Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 1 – Summary & Analysis

Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 1 – Summary & Analysis

That evening Banquo and his son Fleance walk through a torch-lit hall in Inverness. Fleance remarks the time, after midnight, but Banquo responds he wishes to stay awake despite his fatigue due to his sleep in recent times, which has brought about ‘cursed thoughts’. Macbeth appears and Banquo, surprised to see him still awake, reveals that the king is asleep and that he recently had a dream about the ‘three weird sisters’; he claims the witches have imparted ‘some truth’ to Macbeth who (deceptively) says he has not considered their meeting with since the met them in the woods. He and Banquo agree to discuss the meeting in due course and Banquo and Fleance then depart. Macbeth, left alone, suddenly views a dagger floating towards him, handle aimed at his hand and tip directed towards where Duncan sleeps. After trying and failing to grab the dagger Macbeth wonders if it is simply a ‘dagger of the mind, a false creation/ Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain’. Macbeth looks at it closely and believes he sees blood on the weapon, but soon convinces himself it is simply representative of his unease at the task ahead. Despite this unease Macbeth steadies himself and upon hearing a bell toll (Lady Macbeth’s signal that the chamberlains have fallen into sleep), prays the earth ‘hear not steps’ as he moves towards where Duncan sleeps.

Analysis

Two episodes from this scene should be noted. Firstly, Macbeth treats Banquo with distrust by telling him he has not thought of the witches or their prophecies since the meeting, which we know is a lie. Why does he act in such a manner? It might be that he does not even wish to tell his closest friend that he is considering regicide, which suggests his realization that what he is contemplating is undeniably wrong. While he does mention discussing the prophecies at a later time this may be designed to prevent Banquo from becoming suspicious at his current lack of concern for the prophecies, especially considering his enthusiastic response to them when they met the witches. It may be also be considered that Macbeth treats Banquo in such a manner as he already sees his friend as a threat to his lineage, as the first prophecy stated he would become king while the second foretold that Banquo’s lineage would assume the crown; this is a fear that grows later in the play and causes Macbeth to eventually have his friend murdered.

Second is the image of the floating dagger, which reveals several significant issues. While it may be argued as to whether the dagger is real or not, it seems most likely it is not and is rather a manifestation of Macbeth’s thoughts and unease considering the forthcoming events. Even more significant is the presentation of the dagger, which suggests that at this moment Macbeth is committed to the deed; as said the dagger represents Macbeth’s emotions concerning the forthcoming act of regicide. This weapon has blood on it and in the play blood is linked to harmful, violent actions (indeed Macbeth speaks of bloodiness in this scene, speaking of ‘blade and dudgeon of blood’ and ‘bloody business’), indicating that when Macbeth considers regicide he no longer wonders about whether to commit the action or not. Tthis is linked to the theme of imagination; Macbeth’s imagining the act of regicide has now increased to the extent that he no longer imagines the act in terms of possibility but rather certainty, as he admits he is led by the ‘dagger of the mind’ which ‘marshal the way’. Other details confirm this, such as the handle facing Macbeth’s hand and the tip directing him to the chamber of the man he will murder. The end of the scene confirms this; Macbeth no longer frets over whether to do as his wife wishes but rather that no one hears him while he does so, a concern which is extremely insignificant when compared to Macbeth’s worries earlier.

Points of note

As seen earlier with Banquo, Macbeth speaks of deception and here wonders if he is being deceived, commenting of ‘being unprepared, our will became the servant to defect’ and of the ‘dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from heat oppressed brain’. Interestingly, that which he talks about deceiving him has nothing to do with external forces; rather he speaks of ‘will’ and ‘the mind’, suggesting he is being deceived by himself. This indicates how rife deception is in the world, as no other is needed for deception to occur. Secondly, it might be indicative of Macbeth’s lack of self-control; as mentioned earlier when discussing how he did not stop when killing an opponent in war but rather cut his head off, and also with the increasing level of imagination that it is overpowering Macbeth currently. As a result Macbeth begins to lose concept of normality as he is placed in an unfamiliar position: ‘I have thee not, and yet I see thee still… for it is knell,/ That summons thee to heaven or hell’.

This is the first scene in which see Fleance and his presence shows Macbeth in a bad light. While Macbeth saw Malcolm and Duncan as obstacles to his desire/ ambition, the crown this did not resonate a great shock in the audience as all three are adult characters and are associated with a world in which murder and somewhat immoral actions are commonplace. As a result, while Macbeth murdering one or both of these would be considered immoral by the audience this would not be extremely shocking considering the world of the play. When Fleance appears we are reminded that the witches foretold that Banquo’s family would assume the crown and thus Fleance assumes the role of obstacle for Macbeth, which he saw Malcolm as earlier; Macbeth will presumably have to kill Fleance to retain his crown by the play’s end. Fleance’s age is not specified but the mention of him as Banquo’s son suggests he is considerably younger than the other characters, and his youth can be associated with innocence. As a result, the prospect of Macbeth killing him to retain his crown transforms the titular character in our eyes; killing adults is one thing, murdering youths is another.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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