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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Act V, Scene 3

Summary

This scene opens with Macbeth trying to calm his fears about the approaching army by remembering the prophecies of the witches. He tells himself, "Till Birnam Wood to Dunsinane I cannot taint with fear." Then he reminds himself that Macduff was surely born of woman. Finally he lies to himself one more time: "The mind I sway by and the heart I bear shall never say with doubt nor shake with fear." A fearful servant interrupts his thoughts and tells the king that 10,000 English soldiers are marching towards Dunsinane. Macbeth wants to hear none of it, and sends the servant away. Then a dejected Macbeth goes back to his reflections and says, "I have lived long enough," for he knows that old age will not bring him honor, love, or friendship. But he is determined to "fight, till from my bones my flesh be hacked." As he dons his armor, the king turns to the doctor and asks about his wife. The physician reports that she is not really sick, but "troubled with thick-coming fancies."

Macbeth begs the doctor to cure her from the same things he so desperately wants freedom from:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain..... Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?

In his response to these words of Macbeth, the doctor captures the entire meaning of the play when he answers, "The patient must minister to himself."


As the scene (and the English army) advances, Macbeth's state of mind deteriorates, as evidenced by the fact that he cannot hold to a single sentence, but interrupts himself over and over. He talks to Seton, his only remaining officer, then to the doctor, then to Seton again, never completing a whole thought. In one brief word to the doctor, Macbeth does reveal his understanding of the state of affairs in Scotland and almost prayerfully and uncharacteristically asks the doctor to "cast the water of my land, find her disease, and purge it to a sound and pristine health." Macbeth knows he cannot "minister to himself," (as evidenced by his death wish spoken during the scene), but he wants normalcy for his country. Perhaps there is still some shred of goodness in Macbeth. The scene closes with Macbeth pathetically going out in his armor, " trying to act like a man," and still saying, "I will not be afraid of death....'til Birnam forest come to Dunsinane."

Notes

The scene captures the full chaos that rages in the mind of Macbeth. One moment he is pensive and melancholy; the next moment he is ranting and raving. One moment he is worrying about his wife's health and the sickness of Scotland; the next moment he is ordering Seton to hang all traitors. There is little rational in the pattern of his speech, just as there is little rational in his state of mind. The picture of Macbeth in this scene is intentionally pathetic. As his only officer helps him into his armor, the audience is reminded of the image of him painted in the last scene as a dwarf in giant's clothing. The armor no longer fits the image; Macbeth is no longer the heroic warrior pictured in the beginning of the play.

With 10,000 soldiers fast approaching, Macbeth still refuses to face the reality truthfully, but hangs on to the witches' prophesies that were filled with double meaning. The king does not fear Malcolm, for he believes he was born of woman, and he refuses to believe that Birnam Wood will ever come to Dunsinane. As always Macbeth confuses the appearance and the reality. Furthermore, the king is obviously quaking in fear, yet swears he will never "sag with doubt, nor shake with fear," pathetically humorous words from an "unmanly" king who has to belittle his servant to make himself appear more important and who has doubted and feared his way into total chaos that causes his ruin.

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