Macbeth

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Macbeth published in 2003.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker)
Related Symbols: Visions and Hallucinations
Page Number: 1.1.12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

In the play’s opening scene, three witches gather in a storm and discuss their upcoming meeting with Macbeth. Together they chant these lines about the moral uncertainty and decay in Scotland.

That “fair is foul” means that what seems genuine is in fact evil, while “foul is fair” inversely means that what appears negative is actually positive. Thus the witches point out the fickle quality of appearances—a recurring theme throughout the tragedy—contending that foul and fair things can easily be mistaken for each other. This line is an example of the rhetorical device chiasmus: when elements of a text are arranged in the form ABBA. Here, “A” is “fair” and “B” is “foul.” Chiasmus can have many different meanings depending on the circumstance, but here it gives a rhythmic quality to the text and points out a paradox between two terms.

The image of “fog and filthy air” similarly foreshadows how the senses will be muddled in the text, preventing characters from accurately perceiving what would be fair or foul. More generally, this image showcases how symbols and ethics will become mixed up in the tragedy. As supernatural creatures, the witches themselves seem decrepit and “foul” at times—but their prophecies are also accurate, which would make them “fair.” Thus these lines do not only make a distinction between false appearance and honest reality, but rather question the very ability to determine the moral goodness of any such reality.

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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Related Characters: Banquo (speaker), Macbeth, Weird Sisters
Page Number: 1.3.135-138
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth and Banquo have just learned that Macbeth has become Thane of Cawdor, which confirms the first part of the witches’ prophecy. In response, Banquo notes that the stories told by the witches may be attempts to manipulate Macbeth.

These lines pose an important question about the role of supernatural forces in this tragedy: Are the witches dictating these mens’ destinies or do men maintain the ability to avoid or affect the prophecies being presented? When Banquo says they “win us to our harm,” he contends that the witches are actively exploiting him and Macbeth, yet he also notes that they “tell us truths”—which would seem to imply that nothing they recount is false. The resolution comes in a similarly paradoxical phrase: “Honest trifles” that “betray.” What Banquo means is that aspects of the witches’ prophecies are genuine, but that those components are ultimately insignificant. He believes that these “instruments of darkness” will use the prophecies to gain control over him and Macbeth and then later manipulate them.

Banquo thus argues that he and Macbeth should resist believing the witches too much, even though they have thus far been correct in their prophecies. This belief posits a worldview in which humans can act freely from the influence of supernatural forces—choosing to believe them or not. Macbeth, on the other hand, represents the position that direct adherence to their prophecies will allow him to thwart his fate. Shakespeare thus uses these two characters mixed responses to present two different ways of viewing the supernatural forces in his work: as either maneuvering or merely recounting fate.

Act 1, scene 4 Quotes
Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.4.57-58
Explanation and Analysis:

After hearing that Duncan will visit his castle, Macbeth finds himself fantasizing about seizing power for himself. He wishes to obscure these evil thoughts from outside observers.

In these early moments in the play, Macbeth is still uncertain about how or whether to proceed with the murderous impulses that have arisen in him after hearing the witches prophecy. Though he ambitiously hopes to control the throne of Scotland, he also carefully watches these desires and seeks to hide them from others. Saying, “Stars, hide your fires” shows that Macbeth wishes to remain invisible and in complete darkness, such that his “black and deep desires” could not be observed. Metaphors of light and dark pervade this play, and here their meaning remains unclear: Darkness stands for Macbeth’s moral unscrupulousness, but “light” is not quite the inverse of ethical goodness. Rather, “light” is represented as an active agent that can “see” into those desires; it stands for a supernatural or even holy force that scrutinizes man’s actions.

Macbeth, then, seems to believe in the existence of a God-like figure who judges him for his thoughts, and from whom he wishes to hide. His concern is less that other human beings will spy his desires and more that it will be observed by supernatural forces—a point that confirms his allegiance to the witches’ paranormal tendencies. Within this short image then, we have the underpinnings of Macbeth’s striking guilt complex and the implication of a corresponding spiritual system, though the exact nature of that spirituality remains unclear.

