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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT III, SCENE I
Alone, Banquo voices his suspicions about the way Macbeth gained the throne. He comes right out and says that he is afraid Macbeth "play'dst most foully for 't" (line 3).
Banquo is in an awkward position. He has been Macbeth's friend, but he suspects his friend of assassinating the king. For some reason, he stays at Macbeth's castle. Is that because he wants to? Or is it because Macbeth wants to keep him nearby?
Banquo also remembers that the witches who predicted a crown for Macbeth predicted that Banquo's descendents would be kings. Should that give him hope? He wonders.
Macbeth, his Queen, and their attendants enter. Macbeth invites Banquo to a feast he is holding that night.
In this scene, we see a new Macbeth. He has become very good at hiding his real feelings. As we will learn later in the scene, Macbeth is planning Banquo's murder. Yet he is gracious and friendly. Under the guise of friendship, Macbeth finds out Banquo's plans for the day. This information will help him to plan his friend's murder. Notice that Macbeth takes special interest in whether Banquo's son, Fleance, will be with Banquo when he goes riding that day.
When Banquo leaves, Macbeth says that he plans to spend the rest of the day alone until the feast. He seems every inch the monarch as he announces, "To make society / The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself / Till supper-time alone" (lines 41-43).
As soon as Lady Macbeth and the others leave, Macbeth sends for men
who are waiting for him outside the palace gate. When he is left alone,
we learn what Macbeth is really feeling.
Macbeth is not the confident ruler he appears to be. He is tormented by fears. At the moment, those fears center on Banquo.
He has many reasons to fear his friend. Banquo has what Macbeth calls a "royalty of nature" (line 50). In other words, he's noble-brave, honest, and wise. That makes him dangerous to Macbeth, who depends upon his countrymen being either not smart enough to know what he's done or not brave enough to challenge him.
Besides, the fact Banquo knows about the witches threatens Macbeth. Couldn't he guess how Macbeth reacted to their prophesies? And, too, the witches predicted that Banquo's descendents would be kings. If that happened, Macbeth would have committed murder just so Banquo's children could inherit the throne. That thought drives him crazy. And maybe Macbeth wonders if Banquo is enough like him to do what he did to help fate along: Kill for the crown.
Macbeth arranges Banquo's murder. As we watch him manipulate the two men he has chosen to do his dirty work, we get a picture of just what a monster Macbeth has become.
First, we find out that he has already been plotting. We also see that he has been twisting the truth. He reminds the men of a previous conversation, in which he made it clear to them that Banquo is their enemy. The two men have suffered some unnamed misfortune, which was Macbeth's fault. He has told them that Banquo was really responsible. Knowing what we do about Macbeth and Banquo, we know Macbeth is lying.
Macbeth is making skillful use of the atmosphere of paranoia that has existed since Duncan's murder. Since there's no way for the two men to know just what to believe, they might as well go along with Macbeth. He is the king, after all. Getting on his good side could bring them rewards.
Macbeth has also been extremely clever in choosing his murderers. They are not criminals already. They are just down on their luck. Hard times have made them desperate, so they are ready to try anything.
Macbeth arouses the two men's anger against Banquo by insulting them. Remember how Lady Macbeth prompted her husband to kill Duncan by questioning his manhood? Look at how he taunts these two:
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, Sloughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept All by the name of dogs.... Act III, Scene i, lines 92-95
"Are you a greyhound or a mongrel?" he asks them, just as we would ask "Are you a man or a mouse?"
After insulting them, Macbeth changes tactics. He assures them that Banquo is his enemy as well as theirs. Imagine how these two men who have been enduring such hard times must feel when the king himself says, "I to your assistance do make love" (line 124). They are ready to do anything for him, especially kill Banquo.
Macbeth adds another condition-Fleance must be killed, too. We know, as Macbeth does, that, if Fleance survives, the witches' prediction can still come true. Having come so far, however, the two men are not held back by the idea of killing a child.