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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Act I, Scene 5

Summary

This scene, set in Macbeth's castle Inverness, opens with Lady Macbeth reading a letter from her absent husband. In the letter, Macbeth tells about his encounter with the three witches whom he believes have "more than mortal knowledge." He tells her about their prediction that he would become the Thane of Cawdor (which has come to pass) and the King of Scotland. Macbeth further indicates in the letter that he truly believes he will gain the throne, saying to his wife that he wanted her to know "what greatness is promised thee." Lady Macbeth is elated by the prospect of becoming the queen, but fearful that her husband may be too kind to carry out any plan that would insure he wears the crown. She immediately decides that she will help her husband by encouraging him to murder Duncan.

As she ponders all the news of Macbeth's letter and her husband's character, an attendant enters to say that King Duncan is coming to Inverness this very day for an overnight visit. Her response to the news is that she welcomes "the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements." She sees this as the perfect opportunity to have her husband murder the king. She begs the spirits to aid in the plan and to fill her with "direct cruelty" so nothing will "shake my fell purpose." As she has these darkest thoughts, Macbeth himself enters the scene, and she greets him as a king, calling him the "all- hail hereafter." She wastes no time in sharing her murderous thoughts about taking immediate action against Duncan and says, "I feel now the future is in the instant."

When Macbeth tells her that Duncan will only be staying one night and leaving tomorrow, Lady Macbeth replies that "never shall sun that morrow see!" Then she warns Macbeth that he cannot let his plans for murder show in his face. Instead, he must "look like the innocent flower but be the serpent underneath." Next Lady Macbeth indicates that she wants to be in control of the plans, telling her husband to "put this night's great business into my despatch." Macbeth understands and approves her plans and promises to speak further about them later in the day. The scene closes with Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth to stay calm and "leave the rest to me."

Notes

Macbeth's letter to his wife reveals more information about the main character. He is obviously thoughtful and loving towards his wife, caring enough to write the letter to her and sharing his deepest thoughts and emotions with her. He also addresses her in the letter as "dearest partner in greatness," which shows his respect and appreciation for her. The letter also confirms Macbeth's greed, for he indicates to her his desire for the throne. After reading the letter, Lady Macbeth shares her fear in a soliloquy, saying that her husband may be "too full of the milk of human kindness" to plan a murder of the king, but she vows to pour her evil spirits into his ear. To aid her, she calls upon the dark spirits, as if praying to them, like the witches. She begs the "murdering ministers" to "unsex" her (much as the three evil witches seemed both male and female) and make her strong enough to murder. She also asks them to make her blood thick against remorse and compunction and to make the night dark to hide the sin that is to be committed. The wording of the entire soliloquy serves as a flashback to the first scene of the play, where the witches plotted their evil doings in a place where the air was foul and dark.


The scene also serves to introduce the character of Lady Macbeth, and a stormy character she is! Her immediate response to Macbeth's letter is that, beyond a doubt, her husband will become King of Scotland, for she will take matters into her own hands to make certain that it happens. When she learns that Duncan is on his way to Inverness for the night, without hesitation, she plans his murder in her own castle. She even calls upon the darkness and smoke of hell to surround her in the night so she will not see the knife wounds or face the reality of her total evil. It is apparent that she will be the driving force behind her husband, nullifying any of his virtues, and she will do it quickly, reinforcing the frantic, chaotic pace of the entire play.

When Macbeth arrives and she shares her plans with him, she sees that "milk of human kindness" on his face and warns him not to let his treachery show to the king. When she tells him to look as innocent as a flower but act like a serpent, she recalls Duncan's earlier comments about the difficulty of recognizing a traitor by his face. Her observations about Macbeth also point out another one of the play's many ironies. Macbeth, the brave and victorious warrior, is really softer than his wife. Her warning also reinforces the ongoing theme of appearance vs. reality.

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