Act 1, scene 5 Quotes
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall.
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 1.5.47-55
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning that King Duncan will remain at the castle for the evening, Lady Macbeth plots his demise. She asks for fortitude in renouncing any human compassion in order to best carry out the deed.

Much like Banquo, Lady Macbeth believes that supernatural forces have a corruptive effect on human nature. She believes they “tend on mortal thoughts” and will fill her with “direst cruelty.” Yet whereas Banquo made this point in order to avoid those effects, Lady Macbeth fully embraces the depravity. Indeed, she uses a series of commands in order to demand being overtaken by them. The implication is that Lady Macbeth wishes to act entirely cruelly, but her natural human disposition will prevent her from doing so.

To make this point, Lady Macbeth focuses on images relating to female fertility and more generally to bodily functions. That she implores “unsex me here” indicates that she sees her gender as preventing her from carrying out her vile purpose; while “take my milk for gall” similarly involves a desire to give up something feminine nurturing (mother's milk) for something destructive and acidic (gall). Repeated references to the body further show her to be renouncing not only womanhood but humanity altogether—as if she desires to be a supernatural entity like the witches who could then act without moral scruples. In wishing to give up her humanity, this passage thus paradoxically affirms Lady Macbeth's sense that there is in fact an inherent goodness to human nature and specifically human biology. At the same time, it shows that humans see in the supernatural a corruptive route away from goodness—which they may flee (as Banquo does) or full-heartedly embrace.

Look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it.
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker), Macbeth
Page Number: 1.5.76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth entreats her husband to kill Duncan that night. She recommends he act secretively and strike out violently.

These lines return the text to the theme of appearance versus reality. While Macbeth still remains uncertain about whether he wishes to deceive and kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth is fully committed to the cruel idea. She thus sees duplicity as the best route to achieving her evil ends. She contrasts a passive image of “innocent flower” with the active corruption of “the serpent,” much like the witches mixed up “fair” and “foul” in the tragedy’s opening scene. For her, however, this distinction does not express a general predicament, but rather becomes a specific strategy to gain political power.

Referencing a serpent is also an allusion to the Biblical scene in the Garden of Eden, in which a snake tempts Eve and leads to humanity's expulsion from paradise. This Christian reference is especially evocative considering Lady Macbeth’s engagement with supernatural paganism: just as she has summoned the aid of fiends, Lady Macbeth symbolically asks her husband to strike out against Christian ideals—to play the role of a Biblical villain.

Act 1, scene 7 Quotes
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.25-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Macbeth ponders whether he should follow through on his plan to kill Duncan. He observes that he is being motivated by aspirations for power rather than responding to a specific injustice.

Shakespeare here makes a subtle point about two different reasons why one would be impelled act. The first is to have a “spur” or clear impetus for doing something, while the second is a more general “vaulting ambition.” By describing the spur as something that can “prick the sides,” Macbeth stresses how it is a narrow and specific stimulus; as a result it has a direct causal effect on his “intent.” Ambition, on the other hand, tends to “o’erleap[] itself,” meaning that it encourages one to act beyond his or her reasonable means. It overshoots a goal and as a result can have negative consequences.

What is intriguing about this passage is that Macbeth seems keenly aware of his motivations and limitations. Though he may be acting out of “vaulting ambition,” he is not immediately convinced by that desire. He can critically assess what stimulates him to act, and its likely consequences. Yet, at the same, time he will ultimately ignore this skepticism and indeed "o'erleap" himself.  Shakespeare thus gives a complex presentation of human psychology, in which people may introspectively note the flaws of their motivations, while still falling prey to those very flaws.

