What Men Live By: Leo Tolstoy

A kind and humble shoemaker called Simon goes out one day to purchase sheep-skins in order to sew a winter coat for his wife and himself to share. Usually the little money, which Simon earned would be spent to feed his wife and children. Simon decided that in order to afford the skins he must go on a collection to receive the five roubles and twenty kopeks owed to him by his customers. As he heads out to collect the money he also borrows a three-rouble note from his wife's money box. While going on his collection he only manages to receive twenty kopeks rather than the full amount. Feeling disheartened by this Simon rashly spends the twenty kopeks on vodka and starts to head back home.

On his way home he rants to himself about the little he can do with twenty kopeks besides spend it on alcohol and that the winter cold is bearable without a sheep-skin coat. While approaching a holy shrine, Simon stops and notices something pale looking leaning against it. He peers harder and distinguishes that it is a naked man who appears poor of health. At first he is suspicious and fears that the man has no good intentions if he is left in such a state. He proceeds to pass the man until he feels that for a second the man lifted his head and looked toward him. Simon debates what to do in his mind and feels shameful for his disregard and heads back to help the man.

Simon gives the articles of clothing he can and wraps around the stranger. He aids him as they both walk toward Simon's home. Though they walk together side by side, the stranger barely speaks and when Simon asks how he was left in that situation the only answers the man would give was: "I may not tell" and "God has punished me." Meanwhile Simon's wife Matrena debates whether or not to bake more bread for the night's meal so that there is enough for the following morning's breakfast. She decides that the loaf of bread that they have left would be ample enough to last till the following morning. As she sees Simon approaching the door she is angered to see him with a strange man who is wrapped in Simon's clothing.

Matrena immediately expresses her displeasure with Simon, accusing him and his strange companions to be drunkards and harassing Simon for not returning with the sheep-skin needed to make a new coat. Once the tension settles down she bids that the stranger sits down and has dinner with them. After seeing the stranger take bites at the bread she placed for him on his plate, she began to felt pity and showed so in her face. When the stranger noticed this his grim expression lit up immediately and he smiled for one brief moment. After hearing the story from the stranger how Simon had kindly robed the stranger after seeing him in his naked state Matrena grabbed more of their old clothing and gave it to Simon.

The following morning Simon addresses the stranger and asks his name. The stranger answers that his name is simply Michael. Simon explains to Michael that he can stay in his household as long as he can earn his keep by acting as an assistant for Simon in his shoemaking business. Michael agrees to these terms and for a long period of time remains a very faithful assistant. One day a customer who was a nobleman came in their shop. The nobleman outlined strict conditions for the construction of a pair of thick leather boots will not lose its shapes or become loose at the seams for a year or else he would have Simon arrested. When Simon gave the leather that the nobleman had given them to use to Michael, Michael appears to stare beyond the nobleman's shoulder and smiled for the second time since he had been there.

As Michael sews the leather to construct the boots he does so in a fashion that makes them soft leather slippers rather than thick leather boats. Simon is too late when he notices this and cries to Michael asking why he would do such a foolish thing. Before Michael can answer, a messenger arrives at their door and gives the news that the nobleman has died and if they could change the order to slippers for him to wear on his death bed. Simon is astounded by this and watches as Michael gives the messenger the pre-made leather slippers. Time continues to go by and Simon is very grateful for Michael's faithful assistance. One day another customer comes in who happens to be a woman with two girls, one of which was crippled. The woman requested if she could order a pair of leather shoes for each of the girls but to only three shoes since they both share the same shoe size with the exception of the crippled girl's lame foot. As they are preparing to fill the order Michael stares intently at the girls and Simon wonders why he is doing so. As Simon takes the girls' measurements he asks the woman if they are her own children and how was the girl with the lame foot crippled. The woman explains that she has no relation to them and that the mother on her deathbed accidentally crushed the leg of the crippled girl. She expresses that she could not find it in her heart to leave them in a safehome or orphanage and took them as her own. When Michael heard this he smiled for the third time since he had been there.

After the woman and two children finally left Michael approached Simon and bid him farewell explaining that God has finally forgiven him. As Michael did this he began to be surrounded by a heavenly glow and Simon acknowledged that he was not an ordinary man. Simon asked him why light emits from him and why did he smile only those three times. Michael explained that he is an angel who was given the task to take away a woman's life so she can pass on to the next life. He allowed the woman to live because she begged that she must take care of her children for no one other than their mother could care for them so. When he did this God punished him for his disobedience and commanded that he must find the answers to the following questions in order to be an angel again: What dwells in man?, What is not given to man?, andWhat do men live by? When Michael returned to earth to take the woman's soul, he realized that the woman's lifeless body rolled over and crushed the leg of the now crippled girl. Michael's wings had left him and he no longer was an angel but naked and mortal. When Simon rescued him he knew that he must begin finding the answers to those questions. He learned the answer to the first question when Matrena felt pity for him, thus smiling and realizing what dwells in man is "love". The answer to the second question came to him when he realized that the angel of death was looming over the nobleman, thus smiling and realizing what is not given to man is "to know his own needs." Lastly, he comprehended the answer to the final question when he saw the woman with the two girls from the mother he previously did not take the soul of, thus smiling and realizing that regardless of being strange or relation to each other what men live by is that "love exists in man." When Michael finished he sang praise to God as wings appeared on his back and he raised to return to heaven.

A Devoted Son: Anita Desai

Introduction to the Story and the Author

This story opens up the age old debate of generation gap. As we read It me story we will be in a position to express our understanding of devotion. This sure am Awes us to dwell a little into geriatric (pertaining to old age) psychology that is fast plaint significance in recent times.

'A Devoted Son’ is a short story about how peoples attitudes vary in differed circumstances A proud father of a doctor son with sterling personals undergoes a sea change in his attitude towards the end of his life. The story elicits ideas like who is a devoted son? How devoted can a doctor son be? and the like.

Mrs. Anita Desai is popular writer in English. Some of her famous novels include fire on the Mountain; Cry the Peacock, Voices in the City, Bye Bye Blackbird and several short story collections. 'A Devoted Son' is taken from Games at Prilith and other stories

Synopsis

Rakesh was the son of Varma, a worker in the kerosene dealer's depot. He worked very hard and passed every examination in first division. The family celebrated his success with great revelry and joy. His M.D. thesis was much appreciated though only in medical circles. He went to the U.S.A. to acquire professional skill and expertise in his field. In all these years, what amused everyone is not his achievement alone but his respect and humility to his parents.

Many wondered that he still, paid obeisance to his parents at every occasion. And now contrary to popular expectations he returned to India and married the girl of his mother’s choice. Soon he settled down with a clinic, a car and began his practice as a surgeon became the best and the richest doctor in the town. This can certainly be called the achievement of a lifetime. Added to this is the fact that he touches his parent’s feet as a devoted son.

