Study Guide

Macbeth Power

By William Shakespeare

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.