Study Guide

Macbeth Violence

By William Shakespeare

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.)