As years passed by, his mother died. He took great care of his father. He brought his morning tea; read newspaper for him; took him to the garden in the evenings for a breath of fresh air. During summer he helped his father sleep in the open lawn. He made the servants carry the old man's bed to the lawn and he personally helped him down the steps on to the bed. After his return from the clinic, every evening he sat with his father and spent some tune with him.

Then came a time when he had to restrict his father’s diet. As he was ageing, rich and fatty foods like oil, ghee, butter, cheese etc. had to be cut down. Sweets were completely forbidden. The old man could not control his tongue. So, he bribed his young grandchildren to get him jilebis from the market. However this arrangement did not last long. Rakesh caught his son red handed and he got furious with his father. He scolded his father, for not only spoiling his health but also teaching children to lie. Since then there was heavy restriction on the old man's food besides heavy supervision of the same.

Mr. Varma felt insulted by all these activities. He felt it was unbecoming of his son to behave in such a manner. Though from Rakesh’s point of view, he was only doing his duty to his father. And that he does all this for his fathers benefit and not out of discourtesy. But his father was dissatisfied with everything. He shared his grief with his neighbor Bhatia who was also old and adamant. As if adding insult to injury, his daughter-in-law who carried out the instructions of Rakesh regarding the old man's diet, seemed to relish the act of denying something that he liked most. As is bound to happen he fell ill. On one occasions during his second grandchild’s birth day he lied down like a corpse, stretching on ends and became the main focus of attention. The celebrations had to be abandoned. Soon he got up and spat a mouthful of betel juice, dispelling all the anxiety. Since then his stretching like a corpse became a regular feature but not the attention he demanded.

The number of pills and medicines increased. Though Rakesh did them all with affection and care for his old father, Varma was not ready to believe it. His loneliness intensified. A stage came when he had to react sharply to his son's advice. He began to woo death. He made it clear to his son that he had no intention to live. He refused his tonic and said that he did not want to survive on medicines. Despite the fact that Rakesh was indeed a devoted son, Varma refused to recognize it. And he died refusing to recognize it

Going Places: A. R. Barton

The story revolves around the life of Sophie, a teenager, who, like others of her age, is filled with fantasies and desires. She comes from a poor financial background, but hopes to be sophisticated in the future. Sophie dreams of owning a boutique one day ot being an actress or fashion designer, but her friend Jansie believes that both of them are earmarked for the biscuit factory. Jansie, who is more realistic, tries to pull Sophie to reality, but in vain.

Sophie lives in a small house with her parents and brothers, Geoff and little Derek. Though she voices her feelings and desires, her parents belittle her, because they, unlike her, are more mature and has known the harsh realities of life.
Sophie finds a sort of fascination for her elder brother Geoff, who, in her opinion, is tall, strong and handsome but reserved. She envies his silence and often wonders about his thoughts and areas of his life that she doesn't know about.

The centre of this story is that Sophie fantasises about Danny Casey, an Irish football player, whom she had seen playing in innumerable matches. She makes up a story about how she met him in the streets and tells this to Geoff. Geoff, who is more sensible than Sophie, does not really believe her, even if she wants to. It seems an unlikely incident for Sophie to meet the prodigy in their street, but where Sophie describes the meeting inall her details, he begins to hope that it could be true. She tells him that Danny has promised to meet her somewhere again.

Sophie gets so pulled into the story she made that she herself begins to believe that its true. She waits for the Irish player, but obviously, he never arrives. Then, she makes her way home, wondering how her brother would be disappointed on knowing that Danny Casey never showed up. However, Sophie still fantasises about her hero, unperturbed.



The whole story is about unrealistic dreams and how we love to indulge in them knowing all the while that they have little possibility of coming true. But some, like Sophie, gets too involved in them and actually act on them. This is when disappointment makes its entrance into life. The story seem to hint at you that it is okay to dream, but dream with limits. This is actual reality and do not believe too much in movies and novels where the characters miraculously over come their challenges. This is a pessimistic way of looking at things, but sadly it is the true reality. Unless you are impossibly ambitious, hardworking, and have loads of patience and perseverance, such dreams are best to be kept under lock and key unless you like the taste of bitter disappointment

The Rattrap: Selma Lagerlof

The rattrap seller is a homeless fellow who stays in the crofter’s cottage for a night. The crofter entertains him as a guest and friend. But the rattrap seller returns later the next day, smashes the window pane and steals the money of the crofter.

The fortune however turns later when the iron master mistaking him to be an old comrade takes him home. There he stays for two days as his guest. Once again he is on his way to continue his usual profession of selling rattraps, thievery and begging. But he sends a letter to the iron masters daughter telling her that she was a wonderful hostess and he cannot lie to her. He also returned the money that he had stolen from the crofter and asked her to return it. He lets her know that this whole world is like a rat trap. Just like the rats are trapped by cheese and food similarly men are lured by land, food, shelter, clothing etc. these are baits. Those who touch them are trapped.

Growing Up: Joyce Cary

About the author

Joyce Cary (1888-1957) was born in Londonderry. (You may think of Joyce as a feminine personal name, but in this case it is a man's name.) He studied art in Edinburgh and Paris before reading law at Oxford University. Joyce Cary was a Red Cross orderly in two Balkan wars and served with a Nigerian regiment in World War I. In 1920 he returned to England, settling in Oxford, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Cary published many novels (beginning with Aissa Saved in 1932) and stories. He is perhaps best known for the character Gulley Jimson, a painter, who appears in a trilogy: Herself Surprised (1941), To Be a Pilgrim (1942) and The Horse's Mouth(1944). The Horse's Mouth was made into a feature film (1958) as was the 1939 novel Mister Johnson (filmed in 1990). Growing Up is one of five short stories in the posthumous collection Spring Song, from 1960.

What happens in Growing Up?

The story is very simple in outline. A man comes home from work for the weekend. He plays with his daughters, who attack him. In the struggle their pet bitch* bites him. The girls tend to his wound, and he goes out to his club for some male company. Beneath this simple narrative, lots of other things are happening.

*A note about bitch. In the UK today, "bitch" is considered a taboo word, as it is used insultingly of women to suggest ideas of male dominance and "ownership" of sexually available women. Fifty years ago it was also used insultingly, but with a different sense - then a "bitch" was a bad-tempered or wilful woman. (And in between, as in the 1984 film, The Bitch, starring Joan Collins, it suggested both independence and promiscuity.) But for a writer born in the 19th century, it has no such overtones - it is just the usual noun for a female of the dog species. (We can still see "bitch" used in this way in advertisements placed by dog-breeders.)