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more, is none.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.51-52
Explanation and Analysis:

Having decided moments earlier against murdering Duncan, Macbeth finds his manhood challenged by his wife. In response, he argues that composure and allegiance are more characteristic of masculinity than rash violence.

His claim is made through somewhat indirect language. Using the term “dare” presents manhood as adventurous, even though Macbeth defines it through inaction rather than action. For he will only perform actions that “become a man”—a pun on “become” as meaning both to make one seem agreeable and to turn into. If one does “more,” Macbeth reasons, he would not be a man, for he would have overstepped the boundaries of behaviors that define men and that make them attractive or worthy. In this way, Macbeth describes manhood as a limit on his actions instead of a justification for more action like Lady Macbeth.

This passage returns to the theme of gender identities. Recall that Lady Macbeth renounced her womanhood earlier in Act 1, Scene 5 in order to disavow empathy and heartlessly pursue her goal of power. Yet in the lines after Macbeth's quote here, she asks Macbeth to do just the opposite with his gender: to maintain and embrace it. This contrast shows that she sees manhood as equivalent to brute and rash action, whereas before that cruelty seemed to stem only from the supernatural or inhuman realm. Macbeth, however, unseats her opinion by defining manhood in terms of composure and calm intent. Shakespeare thus places the question of gender identity at the heart of this tragedy, presenting it as an ideological tool used by the characters to encourage each other to act more or less aggressively.

Macbeth: If we should fail.
Lady Macbeth: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker), Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 1.7.68-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth continues to convince Macbeth that they should kill Duncan. When he wonders whether they will actually succeed, she argues that with sufficient fortitude they will certainly triumph.

The first two lines in this passage are halting and uncertain. Macbeth begins a hypothetical clause—“If we should fail”—but does not successfully finish it; while Lady Macbeth offers the similarly half-formed question “We fail?” In contrast to these fragmented construction, she opts for an aggressive command—“screw your courage”—and acerbic claim: “we’ll not fail.” Bravery and adherence to one’s goals, in her opinion, will ensure success.

Their exchange insinuates two diverging views on human destiny: Whereas Macbeth attributes success to the whims of fates and prophecies, Lady Macbeth believes that humans themselves can select their own destiny. Her command “screw your courage to the sticking-place” implies that sufficient bravery will ensure success regardless of any external influence. Between these two characters, then, Shakespeare defines a spectrum of human relationships to destiny and personal agency—in which some attribute success to personal prowess while others see it as being out of one’s own hands.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee;
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Visions and Hallucinations
Page Number: 2.1.44-53
Explanation and Analysis:

After discussing the witches with Banquo, Macbeth is left alone to contemplate his impending murder. He then sees a dagger in the air and wonders to what extent it is real or hallucinated.

A primarily psychological analysis would see in these lines the first signs of Macbeth’s insanity. His inability to distinguish between a physical and imaginary dagger does not prevent him from hoping to “clutch” either one. When he can't clutch it, he notes that it is impossible to “have” the vision and yet that he can still “see” it, and is confused why his sense of touch and vision seem to inexplicably not accord. Characteristically, Macbeth remains acutely aware of the conditions of his sanity, observing that his “heat-oppressed brain” may be responsible for creating the illusion. Yet after noting how his mind may be addled, he once more reiterates the “palpable” quality of the dagger, comparing it to his own physical sword.

Beyond introducing the idea that Macbeth may be acting out of madness, this passage develops the theme of appearance versus reality. Macbeth may be fixating on a false vision, but the vision actually reveals to him a truth—for it is a portent of the murder to come. In a sense, then, the “foul” vision is actually “fair” in that it is an accurate representation of reality. And when Macbeth does “draw” his own sword, he implies that even a hallucination may have a causal effect on his own actions. Shakespeare thus presents false visions not as figments of the imagination but as capable of inducing changes to reality itself.

