Macbeth By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act III: Scene 4

Summary

At Forres, Macbeth and his wife welcome the thanes of Scotland to the banquet. Immediately prior to the feast, one of the murderers appears at a side door and reveals to Macbeth the truth about the mission: their success in the killing of Banquo and their failure to murder Fleance. Macbeth recomposes himself and returns to the table. As he raises a toast to his absent friend, he imagines he sees the ghost of Banquo. As with the ethereal dagger, the ghost of Banquo appears to come and go, propelling Macbeth into alternating fits of courage and despair. Lady Macbeth invites the thanes to depart and, once alone, tries one last time to soothe her husband. But Macbeth's paranoid mind is already on to the next murder, that of Macduff. To ascertain his future with greater certainty, he makes clear his intention to visit the Weird Sisters once more.

Analysis

Macbeth's words and phrases to the thanes, such as "You know your own degrees" and "Both sides are even: here I'll sit i'th'midst" suggest a renewal of order and symmetry in Scotland, yet the audience knows that this is not the case. Both sides are not even, because Banquo is missing. Degree, or rank order, has been effectively perverted by Macbeth by his killing of the king and his usurpation of the throne. As in Act I, Scene 6, Lady Macbeth's words of introduction disguise her true feelings. Once again, the Macbeths act with suspicious confidence. This confidence is about to desert Macbeth, however, as his dark secret comes back to greet him in the form of the First Murderer.

At first, Macbeth is pleased with the murderer, telling him he is "the best," "the nonpareil" (without equal); moreover, Macbeth's own supposed invincibility is shown when he says that he feels "as broad and general as the casing air," but on hearing the unwelcome news that Fleance escaped his treachery, Macbeth's language abruptly changes: "But now I am cabin'd, cribbed, confin'd, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears" (25-26). The alliteration of the hard c sounds reveals Macbeth's sense of constraint, in contrast to the freedom which he claims to have enjoyed previously.

The imagery of confinement and constraint plays an increasing part in his language from now on. For example, these words foreshadow the point in Act V, Scene 7 when, recognizing that he is physically trapped by the advancing English army, Macbeth cries out, "They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly" (flee). Now, though, something altogether more terrifying holds him down and prevents him from moving: In the very place reserved for him at the table, Macbeth sees, or thinks he sees, the spirit of the assassinated Banquo.

The rich banquet, a symbol of great orderliness and generosity, now becomes a hellish parody of itself. Instead of Macbeth sitting "in the midst," dispensing his largesse as he would wish, his throne has been usurped by the bloody apparition of his former friend. Macbeth's language reflects this change. The ghost, so hideous that it would "appall the devil," appears to have risen from a grave or a "charnel-house." Macbeth cannot understand why what is dead should "be alive again," when its bones should "be marrowless" and its blood "cold." Finally, he challenges the all-too-real apparition to "dare me to the desert with thy sword."

In contrast to the urgent horror of Macbeth's addresses to the gruesome apparition are moments of comparative calm. Each time the ghost vanishes, Macbeth's relief is recorded in softer, more lyrical expression: "Can such things be / And overcome us like a summer's cloud, / Without our special wonder?" (112-114). Indeed, the entire structure of this scene shows a man swinging from one state of mind to another, recalling the structure of the earlier dagger speech. Three times Macbeth sees the ghost, and three times he appears to recover his senses. This alternating structure adds strongly to the impression of Macbeth's loss of control.

Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, remains constant in her judgement. Unlike Macbeth, she cannot see the ghost, and her tone is typically pragmatic and down-to-earth: "When all's done, / You look but on a stool." She appears to want to calm his rages, but anger simmers beneath her conciliatory words. Once more she upbraids her husband for his apparent lack of manhood. A specific parallel with the murder scene occurs when Macbeth accuses his wife of being able to "keep the natural ruby of your cheeks, / When mine is blanched (whitened) with fear" (116-117). Here, the words "ruby" and "blanched" clearly recall the distinction that Lady Macbeth made between the "red" hands of murder and the "white" heart of a coward (II: 2, 64).

With the departure of the guests, Macbeth appears to regain some of his earlier self-confidence. He announces his decision to visit the Weird Sisters once more, this time of his own accord. His language in this coda to the banquet scene is mysterious and prophetic: The short scene is dominated by the repeated word "blood" and by the idea that a tide of murder has now been initiated which Macbeth is powerless to stop.

Glossary

The feast . . . ceremony (35) Banquets which are given freely are made more attractive by the "sauce" of ceremony.

roofed (35) surmounted

flaws and starts (62) outbursts

become (63) suit

authoriz'd (65) written

maws (72) appetites

gentle weal (75) noble commonwealth

speculation (94) eyesight

protest me (104) claim that I am

disposition . . . owe (112) my own human nature, courage

augurs. . . blood (123) Prophecies have (in the past) revealed even the most well-hidden murders

magot-pies (124) magpies

fee'd (131) paid

wants (142) requires

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