The themes of this story

Like several of the authors, Joyce Cary chooses a title that suggests one of the themes of the story - that of growing up. This appears to refer mostly to the two sisters, Kate and Jenny. Later we see that it may also apply in a way to their father, Robert, who has been able to play with them for years, but now sees a time when he will be cut off from them, good only for paying the bills. The author makes this idea clear in the last sentence of the story.

Another theme might be nature - and this story looks at nature in human, animal and vegetable terms. We see

  • the way the garden grows wild,
  • the way the bitch, Snort, plays and
  • the way the girls act

In all three cases there is a contrast between ideas of cultivated and civilized nature and nature in the wild or untamed - a contrast that appears clearly as the girls go from a ferocious attack on Robert, to acting as nursemaids, and tending to his wound. (Which of these is the real nature of the girls? A trick question - their nature includes both of these.)

A last theme might be that of self-consciousness - especially Robert's concerns about his vanishing dignity and the meaning of his life, as his children become independent.

The characters in the story

Robert

We see the story through Robert's eyes, and have access to his thoughts. He seems very different from his sensible wife (who does act like a grown up). He is very close to his daughters who have missed greeting him on his return home only once in several years. The fact that he recalls this incident so clearly shows the importance for him of their concern.

When the girls attack him, Robert has no means to defend himself. Here are two possible reasons.

  • He is not able to control his daughters by force of personality.
  • He wishes not to use physical force for fear of harming them.

Do you agree with either reason? Can you think of any others?

What else can we say about Robert? The picture is a little ambiguous.

For example we cannot say whether Robert is realistic or not.

  • On the one hand we learn that he has "lost most of his illusions" and knows that children are "honest".
  • But he also wants to share in his daughters' world.
  • When he looks for some comfort he does not turn to his wife, but to male society - even though he sees it as boring.

Jenny and Kate

The girls in the story are Jenny (twelve) and Kate (a year older). They appear sometimes as individuals, but also as a pair who act together. Here are some of the things they do.

Individually
  • Jenny reads a book and asks her father to lift her onto a wall.
  • Kate plays on a swing.
  • Jenny is alarmed by the wound whereas Kate still laughs when she sees it.
Together they
  • attack the bitch (Snort)
  • fight their father
  • tend his wounds

Can you add to either of these lists?

We read that they adore each other "and one always came to the other's help". (We cannot be sure if this is information from the writer to the reader, or what Robert is thinking. It could be either.)

The girls have some contradictory feelings. We see that growing up does not mean becoming more sensible or like real adults. The girls' excitability and wildness makes them in some ways less responsible than when they were younger. We see this contrast in the way they speak to their father. Look at what they call him: "Paleface" and "Paleface Robbie" or "Daddy". What does each of these names tell you about the girls' feelings at the time? They know that "paleface" is a name used in Western films by "Red Indians" (the old name for Native Americans) - and they are here suggesting that they are savage, like the stereotyped view of the "Red Indians" in the cinema.

We can see this contrast in some other "before" and "after" comments.

  • Before they attack Robert, the girls chant: "Kill him - scalp him. Torture him".
  • After they have attacked him, Jenny says, "We've got to wash your bite" while Kate, who fetches the water for the washing, says, "Daddy - sit down - how dare you get up?"

Other characters

The story also shows us Robert's wife and her friend, Jane. Unlike the girls, these two adult women seem far removed from Robert's concerns and outlook. There is no hint of a close personal relationship. It seems (to Robert or the reader?) that they see themselves as responsible - they "run the world", while children (of all ages) amuse themselves.

"Old Wilkins" does not appear directly - but his description may serve as a grim warning of what Robert may be fated to become, as he retreats into the security of his club - it is safe but utterly boring. Yet it passes the time.

Joyce Cary's technique

The narrative viewpoint

This story is presented through Robert's eyes, but not in his voice - so we can never be sure that what we read is always exactly what is in his mind. We see his ideas mostly directly but this is not the case for the girls

Language

The story has lots of interesting kinds of language use. In an exam, you may have limited time in which to comment on this. Here are a few examples. You may like to select those you understand and agree with, and arrange them into order, as a revision aid.

Word choices

Sometimes these are surprising. When we read that Jenny is reading we learn that she does it furiously. (Line 33). Can you see why this is both odd and yet quite appropriate?

Elsewhere Joyce Cary uses clich├ęs or stereotyped words. Do you think he does this knowingly? Does he wholly agree with the ideas that these phrases normally suggest? For example, Robert imagines himself as an old buffer (line 149) and thinks of Wilkins (line 158) as a crashing bore.

Simile

What effects does the writer archive with similes? Here are a few examples, for you to comment on:

  • a bamboo likened to a spear (line 71)
  • a garden rake compared to a lance (line 89)
  • the girls' bones compared to birds' legs line 95)

The Portrait of a Lady : Khushwant Singh

The story is written in first person and is in biographical mode. It is a perception of Khushwant Singh of his grandmother through his own eyes.
Khushwant Singh recalls his grandmother as an eternally old person. She was an extremely religious person.It was difficult for him to believe that once she too was young and pretty like other women. The stories about her childhood games were like fairytales to him. She was short, fat and slightly stooped in stature. Her silvery white hair used to scatter on her wrinkled face. Khushwant Singh remembers her hobbling around the house in spotless white clothes with one hand resting on her waist to balance her stoop and the other busy in telling the beads of her rosary. Her lips constantly moved in inaudible prayers. Possibly she was not beautiful in worldly sense but she looked extremely beautiful with the peacefulness, serenity and the contentment her countenance displayed.
Khushwant’s relationship with his grandmother went through several changes when he was a small boy. In the first stage Khushwant lived in a village with her as his parents were looking for the opportunity to settle down in the city. In villagegrandmother took care of all the needs of the child. She was quite active and agile. She woke him up in the morning, got him ready for the school
, plastered his wooden slate, prepared his breakfast and escorted him to the school. They fed street dogs with stale chapaties on their way to school which was a great fun for them. She helped him in his lessons also .It was her domain and she was the queen of her kingdom. In this period she was the sole unchallenged guardian, mentor and creator of the child Khushwant.
The turning point came in their relationship when they came to city to stay with Khushwant’s parents. In city Khushwant joined an English School and started to go to school in a motor bus. Here the role of his grandmother in his bringing up was curtailed a little bit. Now she could not accompany him to the school. Despite taking lot of interest in his studies she could not help him in his lessons because he was learning English, law of gravity, Archimedes’ principle and many more such things which she could not understand and this made her unhappy. She found herself at loss. One more thing which disturbed her a lot was that the kids were not learning about God and scriptures in the school instead they were given music lessons which was not an honorable thing in her opinion. To her music was not meant for gentlefolk. It was meant for beggars and prostitutes only. She highly disapproved this and as she could not change it she was dismayed and withdrew herself to some extent. Perhaps she had realized that in the makeover of the child her role was finished and this very thought saddened her most.
After finishing school Khushwant went to university. He was given a separate room. The common link of their friendship was snapped. His grandmother confined herself to a self imposed seclusion. She
spent most of her time in reciting prayers and by sitting beside her spinning wheel. She rarely talked to anyone. The only recreation for her was in the afternoon when she relaxed for a while to feed the sparrows. A kind hearted person, in village she used to feed street dogs, here in city she focused on birds and they too became very friendly with her. This was the phase when she found herself totally isolated and aloof but she braved this isolation with grace and dignity.
Khushwant’s grandmother was a strong person. Whatever she went through in her heart she always restrained herself from demonstrating her emotions. He recalls that when he went abroad for further studies his grandmother was there to see him off on railway station quite calm busy telling the beads of her rosary and reciting prayers as always. When he came back after five years he found her more and more religious and more and more self contained. She spent still more time in prayers and spinning the wheel. Feeding the birds was her only happy pastime. But just the day before her death for the first time she broke this routine and gave up her prayers. That day she sang the songs of the home coming of the warriors on a withered drum along with the ladies of neighborhood in order to celebrate her grandson’s return from abroad. Next morning she got ill. Although the doctor said it was a mild fever and would go away she could foresee that her end was near. She was upset that she omitted her prayers just before the final departure from the world. She did not want to waste any more time talking to anybody. She lay peacefully in bed praying and telling the beads till her lips stopped moving and rosary fell from her lifeless fingers. To mourn her death thousands of sparrows flew in and sat scattered around her body in utter silence.They even ignored the breadcrumbs thrown for them by Khushwant’s mother. They only flew away after the corpse was carried away for last rites.
So this was the charismatic grandmother of Khushwant Singh.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Corrupting Power of Unchecked Ambition

