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.