbols: Equivocator" section to get the facts on that.) This little joke helps Shakespeare get away with dramatizing the murder of a king on stage: the reference to the Gunpowder Plot is a clear condemnation of the crime Macbeth has just committed. Whew.

    Act 2, Scene 4

    ROSS  
                                       Ha, good father,
    Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
    Threaten his bloody stage. By th' clock, 'tis day,
    And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
    Is't night's predominance or the day's shame
    That darkness does the face of earth entomb
    When living light should kiss it?
      

    OLD MAN                          
                                      'Tis unnatural,
    Even like the deed that's done. 
    (2.4.6-14)

    It's the day after King Duncan's murder, and things are not looking good. Even though it's the middle of the day, darkness fills the sky, as though the sun ("the traveling lamp") has been "strangle[d]" by "dark night." Anyone else get the feeling that this is symbolic? Duncan's rule and his life have both been extinguished by Macbeth, who has committed the most "unnatural" act of all: upending the natural order of power.

    Act 3, Scene 6

    LORD 
                                        The son of Duncan
    […]
    Lives in the English court and is received
    Of the most pious Edward with such grace
    That the malevolence of fortune nothing
    Takes from his high respect. Thither Macduff
    Is gone to pray the holy king upon his aid
    To wake Northumberland and warlike Siward
    That, by the help of these (with Him above
    To ratify the work), we may again
    Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
    Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,
    Do faithful homage and receive free honors.
    All which we pine for now: and this report
    Hath so exasperate the king that he
    Prepares for some attempt of war. (3.6.28-43)

    It may be a Scottish play, but Shakespeare can't resist giving the English king, Edward the Confessor (c. 1003-1066) some props. Malcolm has fled to England, seeking help from the "pious Edward," who stands in contrast to the tyrant Macbeth and is going to play a major role in the restoration of political order in Scotland.

    LORD
                                 The son of Duncan
    (From whom this tyrant holds the due of birth) (3.6.28-29)

    Can't a king get a break? Macbeth has just been crowned, and people are already calling him a tyrant. Sheesh. It's almost like he's taken power unlawfully, or something.

    Act 4, Scene 1
    Macbeth

    MACBETH
    Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo. Down!
    Thy crown does sear mine eyeballs. And thy hair,
    Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
    A third is like the former.—Filthy hags!
    Why do you show me this?—A fourth? Start, eyes!
    What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?
    Another yet? A seventh? I'll see no more.
    And yet the eighth appears who bears a glass
    Which shows me many more, and some I see
    That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry.
    Horrible sight! Now I see 'tis true,
    For the blood-boltered Banquo smiles upon me,
    And points at them for his. (4.1.127-139)

    Macbeth is not pleased when the witches conjure a vision of eight kings, who just so happen to be Banquo's heirs, who just so happen to result in Shakespeare's very own King James I. Was James pleased?

    Act 4, Scene 3
    Macbeth

    MALCOLM 
                                 'Tis call'd the evil:
    A most miraculous work in this good king,
    Which often, since my here-remain in England
    I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven
    Himself best knows, but strangely visited people
    All swoll'n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
    The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
    Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
    Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
    To the succeeding royalty he leaves
    The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
    He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
    And sundry blessings hang about his throne
    That speak him full of grace. (4.3.168-181)

    Shakespeare is totally the teacher's pet. Here, he gives even more props to King Edward the Confessor of England by alluding to the "Royal Touch," a kind of laying on hands ceremony that was performed by English (and French) monarchs. The "strangely-visited people" referred to here by the Doctor suffer from scrofula, or the King's Evil. And if King Edward can cure a nasty disease like scrofula, just imagine what he can do to help cure Scotland of Macbeth.

  • Gender

    Act 1, Scene 3
    Weird Sisters (the Witches)

    FIRST WITCH
    I'll drain him dry as hay.
    Sleep shall neither night nor day
    Hang upon his penthouse lid.
    He shall live a man forbid.
    Weary sev'nnights, nine times nine,
    Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
    Though his bark cannot be lost,
    Yet it shall be tempest-tossed. (1.3.19-26)

    Here, the First Witch says that she's going to punish a sailor's wife by "drain[ing] [the sailor] dry as hay," which means that she's going to make the sailor impotent: no children, and no sex. Macbeth is definitely worried about male impotence—even Lady Macbeth makes a jab at her husband about it. Is that just a low blow, or does Macbeth actually associate sexual potency with masculinity?

    Banquo

    BANQUO
                                 You should be women,
    And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
    That you are so. (1.3.47-49)

    "Should" be: why? Because they look like women, or because they're obviously supernatural? And does the presence of a beard automatically disqualify someone from being a woman? (Don't tell the moustache-bleaching industry.)