The main theme of Macbeth—the destruction wrought when ambition goes unchecked by moral constraints—finds its most powerful expression in the play’s two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeare’s most forcefully drawn female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges him to be strong in the murder’s aftermath, but she is eventually driven to distraction by the effect of Macbeth’s repeated bloodshed on her conscience. In each case, ambition—helped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witches—is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further one’s quest for power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne—Banquo, Fleance, Macduff—and it is always tempting to use violent means to dispose of them.

The Relationship Between Cruelty and Masculinity

Characters in Macbeth frequently dwell on issues of gender. Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishes that she herself could be “unsexed,” and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the murderers he hires to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression, and whenever they converse about manhood, violence soon follows. Their understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to descend into chaos.

At the same time, however, the audience cannot help noticing that women are also sources of violence and evil. The witches’ prophecies spark Macbeth’s ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior; Lady Macbeth provides the brains and the will behind her husband’s plotting; and the only divine being to appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Arguably, Macbeth traces the root of chaos and evil to women, which has led some critics to argue that this is Shakespeare’s most misogynistic play. While the male characters are just as violent and prone to evil as the women, the aggression of the female characters is more striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women ought to behave. Lady Macbeth’s behavior certainly shows that women can be as ambitious and cruel as men. Whether because of the constraints of her society or because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on deception and manipulation rather than violence to achieve her ends.

Ultimately, the play does put forth a revised and less destructive definition of manhood. In the scene where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child, Malcolm consoles him by encouraging him to take the news in “manly” fashion, by seeking revenge upon Macbeth. Macduff shows the young heir apparent that he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolm’s suggestion, “Dispute it like a man,” Macduff replies, “I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.221–223). At the end of the play, Siward receives news of his son’s death rather complacently. Malcolm responds: “He’s worth more sorrow [than you have expressed] / And that I’ll spend for him” (5.11.16–17). Malcolm’s comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the sentient nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolm’s coronation, order will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.

The Difference Between Kingship and Tyranny

In the play, Duncan is always referred to as a “king,” while Macbeth soon becomes known as the “tyrant.” The difference between the two types of rulers seems to be expressed in a conversation that occurs in Act 4, scene 3, when Macduff meets Malcolm in England. In order to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth. He tells Macduff of his reproachable qualities—among them a thirst for personal power and a violent temperament, both of which seem to characterize Macbeth perfectly. On the other hand, Malcolm says, “The king-becoming graces / [are] justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, [and] lowliness” (4.3.92–93). The model king, then, offers the kingdom an embodiment of order and justice, but also comfort and affection. Under him, subjects are rewarded according to their merits, as when Duncan makes Macbeth thane of Cawdor after Macbeth’s victory over the invaders. Most important, the king must be loyal to Scotland above his own interests. Macbeth, by contrast, brings only chaos to Scotland—symbolized in the bad weather and bizarre supernatural events—and offers no real justice, only a habit of capriciously murdering those he sees as a threat. As the embodiment of tyranny, he must be overcome by Malcolm so that Scotland can have a true king once more.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Hallucinations

Visions and hallucinations recur throughout the play and serve as reminders of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s joint culpability for the growing body count. When he is about to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air. Covered with blood and pointed toward the king’s chamber, the dagger represents the bloody course on which Macbeth is about to embark. Later, he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in a chair at a feast, pricking his conscience by mutely reminding him that he murdered his former friend. The seemingly hardheaded Lady Macbeth also eventually gives way to visions, as she sleepwalks and believes that her hands are stained with blood that cannot be washed away by any amount of water. In each case, it is ambiguous whether the vision is real or purely hallucinatory; but, in both cases, the Macbeths read them uniformly as supernatural signs of their guilt.

Violence

Macbeth is a famously violent play. Interestingly, most of the killings take place offstage, but throughout the play the characters provide the audience with gory descriptions of the carnage, from the opening scene where the captain describes Macbeth and Banquo wading in blood on the battlefield, to the endless references to the bloodstained hands of Macbeth and his wife. The action is bookended by a pair of bloody battles: in the first, Macbeth defeats the invaders; in the second, he is slain and beheaded by Macduff. In between is a series of murders: Duncan, Duncan’s chamberlains, Banquo, Lady Macduff, and Macduff’s son all come to bloody ends. By the end of the action, blood seems to be everywhere.

