Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 2 – Summary & Analysis

Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 2 – Summary & Analysis

Lady Macbeth enters as her husband departs, imagining Macbeth killing the king. She then hears her husband cry out and worries that he has awoken the chamberlains; she cannot understand how her husband could not be successful after she has prepared the daggers for the chamberlains; she then admits she would have killed the king had ‘he not resembled/ father as he slept’. Macbeth then enters, blood on hands and badly shaken, revealing that the act is complete. He reveals how the chamberlains awoke and said their prayers before returning to sleep and when he tried to say ‘amen’ with them he could not. Furthermore, he believes that when he killed Duncan he heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more/ Macbeth does murder sleep.. Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more’. Lady Macbeth initially tries to calm her husband, telling him to think ‘after these ways’ as ‘it will make mad’, but then grows angry when realizing he has not left the daggers with the chamberlains so as to frame them; she is forced to bring them herself after Macbeth refuses to return to the scene of the crime, doing so while mocking Macbeth and declaring that if she were as cowardly as him she would be ashamed. While left alone Macbeth hears a knocking and grows frightened from the sound, leading him to wonder ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?’ Lady Macbeth returns and the knocking sounds return twice; as she brings her husband to their chamber she tells him not to dwell on ‘brain-sickly of things’, remarking ‘A little water clears us of this deed… How easy it is then!’.

Analysis

Perhaps the most significant part of the entire play is the act of regicide. The murder of Duncan transforms the play; as shall be shown the country will descend into immorality and as a result chaos. Yet, Shakespeare doesn’t show the act of murder taking place. Why is this? In a drama where there are battle scenes with individuals killed during fighting this is not due to on-stage limitations. One reason might be a link to the classical plays (as mentioned there are various classical references in the drama); in many dramas from this period murders were not shown so as to make the action appear even worse through the power of suggestion, as the audience were left to imagine this taking place (this effect is like in a horror film; once you see the monster it isn’t as horrifying as before when you were not sure what it is or how bad it may be). Another may be that not viewing the murder is appropriate considering it is Macbeth who carries this out; his ability to carry this out and rise to the throne relies on deception, and as shall be shown his later attempts to hold onto his crown will rely on this also. It therefore seems fitting that when he kills Duncan we do not see this, and are not sure what happened or how this came about. As mentioned earlier, one film version shows Duncan awaking, forcing Macbeth to kill him as it would be impossible to get out of a situation in which he was found in the king’s chamber in the middle of the night with a dagger; it may be argued that not showing the act of regicide allows Shakespeare to easily continue Macbeth’s transformation from loyal servant to traitorous king; this would link to the aforementioned theory of the dagger being bloody in the previous scene, which suggested Macbeth was now committed to the act of regicide, and no longer contemplates it.

This introduces an important part of Macbeth’s character, his development into tragic hero. As mentioned, the tragic hero begins in a position of virtue and descends from this due to a tragic hero. We saw how Macbeth was praised as the epitome of bravery and loyalty at the beginning of the drama, and then began to descend from this due to his tragic flaw (his ambition), which led to him considering killing the king. However for some time there is hope of redemption as Macbeth only considered killing the king, but now he has moved beyond that due to influences such as his wife and his imagination, and now is supremely focused on the task. To return Macbeth to a state of only considering this act would be difficult, as it would take him so long to once again be convinced (it would be a never-ending play!). Interestingly, in the same scene Lady Macbeth, who has been the forerunner of the plan to kill the king, shows some hesitancy by admitting she would have killed Duncan had he not resembled her father, which is significant on two levels. Firstly, it shows her possessing some feminine traits (in the play compassion is seen as a feminine trait), which suggests she is not completely cold and hardened as she has appeared so far, and provides some explanation for her descending into madness due to being affected by the act of murder later in the play. Secondly, it suggests that she sees Duncan as a figure of authority who she must be loyal to, like her father (the play endorses the idea of patriarchy, whereby the father was head of the family; this is seen with Duncan being the one who chooses his son to be heir to his king, rather than his son simply assuming the kingdom), which can be seen to present in her a bad light as it raises questions as to why she will be loyal to Duncan yet have her husband do otherwise. It seems like she is selling Macbeth out, and does not seem as wholly committed to the plan as Macbeth now, perhaps realizing that the killer of the king will face eternal consequences (as Macbeth mentioned earlier). She thus will only be associated with this, represented by her return to coldness and association with the plan when Macbeth reappears, telling him the blood can be washed away by water; blood she will wash off so long as it is not on her hands. However, as we see later in the play, association with such a sin is enough to have terrible consequences and repercussions.

