In this essay, I will provide a critical account of the passage, paying attention to action, language, imagery and dialogue. I will then discuss the significance of the passage in relation to the play’s main themes and assess its specific and wider functions in the play.
The opening of this scene is very much a conversation which Macbeth is having with himself – a soliloquy – in which he is weighing up the act he is about to perform, to murder the King. On the one hand he knows the powerful reasons to do this; on the other hand he experienced nagging self-doubt connected to his fear of retribution both in on this earth and in heaven by the likely loss of his reputation, which was very important to him.
The opening stage directions, ‘Then enter Macbeth’, conveys to the audience that he is alone on stage, talking on his own – a soliloquy. During his soliloquy he is joined by his wife, ‘Enter Lady Macbeth’, Shakespeare uses this stage direction at the end of Macbeth’s soliloquy to suggest that his wife was listening to him.
In the opening soliloquy, Macbeth struggles with the choices and options ahead of him; whilst it is clear that he desires to kill the King through the use of the words ‘assassination’ and ‘success’. The soliloquy is punctuated with repeated words, ‘if’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘done’, and ‘were’, which indicates that his mind is still thinking through the range of possibilities. All of this points to a train of thought, whereby Macbeth is trying to think through, verbalise and rationalise his own and at times confused thoughts.
Macbeth uses a decisive tone, ‘be all and end all’, realising that the murder will lead to other consequences in ‘life to come’. Macbeth also struggles with what should be his sense of duty to Duncan – who is both his relative and host; ‘First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,’.
When Lady Macbeth enters the room, ‘How now, what news?’, Shakespeare uses this question to emphasise that she has been listening into her husband’s soliloquy – what he thought was a private conversation with himself.
Shakespeare shows the audience Macbeth questioning his wife’s plan, ‘If we should fail?’, to emphasise him trying to take control again. However, Lady Macbeths responds with, ‘We fail!’, Shakespeare uses the exclamation mark to create a derogatory tone – putting him down. This presents Lady Macbeth’s confidence, indicating that she has been plotting for a while.
When Macbeth admits to his wife that his reputation might lose its ‘gloss’, Lady Macbeth starts down a line of questioning which unsettles Macbeth in terms of his feelings of weakness; ‘Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since? … /At what it did so freely?’. Shakespeare is beginning to build the character of Lady Macbeth, and make the Jacobean audience question her personality. Lady Macbeth’s practical approach, highlighted through metaphors and wording linked to the ancient science of alchemy, ‘fume’ and ‘limbeck’, further highlight the differential; that the King, like gold, will be changed through death whilst at the same time Macbeth’s golden reputation could be destroyed.
Shakespeare creates imagery of Lady Macbeth ‘Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,’, saying she would even murder her own baby as it fed from her breast. Shakespeare is showing the audience Lady Macbeth’s determination compared to her husbands. This questions the normal Jacobean gender stereotypes, where the man is in control and the woman is subservient.
Lady Macbeth throws another insult at her husband, ‘Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?’, Shakespeare uses a simile to create imagery of Lady Macbeth comparing her husband to a well-known proverb about the cat who wanted the fish but was unwilling to get its paws wet.
Shakespeare uses the dialogue in this scene to emphasise the characterisation of Lady Macbeth, ‘What cannot you and I perform upon / The unguarded Duncan?’; as a strong woman, taking control of her husband and making herself involved in his problems. This was not the expected norm for a Jacobean wife, therefore, giving the audience a shock, and providing a significant underlying theme in the play. Lady Macbeth ends up convincing her husband, and he goes along with the killings, confirming Lady Macbeth’s control over her husband.
Shakespeare again uses dialogue to develop the character of Lady Macbeth, ‘But screw your courage to the sticking – place, / And we’ll not fail.’, portraying she is trying to convince her husband to go along with the plan that she has put in place.
By the end of the scene, the conversation has concluded, and Macbeth has been convinced to murder the King, ‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know’, Shakespeare uses alliteration of ‘f’ to emphasise his decision.
This scene is clearly one of the most important scenes in the play for several reasons; firstly, the audience hears the main plot of the play outlined (the murder of King Duncan). Secondly, it serves to develop the characterisation of Lady Macbeth, the inter-relationship between the Macbeth and his wife; this scene highlights the influence Lady Macbeth has on Macbeth (how he reacts and adjusts his decision making in response to her), how great their love is – one for another, how strong her personality is and how well Lady Macbeth knows his weaknesses and how she uses this against him.
Shakespeare uses many themes in this scene, including guilt versus innocence, gender expectations, good versus evil and betrayal. These are developed throughout the rest of play.
The scene is also significant in terms of an insight into the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the inter-relationship between the two of the them; this scene highlights the influence Lady Macbeth has on Macbeth (how he reacts and adjusts his decision making in response to her), how great their love is – one for another, how strong her personality is and how well Lady Macbeth knows his weaknesses and how she uses this against him.