Prophecy

Prophecy sets Macbeth’s plot in motion—namely, the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become first thane of Cawdor and then king. The weird sisters make a number of other prophecies: they tell us that Banquo’s heirs will be kings, that Macbeth should beware Macduff, that Macbeth is safe till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth. Save for the prophecy about Banquo’s heirs, all of these predictions are fulfilled within the course of the play. Still, it is left deliberately ambiguous whether some of them are self-fulfilling—for example, whether Macbeth wills himself to be king or is fated to be king. Additionally, as the Birnam Wood and “born of woman” prophecies make clear, the prophecies must be interpreted as riddles, since they do not always mean what they seem to mean.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Blood

Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, beginning with the opening battle between the Scots and the Norwegian invaders, which is described in harrowing terms by the wounded captain in Act 1, scene 2. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embark upon their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolize their guilt, and they begin to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that cannot be washed clean. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” Macbeth cries after he has killed Duncan, even as his wife scolds him and says that a little water will do the job (2.2.58–59). Later, though, she comes to share his horrified sense of being stained: “Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks as she wanders through the halls of their castle near the close of the play (5.1.30–34). Blood symbolizes the guilt that sits like a permanent stain on the consciences of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one that hounds them to their graves.

The Weather

As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth’s grotesque murder spree is accompanied by a number of unnatural occurrences in the natural realm. From the thunder and lightning that accompany the witches’ appearances to the terrible storms that rage on the night of Duncan’s murder, these violations of the natural order reflect corruption in the moral and political orders.

Macbeth : Act V , Scenes 1-11

Summary: Act 5, scene 1

Out, damned spot; out, I say. . . . Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?


At night, in the king’s palace at Dunsinane, a doctor and a gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth’s strange habit of sleepwalking. Suddenly, Lady Macbeth enters in a trance with a candle in her hand. Bemoaning the murders of Lady Macduff and Banquo, she seems to see blood on her hands and claims that nothing will ever wash it off. She leaves, and the doctor and gentlewoman marvel at her descent into madness.

Summary: Act 5, scene 2

Outside the castle, a group of Scottish lords discusses the military situation: the English army approaches, led by Malcolm, and the Scottish army will meet them near Birnam Wood, apparently to join forces with them. The “tyrant,” as Lennox and the other lords call Macbeth, has fortified Dunsinane Castle and is making his military preparations in a mad rage.

Summary: Act 5, scene 3

Macbeth strides into the hall of Dunsinane with the doctor and his attendants, boasting proudly that he has nothing to fear from the English army or from Malcolm, since “none of woman born” can harm him (4.1.96) and since he will rule securely “[t]ill Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane” (5.3.2). He calls his servant Seyton, who confirms that an army of ten thousand Englishmen approaches the castle. Macbeth insists upon wearing his armor, though the battle is still some time off. The doctor tells the king that Lady Macbeth is kept from rest by “thick-coming fancies,” and Macbeth orders him to cure her of her delusions (5.3.40).

Summary: Act 5, scene 4

In the country near Birnam Wood, Malcolm talks with the English lord Siward and his officers about Macbeth’s plan to defend the fortified castle. They decide that each soldier should cut down a bough of the forest and carry it in front of him as they march to the castle, thereby disguising their numbers.

Summary: Act 5, scene 5

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Within the castle, Macbeth blusteringly orders that banners be hung and boasts that his castle will repel the enemy. A woman’s cry is heard, and Seyton appears to tell Macbeth that the queen is dead. Shocked, Macbeth speaks numbly about the passage of time and declares famously that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25–27). A messenger enters with astonishing news: the trees of Birnam Wood are advancing toward Dunsinane. Enraged and terrified, Macbeth recalls the prophecy that said he could not die till Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane. Resignedly, he declares that he is tired of the sun and that at least he will die fighting.

Summary: Act 5, scene 6

Outside the castle, the battle commences. Malcolm orders the English soldiers to throw down their boughs and draw their swords.

Summary: Act 5, scene 7

On the battlefield, Macbeth strikes those around him vigorously, insolent because no man born of woman can harm him. He slays Lord Siward’s son and disappears in the fray.

Summary: Act 5, scene 8

Macduff emerges and searches the chaos frantically for Macbeth, whom he longs to cut down personally. He dives again into the battle.

Summary: Act 5, scene 9

Malcolm and Siward emerge and enter the castle.

Summary: Act 5, scene 10

Elsewhere on the battlefield, Macbeth at last encounters Macduff. They fight, and when Macbeth insists that he is invincible because of the witches’ prophecy, Macduff tells Macbeth that he was not of woman born, but rather “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (5.10.15–16). Macbeth suddenly fears for his life, but he declares that he will not surrender “[t]o kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet, / And to be baited with the rabble’s curse” (5.10.28–29). They exit fighting.

Summary: Act 5, scene 11

Malcolm and Siward walk together in the castle, which they have now effectively captured. Ross tells Siward that his son is dead. Macduff emerges with Macbeth’s head in his hand and proclaims Malcolm King of Scotland. Malcolm declares that all his thanes will be made earls, according to the English system of peerage. They will be the first such lords in Scottish history. Cursing Macbeth and his “fiend-like” queen, Malcolm calls all those around him his friends and invites them all to see him crowned at Scone (5.11.35).

Analysis: Act 5, scenes 1–11

The rapid tempo of the play’s development accelerates into breakneck frenzy in Act 5, as the relatively long scenes of previous acts are replaced by a flurry of short takes, each of which furthers the action toward its violent conclusion on the battlefield outside Dunsinane Castle. We see the army’s and Malcolm’s preparation for battle, the fulfillment of the witches’ prophecies, and the demises of both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, her icy nerves shattered by the weight of guilt and paranoia, gives way to sleepwalking and a delusional belief that her hands are stained with blood. “Out, damned spot,” she cries in one of the play’s most famous lines, and adds, “[W]ho would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (5.1.30, 33–34). Her belief that nothing can wash away the blood is, of course, an ironic and painful reversal of her earlier claim to Macbeth that “[a] little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.65). Macbeth, too, is unable to sleep. His and Lady Macbeth’s sleeplessness was foreshadowed by Macbeth’s hallucination at the moment of the murder, when he believed that a voice cried out “Macbeth does murder sleep” (2.2.34).

Like Duncan’s death and Macbeth’s ascension to the kingship, Lady Macbeth’s suicide does not take place onstage; it is merely reported. Macbeth seems numb in response to the news of his wife’s death, which seems surprising, especially given the great love he appears to have borne for his wife. Yet, his indifferent response reflects the despair that has seized him as he realizes that what has come to seem the game of life is almost up. Indeed, Macbeth’s speech following his wife’s death is one of the most famous expressions of despair in all of literature. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” he says grimly,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.18–27)

These words reflect Macbeth’s feeling of hopelessness, of course, but they have a self-justifying streak as well—for if life is “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” then Macbeth’s crimes, too, are meaningless rather than evil.