Act 2, scene 2 Quotes
Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep, — the innocent sleep;
Sleep, that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sleep
Page Number: 2.2.47-52
Explanation and Analysis:

After murdering Duncan, Macbeth begins to feel remorse for what he has done. He fixates on a voice he claims to have overheard during the act, believing that it charges him with deep guilt.

We see here Macbeth’s continued descent into the paranoid thinking characteristic of a murderer. His previous visual hallucinations are now accompanied by auditory ones, but instead of rationally ignoring them, he ruminates on how the illusion relates to his experience. Taking the line “Sleep no more!” Macbeth at first indicates a belief that it refers to Duncan whom he has murdered, that the words charge him with having killed a defenseless person while they were in “innocent sleep.”

The text could easily have halted here, but the truly manic thinking comes in the ensuing images. Macbeth begins to focus obsessively on the abstract idea of sleep. He imagines it to be a weaver who “knits up” or makes coherent and composed “the ravell’d sleave of care”—in which a “ravell’d sleave” is a messy and disorganized garment. This metaphor presents sleep as a tranquil and organizing force that helps a person make coherent the chaos of life, that allows people to be coherent and calm. In the following lines, he casts sleep as the inverse or double to different types of daytime: the “death” after each “life”; the restful “bath” after one works; the “balm” to ease minds that may be overworked; a second sustenance after the meal of the day. These evocative images show how deeply Macbeth believes to have violated human life—for not only has he murdered Duncan but he has done so in an almost sacred space of sleeping rejuvenation. As Macbeth's obsessive thoughts on sleep proceed, an intimation exists too that “Sleep no more!” refers to the rampant guilt and madness that will descend now on Macbeth and his wife, in which because of their guilt, they will lose these healthful and necessary effects of sleep.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Nought's had, all's spent
Where our desire is got without content.
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth ponders why she continues to be dissatisfied with her existence. She acknowledges that she has had complete success in her endeavors but somehow remains vexed.

These lines reveal a sharp change in Lady Macbeth’s disposition. Whereas before, she believed completely that ambition (and the murder of Duncan) would generate positive results, here she concludes just the opposite. “Nought’s had, all’s spent” must be taken metaphorically—because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have in fact achieved their goal of becoming king and queen—to refer to their contentment and emotional stability. But now she states that the trade-off of political power in exchange for "content," which we can take to mean "guilt-free contentment," wasn't at all worth it.

Beyond revealing a growing dissatisfaction in Lady Macbeth, this passage makes a broader claim on the trappings of power and fame. Lady Macbeth points out that the status she had pursued does not in fact grant her happiness, but rather has brought her into greater misfortune. Thus Shakespeare uses her psychological anxiety as a way to illustrate the self-defeating natures of avarice and desire.

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 3.4.168-170
Explanation and Analysis:

After seeing Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth decides to return to consult the witches on his fate. He points out to his wife that he has pursued his murderous destiny too far to stop doing so now.

When Macbeth says, “I am in blood” he presents himself as entirely immersed in murder: Instead of causing blood to simply flow from others, he also feels the effects of that violent action – the blood he has spilled surrounds him. He then clarifies that this is the result of having “Stepp’d in so far” into the metaphorical bloody pool; while “wade no more” signifies that he cannot stay afloat but will drown in the liquid. Thus Macbeth uses the metaphor of a pool of blood to articulate his own guilt and culpability: He believes that what he has done has inescapably sealed his fate and that trying to shift destinies at this point is pointless.

His choice of the word “tedious,” however, complicates the passage somewhat. Instead of saying that “returning” is impossible or undesirable, he claims it is boring or insipid. This distinction seems to indicate that Macbeth could indeed change his bloody behavior and that he fails to do so simply out of apathy or inertia. In this way, he presents a somewhat more ambivalent version of fate’s determinism: Destiny may very well have dictated his actions, but he could potentially shift them if he were more courageous.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker), Macbeth
Page Number: 4.1.44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

The witches prepare for Macbeth’s arrival by mixing an unnatural brew in the cauldron. During their incantation, one makes this pronouncement on impending evil.

