As Macbeth makes his way toward the king’s bedchamber, he encounters Banquo with his son Fleance. Banquo has been unable to sleep and explains to Macbeth that he has been dreaming of the weird sisters. After arranging to meet again in order to discuss the matter, Banquo asserts his allegiance to the king and bids good night to Macbeth. No sooner is Macbeth alone, than he has an extraordinary experience. Either in the heat of the moment or through some supernatural visitation, he sees a ghostly dagger indicating the way to the Duncan. Convinced that “there’s no such thing,” he climbs to the king’s chamber.
The opening dialogue sets the scene: It is past midnight, the moon has set, and the “candles” of heaven — the stars — cannot be seen. Symbolically, the airy lightness that greeted Duncan’s arrival at the castle in Act I has completely vanished, to be replaced by brooding darkness.
In this opening scene of Act II, as in the later Porter scene, the audience feels momentarily suspended from the action but in no way removed from the intensity of emotion as the innocent Banquo and his son pass the time of night. The moment at which Banquo so very nearly draws his sword on a potential intruder (actually Macbeth) is a master-stroke of dramatic irony: Banquo has no idea of what the audience knows.
The dagger speech (32-65) is, deservedly, one of the most celebrated in Shakespeare. Like “If it were done” (Act I, Scene 7), this soliloquy is a fascinating piece of stage psychology. The structure of the lines precisely echoes the swings from lucidity to mental disturbance that characterize Macbeth throughout the play. There are three false alarms: “I see thee still . . . I see thee yet . . . I see thee still!” Between each of these alarms comes a moment of respite in which Macbeth appeals to the world of the physical senses: “Art thou not . . . sensible to feeling?” “Mine eyes are made the fools of the other senses,” and “It is the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes.”
Nevertheless, as in the earlier scene with his wife, Macbeth eventually capitulates. The urge to become king is now strong in him. In his final lines, as he ascends to the king’s chamber, he imagines himself as the personification of Murder itself, stealthily making its way towards its victim. The change of tone to one of high rhetoric and classical allusion (Hecate, Tarquin) may seem out of place, but not if we imagine Macbeth putting on a “mask” of language in preparation for the murder. The distinction between word and deed in the last line is an idea that occurs frequently in Shakespeare. What we say and what we do are frequently very different matters. But in the final couplet, Macbeth seems to transfer his own doubts concerning the afterlife to Duncan: Whether the king will go to heaven or hell is now an academic matter; ironically, for Macbeth himself, the outcome is likely to be more certain.
husbandry in heaven (4) the gods are economical with their starlight
cleave to my consent (25) approve of my plan
augment (27) support
dudgeon (46) handle
gouts (46) drops
Hecate (52) goddess of witchcraft
Tarquin (46) murderous king of Rome
prate (58) prattle