Additionally, the speech’s insistence that “[l]ife’s . . . a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” can be read as a dark and somewhat subversive commentary on the relationship between the audience and the play. After all, Macbeth is just a player on an English stage, and his statement undercuts the suspension of disbelief that the audience must maintain in order to enter the action of the play. If we take Macbeth’s statement as expressing Shakespeare’s own perspective on the theater, then the entire play can be seen as being “full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Admittedly, it seems unlikely that the playwright would have put his own perspective on the stage in the mouth of a despairing, desperate murderer. Still, Macbeth’s words remind us of the essential theatricality of the action—that the lengthy soliloquies, offstage deaths, and poetic speeches are not meant to capture reality but to reinterpret it in order to evoke a certain emotional response from the audience.

Despite the pure nihilism of this speech, Macbeth seems to fluctuate between despair and ridiculous bravado, making his own dissolution rougher and more complex than that of his wife. Lured into a false sense of security by the final prophecies of the witches, he gives way to boastfulness and a kind of self-destructive arrogance. When the battle begins, Macbeth clings, against all apparent evidence, to the notion that he will not be harmed because he is protected by the prophecy—although whether he really believes it at this stage, or is merely hanging on to the last thread of hope he has left, is debatable.

Macbeth ceased to be a sympathetic hero once he made the decision to kill Duncan, but by the end of the play he has become so morally repulsive that his death comes as a powerful relief. Ambition and bloodlust must be checked by virtue for order and form to be restored to the sound and fury of human existence. Only with Malcolm’s victory and assumption of the crown can Scotland, and the play itself, be saved from the chaos engendered by Macbeth.

Macbeth : Act IV , Scenes 1-3

Summary: Act 4, scene 1

In a dark cavern, a bubbling cauldron hisses and spits, and the three witches suddenly appear onstage. They circle the cauldron, chanting spells and adding bizarre ingredients to their stew—“eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog” (4.1.14–15). Hecate materializes and compliments the witches on their work. One of the witches then chants: “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes” (4.1.61–62). In fulfillment of the witch’s prediction, Macbeth enters. He asks the witches to reveal the truth of their prophecies to him. To answer his questions, they summon horrible apparitions, each of which offers a prediction to allay Macbeth’s fears. First, a floating head warns him to beware Macduff; Macbeth says that he has already guessed as much. Then a bloody child appears and tells him that “none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.96–97). Next, a crowned child holding a tree tells him that he is safe until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Finally, a procession of eight crowned kings walks by, the last carrying a mirror. Banquo’s ghost walks at the end of the line. Macbeth demands to know the meaning of this final vision, but the witches perform a mad dance and then vanish. Lennox enters and tells Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth resolves to send murderers to capture Macduff’s castle and to kill Macduff’s wife and children.

Summary: Act 4, scene 2

At Macduff’s castle, Lady Macduff accosts Ross, demanding to know why her husband has fled. She feels betrayed. Ross insists that she trust her husband’s judgment and then regretfully departs. Once he is gone, Lady Macduff tells her son that his father is dead, but the little boy perceptively argues that he is not. Suddenly, a messenger hurries in, warning Lady Macduff that she is in danger and urging her to flee. Lady Macduff protests, arguing that she has done no wrong. A group of murderers then enters. When one of them denounces Macduff, Macduff’s son calls the murderer a liar, and the murderer stabs him. Lady Macduff turns and runs, and the pack of killers chases after her.

Summary: Act 4, scene 3

Outside King Edward’s palace, Malcolm speaks with Macduff, telling him that he does not trust him since he has left his family in Scotland and may be secretly working for Macbeth. To determine whether Macduff is trustworthy, Malcolm rambles on about his own vices. He admits that he wonders whether he is fit to be king, since he claims to be lustful, greedy, and violent. At first, Macduff politely disagrees with his future king, but eventually Macduff cannot keep himself from crying out, “O Scotland, Scotland!” (4.3.101). Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland leads him to agree that Malcolm is not fit to govern Scotland and perhaps not even to live. In giving voice to his disparagement, Macduff has passed Malcolm’s test of loyalty. Malcolm then retracts the lies he has put forth about his supposed shortcomings and embraces Macduff as an ally. A doctor appears briefly and mentions that a “crew of wretched souls” waits for King Edward so they may be cured (4.3.142). When the doctor leaves, Malcolm explains to Macduff that King Edward has a miraculous power to cure disease.

Ross enters. He has just arrived from Scotland, and tells Macduff that his wife and children are well. He urges Malcolm to return to his country, listing the woes that have befallen Scotland since Macbeth took the crown. Malcolm says that he will return with ten thousand soldiers lent him by the English king. Then, breaking down, Ross confesses to Macduff that Macbeth has murdered his wife and children. Macduff is crushed with grief. Malcolm urges him to turn his grief to anger, and Macduff assures him that he will inflict revenge upon Macbeth.

Analysis: Act 4, scenes 1–3

The witches are vaguely absurd figures, with their rhymes and beards and capering, but they are also clearly sinister, possessing a great deal of power over events. Are they simply independent agents playing mischievously and cruelly with human events? Or are the “weird sisters” agents of fate, betokening the inevitable? The word weird descends etymologically from the Anglo-Saxon word wyrd, which means “fate” or “doom,” and the three witches bear a striking resemblance to the Fates, female characters in both Norse and Greek mythology. Perhaps their prophecies are constructed to wreak havoc in the minds of the hearers, so that they become self-fulfilling. It is doubtful, for instance, that Macbeth would have killed Duncan if not for his meeting with the witches. On the other hand, the sisters’ prophecies may be accurate readings of the future. After all, when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane at the play’s end, the soldiers bearing the branches have not heard of the prophecy.

Whatever the nature of the witches’ prophecies, their sheer inscrutability is as important as any reading of their motivations and natures. The witches stand outside the limits of human comprehension. They seem to represent the part of human beings in which ambition and sin originate—an incomprehensible and unconscious part of the human psyche. In this sense, they almost seem to belong to a Christian framework, as supernatural embodiments of the Christian concept of original sin. Indeed, many critics have argued that Macbeth, a remarkably simple story of temptation, fall, and retribution, is the most explicitly Christian of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. If so, however, it is a dark Christianity, one more concerned with the bloody consequences of sin than with grace or divine love. Perhaps it would be better to say that Macbeth is the most orderly and just of the tragedies, insofar as evil deeds lead first to psychological torment and then to destruction. The nihilism of King Lear,in which the very idea of divine justice seems laughable, is absent in Macbeth—divine justice, whether Christian or not, is a palpable force hounding Macbeth toward his inevitable end.

The witches’ prophecies allow Macbeth, whose sense of doom is mounting, to tell himself that everything may yet be well. For the audience, which lacks Macbeth’s misguided confidence, the strange apparitions act as symbols that foreshadow the way the prophecies will be fulfilled. The armored head suggests war or rebellion, a telling image when connected to the apparition’s warning about Macduff. The bloody child obliquely refers to Macduff’s birth by cesarean section—he is not “of woman born”—attaching a clear irony to a comment that Macbeth takes at face value. The crowned child is Malcolm. He carries a tree, just as his soldiers will later carry tree branches from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. Finally, the procession of kings reveals the future line of kings, all descended from Banquo. Some of those kings carry two balls and three scepters, the royal insignia of Great Britain—alluding to the fact that James I, Shakespeare’s patron, claimed descent from the historical Banquo. The mirror carried by the last figure may have been meant to reflect King James, sitting in the audience, to himself.