Points of note

The deceptive nature of the world is alluded to once more in this scene as the act of murder is not shown, presenting a world where all is not as it seems and inconsistency is aplenty. Lady Macbeth speaks of the chamberlains, remarking ‘that which hate made them drunk, hate made me bold, what hath quenched them, hate given me fire’ and that ‘death and nature do content about them, whether they live, or die’. She later speaks of how ‘The sleeping and the dead/ Are but as pictures’; this once more presents a world of inconsistency, but also adds to the suggestion that she is inconsistent in the way that she is loyal to Duncan on one hand, but willingly allows her husband to kill him. Indeed, it might be seen that such actions present Lady Macbeth as unable to be considered truly masculine in the play as she does not possess one of the primary masculine traits, courage; all males fight in the battlefield and show this in the play, whereas Lady Macbeth cannot even do so here, and shies away from the act of regicide.

Children are again mentioned, with Lady Macbeth remarking that ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil’ as she tells her husband that a childlike innocence will make you fear things needlessly. This suggests that Lady Macbeth is corrupting Macbeth; he was like a child initially, innocent (if we concur to the theory that activity on the battlefield is a sign of loyalty to the king and kingdom and thus acceptable), but is now tempted to be sinful by his wife. She can be seen as hypocritical, telling her husband ‘A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight’ when he admits he lamented over the scene he has just left from, despite her hesitancy to the plan and comparing Duncan to her father.

With this in mind it is possible to pity Macbeth at the end of this scene. He is tormented by his action which cannot be reversed; he realizes that he is in ‘most need of blessing’ but cannot say Amen as he is not deserving of forgiveness or recognition from God due to his sin of regicide. He resolves to ‘go no more’ due to his fear ‘to think what I have done’ and laments ‘every noise appalls me’ while wondering ‘will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?’. In addition, he shows significant psychological distress as he hears a voice and is affected by a knocking (this is Macduff at the door, but Macbeth’s reaction shows a severe decline). The mention of Neptune can be used to criticize or sympathize Macbeth; Neptune is the god of the sea, and Macbeth’s appeal to this deity indicates his acceptance that he has moved irreconcilably away from God and the Christian realm, which can be critical as it shows Macbeth making no real effort to appease his former god and instead seeking out a new overseer. It could however arouse sympathy as it shows Macbeth as one who cannot even receive redemption from God and thus is in a hopeless position. His lack of sleep (‘the death of each day’s life… chief nourisher in life is feast’) similarly presents him as a distressed individual; such is the extent of this that he declares ‘’twere best not know my self’.

The idea of fate is present again in this scene. It was suggested earlier the witches could be associated with the goddesses of fate, and there seems to be similar resonances here. The porter later compares the knocking (which is from Macduff) to the gates of hell and knocking is associated with inevitability; it will be answered, the gates of hell will open and Macduff will enter, who will eventually bring about Macbeth’s downfall. This, and the earlier appearance of the witches, confirms for us that Macbeth is a tragic hero, as it brings in another element of the tragic hero’s journey, that he cannot control or stop his downfall. Similarly, Lady Macbeth calls an owl she hears hooting a ‘fatal bellman’ (later we shall see a connection between Macbeth and owls); the bell tolling can be considered a funeral bell for Duncan while the word ‘fatal’ can also be considered in terms of fate as the witches, those goddesses of fate, have placed ambition in Macbeth’s mind and forced him to commit the act of regicide to realize his ambition.

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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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