    Act 1, Scene 5
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
    […] Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
    Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
    Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
    That no compunctious visitings of nature
    Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
    Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts,
    And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers,
    Wherever in your sightless substances
    You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick night,
    And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
    That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
    Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
    To cry "Hold, hold!" (1.5.47-61)

    We can't be the only ones who get goosebumps during this speech. Right? Here, Lady Macbeth gets her freak on by calling on "spirits" to, basically, make her into the man her husband can't be. Tell us who the hero of this play is, again?

    LADY MACBETH
    Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
    What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature; 
    It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
    To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
    Art not without ambition, but without
    The illness should attend it.
    […] 
                              Hie thee hither,
    That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
    And chastise with the valoor of my tongue
    All that impedes thee from the golden round,
    Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
     To have thee crowned withal. (1.5.15-20;28-33)

    According to Lady Macbeth, her husband is ambitious, but he's also too "kind" to do what it takes to murder Duncan so that he, Macbeth, can be king. So what's a wife to do? Lady Macbeth plans to "chastise" Macbeth with the "valour of [her] tongue," which is another way of saying she's going to nag her husband into taking action so he can be "crown'd withal." This speech establishes Lady Macbeth as the dominant partner in the relationship, which inverts typical 17th-century gender and social roles. Since husbands were supposed to "rule" their wives in the same way that kings ruled countries, Lady Macbeth's plan is just another version of treason: taking power that doesn't belong to you.

    Act 1, Scene 7
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH
                                        Was the hope drunk
    Wherein you dress'd yourself? hath it slept since?
    And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
    At what it did so freely? From this time
    Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
    To be the same in thine own act and valor
    As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
    Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
    And live a coward in thine own esteem,
    Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
    Like the poor cat i' th' adage? 

    MACBETH
                                        Prithee, peace:
    I dare do all that may become a man; (1.7.39-51)

    Fun brain snack: Lady Macbeth calls her husband "green and pale," which sound to us a lot like "green sickness." Green sickness is another name for anemia, and for hundreds of years it was thought to be particularly a disease of young, virgin girls. So, by calling her husband "green and pale," Lady Macbeth is basically calling her husband a virgin girl. His response? "No, dude, I'm totally a man."

    LADY MACBETH 

    [...] I have given suck, and know
    How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
    I would, while it was smiling in my face,
    Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
    And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
    Have done to this. (1.7.62-67)

    Here, Lady Macbeth takes breastfeeding —one of the fundamental biological traits of women as the Early Modern period saw it—makes it monstrous. She says that she's so good at keeping promises that she would actually kill a nursing child if she'd promised to do it. What's funny (not funny ha-ha) to us is that Macbeth has promised to kill his king, i.e. father figure; Lady Macbeth is talking about killing her child. Hmmm.

    Macbeth

    MACBETH
                         Bring forth men-children only,
    For thy undaunted mettle should compose
     Nothing but males. (1.7.83-85)

    Macbeth tells his wife that she's manly enough to only give birth to male-children. Sorry, Macbeth, but you're the one responsible for the Y-chromosome. But this is an interesting look at Early Modern ideas about gender: "masculinity" and "femininity" seem to be more about behavior than any particularly sex characteristics.

    Act 2, Scene 3
    Macduff

    MACDUFF

    O gentle lady,
    'Tis not for you to hear what I can speak.
    The repetition in a woman's ear
    Would murder as it fell. (2.3.96-99)

    LOL, Macduff. He's so tied to a notion of female gentleness that he can't believe Lady Macbeth could even hear about murder, much less plot one. See, guys? Sexism hurts everyone.

    Act 3, Scene 4
    Lady Macbeth

    LADY MACBETH 

                                Are you a man? 

    […] 

                                O, proper stuff!
    This is the very painting of your fear.
    This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
    Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts,
    Impostors to true fear, would well become
    A woman's story at a winter's fire,
    Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself!
    Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
    You look but on a stool. (3.4.70;73-81)

    In other words, Lady Macbeth is (yet again) telling Macbeth that he's acting like a girl—or, in this case, an old women. Honestly, we're a little surprised that—since this is Shakespeare and all —he didn't just up and kill her instead of Duncan.

    Act 4, Scene 3
    Macduff

    MACDUFF
    He has no children. All my pretty ones?
    Did you say "all"? O hell-kite! All?
    What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
    At one fell swoop? 

    MALCOLM
    Dispute it like a man. 

    MACDUFF
    I shall do so,
    But I must also feel it as a man.
    I cannot but remember such things were
    That were most precious to me. (4.3.255-262)

    Boys don't cry? Not so, says Macduff. He can be a man and also mourn the brutal murder of his wife and children. Talk about setting a good example.