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Act II, Scene 1
This scene opens at Inverness around midnight with Banquo and his son Fleance having a last conversation before retiring to bed. Banquo comments on the darkness, saying that there are no stars out on this dreary night. He then tells his son that he is also dreary, for he has been afraid to sleep. He does not want to be haunted with bad dreams about the three wicked witches. Macbeth then enters the scene, and Banquo turns to him and issues praises for his hospitality. He also states that Lady Macbeth is a most kind hostess.
Macbeth also learns that the king has gone happily to his bed for the night. Banquo then tells Macbeth about dreaming of the three weird sisters. Macbeth replies, "I think not of them," in direct contradiction to his actual thoughts. Next Macbeth asks for Banquo's loyalty should he become king. Banquo ironically answers that if it is honorable and free from evil, he will be supportive.
Banquo and Fleance depart for bed, and Macbeth is left by himself with his fears. He sees a vision of a dagger in front of him. He reaches out for it, but nothing is there --what seems real is only an appearance. He blinks his eyes to erase the image, but the dagger is still there and is now dripping blood. Still unable to grab it, Macbeth acknowledges that it is only a vision and that the "bloody business at hand" has clouded his reason.
Then his thoughts in the soliloquy turn to the current bewitching hour of midnight when "wicked dreams abuse" and "witchcraft celebrates" and "the wolf howls." Macbeth, still resolved to the murder, hears a bell calling him to action. He turns to leave and says, "I go, and it is done." The murder is at hand; there is no more time for procrastination.
The pitch darkness of this scene recalls the opening scene of the play with the witches and also Macbeth's earlier wish (Act 1, Scene 4) that the stars would hide their fires so as not to reveal his black and deep desires. It is also set at midnight, a perfect time for an evil murder.
When Macbeth enters the courtyard, he learns from Banquo, a representation of goodness, that he, like Macbeth, has dreamed of the three witches. But Banquo, unlike Macbeth, curses his thoughts of them and their predictions. In response to Banquo's explanation, Macbeth lies and says that he has not even thought about the three weird sisters, when in truth they have been his constant companions since their encounter on the heath. Next Banquo praises Macbeth's hospitality. The host continues his lies by saying he wished he could have done more for the king (when in fact he has been planning his murder), but he had short notice of the visit. Then Macbeth boldly asks for Banquo's support if he should become king. Banquo answers that he will be supportive if it is honorable. Shakespeare, with this response, is foreshadowing that Banquo (goodness) will oppose Macbeth (evil) in the future, for nothing that Macbeth is planning is honorable.
After Banquo and Fleance depart, Macbeth is left alone with his guilty conscience. He struggles with a vision of an imaginary dagger before him, just as he has been struggling with using a real dagger. He reaches for the image of the dagger several times, but it is not there, just as the crown will never really be there when Macbeth reaches for it. His conscience will never let him settle into the throne.
The scene ends with the sounding of a bell. It is Lady Macbeth's signal that all is ready. It rings out Duncan's death knell.