At Macbeth’s home, the castle of Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband concerning his meeting with the Witches. She is immediately aware of the significance of their prophetic words and, on being informed that King Duncan will be paying a royal visit to Inverness, makes up her mind to carry out the murder of the king in order to hasten the prophecy. In doing so, she suggests that her husband is weak — he contains too much of “the milk of human kindness.” When Macbeth arrives from the court of Duncan, bearing news of the king’s forthcoming visit, his wife makes her plans clear to him.
The letter, read alone on stage by Lady Macbeth, reiterates the Witches’ prophecy of Act I. Significantly, in his letter, Macbeth says nothing of their prophecy to Banquo; perhaps he is already afraid of its implications. Equally significantly, he sets up Lady Macbeth as his “dearest partner of greatness.” She will indeed become his partner in crime, but much more than that: Apart from the fatal blow itself, she will be responsible for controlling Macbeth’s passions and — to an extent — his actions.
Immediately after she finishes the letter, Lady Macbeth’s mind goes to work. Her words “shalt be” uncannily reflect those of the Witches’ prophecy. At this point, Lady Macbeth herself has virtually become an agent of Fate, just like the Weird Sisters. But immediately her thoughts turn to possible failings in her husband. He is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to commit murder; he would be great, he would have a high position, he would wrongly win that position, but in each case, some other aspect of his character would not. In this case, she says, there is only one solution. She must “pour [her] spirits in thine ear.” Any member of Shakespeare’s audience who had seen his play Hamlet four years previously would be more than aware of the significance of this line, for in that play the good King Claudius is murdered by poison administered through the ear. The scene is rapidly becoming darker.
Lady Macbeth is one of the most powerful female characters in literature. The fact that we meet her alone on stage means that we are privy to her innermost thoughts, which are filled with the imagery of death and destruction. And when she speaks, in her next soliloquy, of her “fell purpose,” her intentions are described in the most grotesque and frightening terms. First she bids the spirits to literally deprive her of her femininity, to thicken her blood, and to stop her ability to weep. Next, she prays that those same evil spirits should suckle her, converting what should be her nourishing mother’s milk to “gall” (bitterness). Lastly, she calls upon the night itself to hide her actions in a “blanket” of darkness. It is no coincidence that these last words reflect those of Macbeth in the previous scene: Shakespeare is creating a strong verbal bond between husband and wife that will continue throughout the play.
When Macbeth enters his castle, his wife greets him in a way that again recalls the words of the Witches; in particular the words “all-hail” and “hereafter” chill the audience, for they are the exact words spoken to Macbeth by the Witches. The dialogue that follows their initial encounter is fast, urgent, and disturbing. Shakespeare uses half-line breaks to intensify the drama of the moment, each “partner in crime” picking up the rhythm of the other’s speech:
M: My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.
LM: And when goes hence?
M: Tomorrow, as he purposes.
LM: Oh, never
Shall sun that morrow see!
Shakespeare uses the same technique immediately after the murder.
In the lines that follow, Lady Macbeth uses several significant metaphors of concealment: Macbeth’s face is like “a book, where men / May read strange matters” (63-64); then, in a brilliantly ironic reference to the Genesis story, “Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it” (66-67). The apparent paradise promised by the Witches is soon to become a hell. An important psychological point is also made: Lady Macbeth herself does not hide her feelings in the same way that Macbeth does. She is not rapt in wonderment, simply practical. The last line of the scene, “Leave all the rest to me,” is quite modern in its tone. With this blunt and chilling imperative, Lady Macbeth completes her transformation from woman to man. From now on, she plays on the reversal of roles; she has adopted the role of “man of action,” forcing her husband into the more passive role of accomplice.
lose the dues (12) miss the reward
hie thee hither (25) come here quickly
chastise (27) beat off, chase away
golden round (28) the crown (kingship)
metaphysical (29) supernatural
effect and it (47) the result and the plan
favour (72) complexion