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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

ACT III, SCENE III

When the two men from Scene i meet to murder Banquo, a third man joins them. He says that Macbeth sent him, and the other two assume Macbeth doesn't trust them.

There is a lot of debate over just who this Third Murderer is and why he is there. In some productions, he is even played by Macbeth himself in disguise! It is more likely, though, that he is one of Macbeth's henchmen, and that he is there as an indication that Macbeth does not trust anybody.

In the attack, the First Murderer makes a mistake. When Banquo and Fleance walk into the trap that has been set for them, the Second Murderer calls for a light. The First Murderer thinks he is being told to put out the light, so he extinguishes the torch. Banquo is killed, but Fleance is able to run away in the dark.

ACT III, SCENE IV

This scene dramatizes the fact that although Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have what they wanted, they cannot enjoy it. At the royal feast they try to act the noble hosts. Reminders of their evil deeds, however, continually interrupt and ruin the evening.

LINES 1-9

The beginning of the feast gives us a chance to see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth acting the roles of king and queen. They behave formally and graciously. Macbeth instructs his guests to sit down according to their "degrees," or rank.

The two seem to enjoy their privileges. Lady Macbeth sits on her throne, staying slightly apart from the others, as befits a ruler. Macbeth mingles with "his people," but he does it as a regal gesture:

Ourself will mingle with society And play the humble host. Act III, Scene iv, lines 4-5


LINES 10-33

The first interruption of this scene of royal graciousness occurs when the First Murderer arrives. His face has blood on it, but Macbeth is able to pull the man aside before any of the guests notice him. The murderer tells Macbeth that Banquo is dead.

You can see a big difference between Macbeth's reaction to this murder and his response to Duncan's. After killing the king, Macbeth was tortured with remorse. After having his friend killed, Macbeth is delighted.

How can a man lose his sense of right and wrong so quickly? Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that once a person gives in to the temptation of evil, his morals crumble. What ruins Macbeth's enjoyment of the news of his friend's murder is not his conscience. It is the news that Fleance was not killed too. Look at how twisted Macbeth has become; Banquo, who is dead, he calls "safe" (line 26), while Fleance's escape galls him. The First Murderer leaves, and Lady Macbeth reminds her husband of his duties to their guests. Macbeth tries to go back to playing the sociable host. The next interruption, however, is more serious than the first.

Macbeth must feel somewhat relieved by the news that Banquo is no longer a threat. In talking with his guests, Macbeth mentions his friend several times, saying he wishes Banquo were there. Those comments turn out to be ironic. Sitting in the seat that has been reserved for the king is Banquo's ghost, covered with gashes and blood. The ghost stares at Macbeth, who is transfixed with terror. The others cannot see the ghost, and to them Macbeth is acting like a lunatic.

NOTE:

Readers disagree over whether the ghost is "real" or not. Because Macbeth is the only one who sees it, the ghost could be a figment of his imagination. Macbeth saw a dagger before his first murder, and on previous scenes he has seemed almost on the verge of a breakdown. On the other hand, if we have accepted the supernatural as real, why not this ghost? Whichever point of view you take, one thing is clear; the ghost is absolutely real to Macbeth.

The rest of the scene until the guests leave takes the form of a tug-of-war between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He is talking to the ghost, and she is trying to maintain appearances for their guests.

She attempts to explain away her husband's strange behavior saying he has always had these "fits." Then she takes him aside and tries to shame him into being quiet:

Shame itself! Why do you make such faces? When all's done, You look but on a stool. Act III, Scene iv, lines 67-69

But Macbeth knows what he sees, and her words have little effect on him. (Remember how Macbeth could not decide whether to believe his common sense in his eyes when he saw the dagger. Now there is no contest.)

The ghost leaves, and Macbeth apologizes to his guests. His excuse-"I have a strange infirmity" (line 87)- has a surprising amount of truth to it. Without realizing it, he could be referring to his conscience. Though his moral sense appears to be dead, there is still some part of him that refuses to allow him to enjoy his stolen crown. But the ghost reappears, and Macbeth begins raving; he is saying way too much, and seems totally insane to his guests. He asks them how they can look at such things without being frightened. Lady Macbeth realizes she has lost control of the situation, and the evening cannot be saved. Wanting to get rid of the others before her husband says much more, she urgently tells the guests to leave. All the regal formality of the opening is now gone: "Stand not upon the order of your going / But go at once" (lines 120-21).

LINES 123-141

Macbeth and his wife talk after the guests leave. We learn three things:

1. Macduff refused to attend the feast, just as he refused to attend Macbeth's crowning, so Macduff is being set up as an adversary to Macbeth;

2. Macbeth is afraid, not only of Banquo but of all his lords. He says, "There's not a one of them but in his house / I keep a servant fee'd" (lines 132-33). In other words, he has spies.

3. Macbeth intends to visit the three witches again. Remember that the first time he met them, the evil creatures found him. Now he will seek them out.

Macbeth has reached a point where he is willing to do anything; "For mine own good / All causes shall give way" (lines 136-37). He is no longer divided between good and evil, as he was before Duncan's murder. By killing his king, he committed himself to a path from which there is no return.

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