These lines firstly verify the supernatural powers of the witches. They are able to sense from physical stimuli—“the pricking”—in their bodies that something “wicked” will take place in the future. Although the audience might be skeptical of the actual mystical powers the witches possess, this image confirms that they have at least a limited capacity to make sense of the future.

At the same time, by describing the wicked phenomenon as a separate external force — the phrasing of “this way comes” is a passive construction — the witches also present themselves as observers of fate, rather than active agents that bring certain events to pass. So while other human characters may see the witches as manipulative spirits willing bad events into existence, their actual incantations show them to be mere bystanders and oracles for fate. The witches comment describes Macbeth as the wicked one, implying that while their prophecy may have been accurate, it was Macbeth's wickedness that caused him to pursue it as he did (or perhaps that his choice to pursue it as he did has made him wicked).

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
Out, damned spot! out, I say!
Related Characters: Lady Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sleep
Page Number: 5.1.37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lady Macbeth has taken to sleepwalking. One night, she wanders and rubs her hands while saying this line.

We see here the extent to which guilt has crippled Lady Macbeth and disrupted her ability to live a normal life. Saying this line while trying to wash her hands shows that while she earlier believed that she could simply wash her hands clear of Duncan's blood, that in fact she could not psychologically escape that blood at all. She obsessively repeats the action, believing that the “damned spot” that morally implicates her has refused to disappear. In this way, the play makes clear that the guilt that first caused Lady Macbeth to question her contentment has now caused her to enter a full-blown psychosis.

The text also returns to its ever-pressing concern of illusions and false appearances. Whereas Lady Macbeth was able to remove the physical blood from her hands after the murder, she remains unable to do away with its metaphorical counterpart. Much like Macbeth saw a hallucinatory knife before the murder, she visualizes non-existent blood after the deed has been completed. Although we might be likely to write these images off as false apparitions, one should also note the significance of their psychological reality. That is to say, although the “spot” is not palpable to anyone else, it is indeed a honest “fair” expression of Lady Macbeth’s guilt. Shakespeare’s work thus presents illusions as having their own kind of unique reality, a reality founded in the inner workings of the mind.

Act 5, scene 5 Quotes
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
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.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Page Number: 5.5.22-31
Explanation and Analysis:

As the final battle against Macduff's army approaches, Macbeth gives this moving soliloquy. He claims that life is an endless repetition and inherently meaningless.

To arrive at this nihilistic conclusion, Macbeth first ponders the succession of day after day. He notes how monotonous they are—a series of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”—to the extent that life never seems to significantly shift. If the future holds nothing novel, the past is similarly devoid of meaning—only ever bringing indications of “dusty death” to come. Instead of hoping to grasp closely life’s fleeting existence, however, Macbeth commands it to depart as rapidly as possible with the phrase “Out, out, brief candle!” His ambitious and cruel nature has thus culminated in a complete rejection of the significance to life itself: at the apex of his success, life has become to him nothing but a series of haphazard noises and commotions with no underlying meaning.

Shakespeare brilliantly links this general pronouncement to the more specific case of reading and analyzing literature. Alliterating “petty pace” and repeating “day to day” reiterates how repeating patterns appear in language as well as in time; casting time to be made of “syllables” presents it as a construction of language. Presenting humans as “a poor player” and his environment as “the stage” similarly makes the experience of theater a metaphor for one’s life in the world. Macbeth’s “tale” becomes a symbol for the larger tale of human experience. Shakespeare makes a castigating self allusion with the phrase “told by an idiot,” which shows that he has no greater access to truth or meaning than any of his readers. His text itself resists pure comprehension in that it is “sound and fury” alone—“signifying nothing” because no single meaning can be attributed to its characters or constructions. In this way, Shakespeare presents the finitude and emptiness of Macbeth’s experience and the void of his language as a layered metaphor for each human’s eventual demise.

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