Summary and Analysis
Alone, Macbeth ponders the deed that he is about to perform. He is aware of the powerful reasons for murdering the king, but is nagged by self-doubt arising from his fear of retribution both in heaven and on earth and by his likely loss of reputation. However, any such fears are dismissed by his wife in the same practical tone that she used in Act I. Her taunting of her husband's weakness, coupled with the efficiency of her own plan, convince Macbeth that he should take on the "horrid deed."
The imagery of Macbeth's soliloquy reveals the intentions he would like to achieve ("assassination," "success"), but its construction shows the workings of a mind still very much in confusion. Notice the insistent repetition of individual words — if, were, done, be, but, and here — each repeated two or three times within the first few lines. Within the fluid construction of this soliloquy, words and sounds constantly attract and suggest each other, giving the impression of a train of thought. All this begs the question of whether Macbeth, able to rationalize and express his thoughts, is thereby revealed as an intelligent, poetic soul. And if that's the case, does he appear more human, more or less capable of sinning, and, worrysome for the audience, more or less capable of winning their sympathy?
It is the thought of something after death that puzzles Macbeth. Throughout the speech, his words recall those of Shakespeare's earlier tragic hero, Hamlet. In paraphrase, Macbeth wonders whether the act of murder itself must, by necessity, carry consequences in "the life to come" or whether judgment will await him in this life. Macbeth is simultaneously aware of the duplicity and imbalance of the proposed murder (he is Duncan's relative, subject, and host, yet he is to be his killer) and of the equality and balance of earthly and heavenly law: "this even-handed Justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips" (11-12).
Of further concern to Macbeth is the disparity between his own reputation and the world's perception of Duncan as a good and virtuous king. The final section of the speech contains an apocalyptic vision in which he imagines Duncan's virtue and pity proclaimed as if by angels and cherubim from a storm-filled sky. This doom-laden vision, whose imagery (for example, "trumpet-tongued") reflects that of the biblical Day of Judgment, gives way in turn to a nagging self-doubt. Whereas he pictures the angels and cherubim "horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air," Macbeth admits that he himself has "no spur / to prick the sides of my intent but only / Vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself / And falls on the other [side]" (25-28).
Lady Macbeth must immediately detect Macbeth's self-doubt. When Macbeth admits to her that his golden reputation might lose its "gloss," she sets out to strengthen his resolve by mocking his perceived weakness. Her questions drive further the wedge between daring and doing, between courage and action, between desire and fulfillment. To these, she adds a distinction between masculinity and femininity: In contrast to her own self-proclaimed manliness, she pours scorn upon her husband's lack of courage. She tells him he is "green," "a coward," and that he resembles the proverbial "poor cat" who wanted the fish but would not get its paws wet. Finally, and most damningly, she tells him that her own lack of pity would extend to murdering her own child as it suckled at her breast. With this one terrifying example, she confirms that "the milk of human kindness" is absent in her.
The next paragraph commences with a shift in tone — no less pragmatic but even more ruthlessly efficient — as Lady Macbeth switches her attention to the details of the murder itself. Her plan to drug the guards with alcohol is couched in metaphorical language derived from the ancient science of alchemy. The words "receipt," "fume," and "limbeck" specifically refer to this process, whose purpose was to turn base metal (such as lead) into gold. It is heavily ironic that, in the Macbeths' experiment, that which is gold — the king himself — will become base and doubly ironic that Macbeth's golden reputation will be reduced to worthlessness.
Macbeth has been convinced. In words that uncannily recall his wife's, he now puts on the mantle of murderer: the monosyllabic "False face must hide what the false heart doth know" has a certainty to it that completely overturns his earlier vacillation.
trammel up (3) obstruct, prevent
surcease (4) death
shoal (6) sandbank
faculties (17) kingly powers
taking-off (20) murder
sightless couriers (23) invisible winds
ornament of life (42) the crown
adage (44) proverb
fitness (53) appropriateness
sticking-place (61) its limit
wassail (65) entertainment
receipt . . . limbeck (68)container for an alchemist's solution; here, Macbeth's plan
mettle (74) courage
corporal agent (81) physical part of myself