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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT II, SCENE II
In this scene, the murder takes place. Macbeth is nearly driven mad by the horror of what he's done. Lady Macbeth urges him to be practical: after all, there is no going back. They have killed their king.
It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to have Macbeth kill Duncan offstage. We can only guess why he wrote the scene that way, but here are two possible reasons: 1. Shakespeare wanted to focus not on the murder but on Macbeth's reaction to it; and 2. the bloody details supplied by our imaginations will be much worse than anything that could be done onstage.
Lady Macbeth waits alone while her husband kills Duncan. She seems excited by the idea of murder and pleased with herself because of her part in the plan.
Yet we also get a peek at her softer side. She says that she would have killed Duncan herself, but the old man looked too much like her father. This small reminder of Lady Macbeth's humanity will be important to our understanding of what happens to her at the end of the play.
Macbeth enters, his hands covered with Duncan's blood. Notice how the sharp, quick exchange of words between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth underscores the tension:
Lady: Did you not speak?
Macbeth: As I descended?
Lady: Ay. Act II, Scene ii, lines 16-17
As the scene proceeds, Macbeth and his wife behave in a manner exactly opposite from what we would expect. According to conventional logic, Macbeth, who is a soldier and has already killed many men in battle that day, should not be bothered by the murder. On the other hand, we would understand perfectly if his wife were upset by having been involved in a killing.
Look at what actually happens: Macbeth is horrified by what he has done. He says he has "hangman's hands" (line 27), and he is afraid that after having committed such a horrible deed he will never sleep again. Lady Macbeth is practical. She gives the advice you would expect to come from a soldier: "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad" (lines 32-33).
When Lady Macbeth tells her husband to take the daggers he used for the murder back into Duncan's room, he refuses. She makes fun of him and takes them up herself.
We can understand the torture Macbeth is going through by realizing that he seems to consider the murder one of the most evil deeds ever committed. We would have to call this statement exaggeration:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red. Act II, Scene ii, lines 59-62
But he is not consciously exaggerating. That is the way he feels.
Contrast his attitude with Lady Macbeth's. She says that their hands can be cleaned with a little water and that he should be ashamed to be carrying on so. She tries to make him snap out of the state he's in and get on with their plan.
Macbeth's final lines as his wife hurries him off sum up how he feels:
"To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself. [There is a knock at the gate.] / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" (lines 72-73)
He never thought himself capable of such evil, and he would love to be able to undo what he has done.