The murder of Lady Macduff and her young son in Act 4, scene 2, marks the moment in which Macbeth descends into utter madness, killing neither for political gain nor to silence an enemy, but simply out of a furious desire to do harm. As Malcolm and Macduff reason in Act 4, scene 3, Macbeth’s is the worst possible method of kingship. It is a political approach without moral legitimacy because it is not founded on loyalty to the state. Their conversation reflects an important theme in the play—the nature of true kingship, which is embodied by Duncan and King Edward, as opposed to the tyranny of Macbeth. In the end, a true king seems to be one motivated by love of his kingdom more than by pure self-interest. In a sense, both Malcolm and Macduff share this virtue—the love they hold for Scotland unites them in opposition to Macbeth, and grants their attempt to seize power a moral legitimacy that Macbeth’s lacked.

Macduff and Malcolm are allies, but Macduff also serves as a teacher to Malcolm. Malcolm believes himself to be crafty and intuitive, as his test of Macduff shows. Yet, he has a perverted idea of manhood that is in line with Macbeth’s. When Ross brings word of Lady Macduff’s murder, Malcolm tells Macduff: “Dispute it like a man” (4.3.221). Macduff answers, “I shall do so, / But I must also feel it as a man” (4.3.222–223). Macduff shows that manhood comprises more than aggression and murder; allowing oneself to be sensitive and to feel grief is also necessary. This is an important lesson for Malcolm to learn if he is to be a judicious, honest, and compassionate king. When, in Act 5, scene 11, Malcolm voices his sorrow for Siward’s son, he demonstrates that he has taken Macduff’s instruction to heart.

Macbeth : Act III , Scenes 4-6

Summary: Act 3, scene 4

Onstage stands a table heaped with a feast. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enter as king and queen, followed by their court, whom they bid welcome. As Macbeth walks among the company, the first murderer appears at the doorway. Macbeth speaks to him for a moment, learning that Banquo is dead and that Fleance has escaped. The news of Fleance’s escape angers Macbeth—if only Fleance had died, he muses, his throne would have been secure. Instead, “the worm that’s fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (3.4.28–29).

Returning to his guests, Macbeth goes to sit at the head of the royal table but finds Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair. Horror-struck, Macbeth speaks to the ghost, which is invisible to the rest of the company. Lady Macbeth makes excuses for her husband, saying that he occasionally has such “visions” and that the guests should simply ignore his behavior. Then she speaks to Macbeth, questioning his manhood and urging him to snap out of his trance. The ghost disappears, and Macbeth recovers, telling his company: “I have a strange infirmity which is nothing / To those that know me” (3.4.85–86). As he offers a toast to company, however, Banquo’s specter reappears and shocks Macbeth into further reckless outbursts. Continuing to make excuses for her husband, Lady Macbeth sends the alarmed guests out of the room as the ghost vanishes again.

Macbeth mutters that “blood will have blood” and tells Lady Macbeth that he has heard from a servant-spy that Macduff intends to keep away from court, behavior that verges on treason (3.4.121). He says that he will visit the witches again tomorrow in the hopes of learning more about the future and about who may be plotting against him. He resolves to do whatever is necessary to keep his throne, declaring: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.135–137). Lady Macbeth says that he needs sleep, and they retire to their bed.

Summary: Act 3, scene 5

Upon the stormy heath, the witches meet with Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Hecate scolds them for meddling in the business of Macbeth without consulting her but declares that she will take over as supervisor of the mischief. She says that when Macbeth comes the next day, as they know he will, they must summon visions and spirits whose messages will fill him with a false sense of security and “draw him on to his confusion” (3.5.29). Hecate vanishes, and the witches go to prepare their charms.

Summary: Act 3, scene 6

That night, somewhere in Scotland, Lennox walks with another lord, discussing what has happened to the kingdom. Banquo’s murder has been officially blamed on Fleance, who has fled. Nevertheless, both men suspect Macbeth, whom they call a “tyrant,” in the murders of Duncan and Banquo. The lord tells Lennox that Macduff has gone to England, where he will join Malcolm in pleading with England’s King Edward for aid. News of these plots has prompted Macbeth to prepare for war. Lennox and the lord express their hope that Malcolm and Macduff will be successful and that their actions can save Scotland from Macbeth.

Analysis: Act 3, scenes 4–6

Throughout Macbeth, as in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the supernatural and the unnatural appear in grotesque form as harbingers of wickedness, moral corruption, and downfall. Here, the appearance of Banquo’s silent ghost, the reappearance of the witches, and the introduction of the goddess Hecate all symbolize the corruption of Scotland’s political and moral health. In place of the dramatization of Macbeth’s acts of despotism, Shakespeare uses the scenes involving supernatural elements to increase the audience’s sense of foreboding and ill omen. When Macbeth’s political transgressions are revealed, Scotland’s dire situation immediately registers, because the transgressions of state have been predicted by the disturbances in nature. In Macbeth’s moral landscape, loyalty, honor, and virtue serve either as weak or nonexistent constraints against ambition and the lust for power. In the physical landscape that surrounds him, the normal rules of nature serve as weak constraints against the grotesqueries of the witches and the horrific ghost of Banquo.

The banquet is simultaneously the high point of Macbeth’s reign and the beginning of his downfall. Macbeth’s bizarre behavior puzzles and disturbs his subjects, confirming their impression that he is mentally troubled. Despite the tentativeness and guilt she displayed in the previous scene, Lady Macbeth here appears surefooted and stronger than her husband, but even her attempts to explain away her husband’s “hallucination” are ineffective when paired with the evidence of his behavior. The contrast between this scene and the one in which Duncan’s body was discovered is striking—whereas Macbeth was once cold-blooded and surefooted, he now allows his anxieties and visions to get the best of him.

It is unclear whether Banquo’s ghost really sits in Macbeth’s chair or whether the spirit’s presence is only a hallucination inspired by guilt. Macbeth, of course, is thick with supernatural events and characters, so there is no reason to discount the possibility that a ghost actually stalks the halls. Some of the apparitions that appear in the play, such as the floating dagger in Act 2, scene 1, and the unwashable blood that Lady Macbeth perceives on her hands in Act 4, appear to be more psychological than supernatural in origin, but even this is uncertain. These recurring apparitions or hallucinations reflect the sense of metaphysical dread that consumes the royal couple as they feel the fateful force of their deeds coming back to haunt them.

