Macbeth - Summary and Analysis Act III: Scene 1

Summary

Banquo suspects Macbeth but gains comfort from the second part of the Witches’ prediction — that his own children will be kings. Having announced his intention to go riding with Fleance, Banquo is persuaded by the Macbeths to return later that evening to their new palace at Forres for a special feast. However, Macbeth realises that the Witches’ prophecy regarding Banquo represents a threat to his own position. Unable to endure the thought of Banquo’s descendants claiming his position, Macbeth summons two hired murderers and confirms with them prior arrangements for the killing of Banquo and Fleance.

Analysis

Banquo’s short soliloquy has two purposes: It reminds the audience of the details of the Witches’ prophecy in Act I, and it reveals his own suspicion that Macbeth is Duncan’s murderer. Ironically, his tone also recalls the ambitious tone of Macbeth in earlier scenes.

Macbeth and his wife make arrangements for the feast with all the confidence of their new rank. Note particularly Macbeth’s adoption of the royal “we,” The use of the plural in place of the singular pronoun is a traditional figure of speech by which the monarch expresses not only unity with his people but also his absolute authority over them. Banquo, once equal in status with Macbeth, acknowledges Macbeth’s new position by addressing him throughout the scene as “my lord.”

Other aspects of language confirm Macbeth’s new status: strong verse rhythms, for example, appear in lines such as “Here’s our chief guest” and “Fail not our feast.” Macbeth’s apparent disregard for time — of which he now has plenty — is clear in expressions such as “but we’ll take tomorrow” and “But of that tomorrow.” The word “tomorrow,” like “hereafter,” is full of irony in Macbeth. Tomorrow should be full of hope for the future, but the word comes back to haunt him later in the play. His use of the word here foreshadows the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Act V.

Summary

Banquo suspects Macbeth but gains comfort from the second part of the Witches’ prediction — that his own children will be kings. Having announced his intention to go riding with Fleance, Banquo is persuaded by the Macbeths to return later that evening to their new palace at Forres for a special feast. However, Macbeth realises that the Witches’ prophecy regarding Banquo represents a threat to his own position. Unable to endure the thought of Banquo’s descendants claiming his position, Macbeth summons two hired murderers and confirms with them prior arrangements for the killing of Banquo and Fleance.

Analysis

Banquo’s short soliloquy has two purposes: It reminds the audience of the details of the Witches’ prophecy in Act I, and it reveals his own suspicion that Macbeth is Duncan’s murderer. Ironically, his tone also recalls the ambitious tone of Macbeth in earlier scenes.

Macbeth and his wife make arrangements for the feast with all the confidence of their new rank. Note particularly Macbeth’s adoption of the royal “we,” The use of the plural in place of the singular pronoun is a traditional figure of speech by which the monarch expresses not only unity with his people but also his absolute authority over them. Banquo, once equal in status with Macbeth, acknowledges Macbeth’s new position by addressing him throughout the scene as “my lord.”

Other aspects of language confirm Macbeth’s new status: strong verse rhythms, for example, appear in lines such as “Here’s our chief guest” and “Fail not our feast.” Macbeth’s apparent disregard for time — of which he now has plenty — is clear in expressions such as “but we’ll take tomorrow” and “But of that tomorrow.” The word “tomorrow,” like “hereafter,” is full of irony in Macbeth. Tomorrow should be full of hope for the future, but the word comes back to haunt him later in the play. His use of the word here foreshadows the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Act V.

Even with his new title and robes of office, Macbeth does not feel entirely at ease: The security of his kingship rests partly on his own children’s succession to the crown of Scotland. However, because he has no children of his own, his treacherous act of regicide — the murder of a king — appears pointless and has been committed on behalf of Banquo’s promised successors. The soliloquy that Macbeth delivers is filled with the language of contrast. His split with Banquo is emphasized by opposing pronouns: “They hailed him father to a line of kings: / Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown, / And put a barren sceptre in my grip . . . ” (60-62).

The line “To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!” (70) is almost incredulous, as if Macbeth is trying to convince himself that the Witches could not possibly have spoken the truth. Whereas Banquo still trusts in the fateful prophecy, Macbeth is all too ready to dismiss it. In Act I, Scene 2, the wounded captain reported that Macbeth the warrior-hero was prepared to disdain Fortune. Now Macbeth the murderer goes one step further by literally challenging Fate itself to a tournament (or “list”): “Rather than so, come, fate, into the list / And champion me to the utterance” (71-72). Note that the verb “to champion” here has its original meaning: to fight against, not for.

The entry of the hired murderers is a crucial element in the development of Macbeth’s character. His use of others to do his dirty work presents him as politically powerful but morally weak. Long gone are the days when Macbeth would meet his enemy “front to front.” Now he must commit murder with the seeming protection of distance — “something [distant] from the palace” (133). Shakespeare also contrasts ironically the murderers’ pragmatic reaction to the idea of murder with Macbeth’s conscience-stricken one.

The dialogue of the first part of the scene reveals that Macbeth has met the murderers before. Both then and now, he must convince them to work on his behalf. Whether true or not (we have no evidence), he kindles, or re-kindles, in them, a hatred of Banquo: “Know that it was he . . . ,” “This I made good to you in our last conference,” “Do you find your patience so predominant in your nature that you can let this go?” The tone of these quotations is more than simply interrogative; Macbeth must ensure that the men are not persuaded by the slightest moral scruple, the slightest sympathy for Banquo, to betray the plan. Such a reaction would be entirely natural and human, but that humanity is precisely what Macbeth cannot now allow. Therefore, when the First Murderer replies, “We are men, my liege,” Macbeth cuts off his speech and, in a sequence of powerful metaphors, reduces the humanity of these murderers to the level of beasts: “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men, / As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs / . . . and demi-wolves are clept [called] / All by the name of dogs” (93-96).

Although Macbeth flatters the Murderers by suggesting that the business of Banquo’s murder will elevate them above the common rank, his ironic tone reveals that he thinks of them as little more than beasts. Doubly ironic, then, is that this entire speech is admission to himself of his own inhumanity and imperfection: Macbeth himself is acting like a “demi-wolf.” The lines are triply ironic when we see that indeed the murderers are, themselves, imperfect in carrying out his instructions for the “perfect” crime.

This notion of perfection is one that now comes to dominate Macbeth’s thoughts. Banquo’s death would make Macbeth’s “health . . . perfect”; and the crime must be committed at “the perfect’st spy of the time” (the exact hour). Both of these quotations foreshadow Macbeth’s line in Act III, Scene 4, when, hearing of the botched attempt to kill Fleance, he remarks “I had else been perfect.” The tragic assumption that one can commit a perfect crime and escape the consequences is about to be tested.

As if to impress us with the connection between the killing of the king (the blame for which could, after all, be laid at the door of Fate) and the killing of Banquo (blame for which most definitely cannot), the final couplet (“It is concluded: Banquo, they soul’s flight, / If it find heaven, must find it out tonight”) ironically recalls the words spoken by Macbeth immediately prior to his killing of King Duncan: “Hear it not Duncan, for it is a bell / That summons thee to Heaven, or to Hell.”

Glossary

verities (8) true predictions

parricide (31) murder of a parent

rebuked (55) mocked

fil’d my mind (64) defiled my guiltless conscience

rancours (66) bitterness

eternal jewel (67) immortal soul

Enemy of Man (68) the Devil

list (70) tournament

utterance (71) utmost

probation (79) approval

borne in hand . . . cross’d (79) deceived, double-crossed

half a soul (82) a half-wit

shoughs, water-rugs (93) rough-coated dogs

particular addition (99) a specific title

avouch (119) justify

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