Given the role that Banquo’s character plays in Macbeth, it is appropriate that he and not Duncan should haunt Macbeth. Like Macbeth, Banquo heard the witches’ prophecies and entertained ambitions. But, unlike Macbeth, Banquo took no criminal action. His actions stand as a rebuke to Macbeth’s behavior and represent a path not taken, one in which ambition need not beget bloodshed. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, the history that served as the source for Shakespeare’s Macbeth,Banquo was Macbeth’s accomplice in Duncan’s murder. Shakespeare most likely changed Banquo’s role from villain to moral pillar because Shakespeare’s patron, King James I of England, was believed to be Banquo’s descendant.

Shakespeare also portrays the historical figure of King Edward the Confessor, to whom Malcolm and Macduff have gone to receive help combating Macbeth. Edward is presented as the complete opposite of the evil, corrupt Macbeth. By including mention of England and Scotland’s cooperation in the play, Shakespeare emphasizes that the bond between the two countries, renewed in his time by James’s kingship, is a long-standing one. At the same time, the fact that Macbeth’s opposition coalesces in England is at once a suggestion that Scotland has become too thoroughly corrupted to resist Macbeth and a self-congratulatory nod to Shakespeare’s English audience.

Macbeth : Act III , Scenes 1-3

Summary: Act 3, scene 1

In the royal palace at Forres, Banquo paces and thinks about the coronation of Macbeth and the prophecies of the weird sisters. The witches foretold that Macbeth would be king and that Banquo’s line would eventually sit on the throne. If the first prophecy came true, Banquo thinks, feeling the stirring of ambition, why not the second? Macbeth enters, attired as king. He is followed by Lady Macbeth, now his queen, and the court. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ask Banquo to attend the feast they will host that night. Banquo accepts their invitation and says that he plans to go for a ride on his horse for the afternoon. Macbeth mentions that they should discuss the problem of Malcolm and Donalbain. The brothers have fled from Scotland and may be plotting against his crown.

Banquo departs, and Macbeth dismisses his court. He is left alone in the hall with a single servant, to whom he speaks about some men who have come to see him. Macbeth asks if the men are still waiting and orders that they be fetched. Once the servant has gone, Macbeth begins a soliloquy. He muses on the subject of Banquo, reflecting that his old friend is the only man in Scotland whom he fears. He notes that if the witches’ prophecy is true, his will be a “fruitless crown,” by which he means that he will not have an heir (3.1.62). The murder of Duncan, which weighs so heavily on his conscience, may have simply cleared the way for Banquo’s sons to overthrow Macbeth’s own family.

The servant reenters with Macbeth’s two visitors. Macbeth reminds the two men, who are murderers he has hired, of a conversation he had with them the day before, in which he chronicled the wrongs Banquo had done them in the past. He asks if they are angry and manly enough to take revenge on Banquo. They reply that they are, and Macbeth accepts their promise that they will murder his former friend. Macbeth reminds the murderers that Fleance must be killed along with his father and tells them to wait within the castle for his command.

Summary: Act 3, scene 2

Elsewhere in the castle, Lady Macbeth expresses despair and sends a servant to fetch her husband. Macbeth enters and tells his wife that he too is discontented, saying that his mind is “full of scorpions” (3.2.37). He feels that the business that they began by killing Duncan is not yet complete because there are still threats to the throne that must be eliminated. Macbeth tells his wife that he has planned “a deed of dreadful note” for Banquo and Fleance and urges her to be jovial and kind to Banquo during the evening’s feast, in order to lure their next victim into a false sense of security (3.2.45).

Summary: Act 3, scene 3

It is dusk, and the two murderers, now joined by a third, linger in a wooded park outside the palace. Banquo and Fleance approach on their horses and dismount. They light a torch, and the murderers set upon them. The murderers kill Banquo, who dies urging his son to flee and to avenge his death. One of the murderers extinguishes the torch, and in the darkness Fleance escapes. The murderers leave with Banquo’s body to find Macbeth and tell him what has happened.

Analysis: Act 3, scenes 1–3

After his first confrontation with the witches, Macbeth worried that he would have to commit a murder to gain the Scottish crown. He seems to have gotten used to the idea, as by this point the body count has risen to alarming levels. Now that the first part of the witches’ prophecy has come true, Macbeth feels that he must kill his friend Banquo and the young Fleance in order to prevent the second part from becoming realized. But, as Fleance’s survival suggests, there can be no escape from the witches’ prophecies.

Macbeth and his wife seem to have traded roles. As he talks to the murderers, Macbeth adopts the same rhetoric that Lady Macbeth used to convince him to murder in Act 1, scene 7. He questions their manhood in order to make them angry, and their desire to murder Banquo and Fleance grows out of their desire to prove themselves to be men. In the scene with Lady Macbeth that follows, Macbeth again echoes her previous comments. She told him earlier that he must “look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (1.5.63–64). Now he is the one reminding her to mask her unease, as he says that they must “make [their] faces visors to [their] hearts, / Disguising what they are” (3.2.35–36). Yet, despite his displays of fearlessness, Macbeth is undeniably beset with guilt and doubt, which he expresses in his reference to the “scorpions” in his mind and in his declaration that in killing Banquo they “have scorched the snake, not killed it” (3.2.15).

While her husband grows bolder, Lady Macbeth begins to despair—“Naught’s had; all’s spent,” she says (3.2.6). It is difficult to believe that the woman who now attempts to talk her husband out of committing more murders is the same Lady Macbeth who earlier spurred her husband on to slaughter. Just as he begins to echo her earlier statements, she references his. “What’s done is done” (3.2.14), she says wishfully, echoing her husband’s use of “done” in Act 1, scene 7, where he said: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly” (1.7.1–2). But as husband and wife begin to realize, nothing is “done” whatsoever; their sense of closure is an illusion.

Both characters seem shocked and dismayed that possessing the crown has not rid them of trouble or brought them happiness. The language that they use is fraught with imagery suggestive of suspicion, paranoia, and inner turmoil, like Macbeth’s evocative “full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3.2.37). Each murder Macbeth commits or commissions is intended to bring him security and contentment, but the deeper his arms sink in blood, the more violent and horrified he becomes.

By the start of Act 3, the play’s main theme—the repercussions of acting on ambition without moral constraint—has been articulated and explored. The play now builds inexorably toward its end. Unlike Hamlet, in which the plot seems open to multiple possibilities up to the final scene, Macbeth’s action seems to develop inevitably. We know that there is nothing to stop Macbeth’s murder spree except his own death, and it is for that death that the audience now waits. Only with Macbeth’s demise, we realize, can any kind of moral order be restored to Scotland.