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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Notes

The scene opens in comic relief from the drunken porter. It is the only humorous scene in the play and is purposefully placed to relieve audience tension between the actual murder and its discovery. When the porter is awakened from his stupor by the knocking, he thinks he is going to open hell's gate (an in truth he is, for his castle walls - from the moment of the murder to the play's end - is a living hell for Macbeth). The porter names the sinners who are waiting to enter, and each one possesses one of Macbeth's tragic flaws. The farmer is greedy (Macbeth is greedy for power); the equivocator is full of pretense and lies (Macbeth lies to others and, more importantly, to himself); and the tailor is a thief (Macbeth has just stolen Duncan's life). All three of these traits contribute to Macbeth's downfall and total ruin. His lust for power leads him to dream of being king and causes him to murder; but the most devastating flaw that destroys Macbeth is that he has lied to himself, believing he could kill and not be haunted. What appeared to be did not happen in reality!

When the porter opens the door, he discovers Lennox and Macduff, who have come to wake the king. The murder is about to be discovered, and "all hell is about to break loose." Macbeth is aware of what is about to happen. When he enters the scene to greet the newcomers, he is so tortured and fearful he can barely speak more than two words, unlike his usual eloquent self. The talk between him and Lennox is about last night's weather outside the castle, which paralleled the activities inside Inverness (inside the gates of hell). Lennox explains there were wailings, earthquakes, shrieking birds, and screams of death in his neighborhood during the night. These happenings are believed by the citizens to prophesy the chaos and disorder of Scotland (and as the reader knows, Macbeth's mind). The tongue-tied Macbeth can only offer a brief understatement of comment. "Twas a rough night." How different in language from Macbeth's earlier poetic soliloquies, but how perfect a response!


It is Macduff who discovers the murder and sounds the alarm. He tells everyone in the castle to "shake off death's counterfeit (sleep), and look on death itself!" Lady Macbeth is the first to arrive on the scene and plays the part of the great pretender, appearing gentle and innocent, the horrified hostess. Banquo arrives next and tries to calm everything down in order to get organized. How ironic that Lady Macbeth (a picture of total depravity) arrives on the scene with Banquo (a picture of innocence and goodness)! Macbeth than returns and launches into a lengthy speech (his first one in this scene). He is trying to show his sorrow over the king's murder by saying, "Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time." These words, addressed to the kin and nobles of the king, are filled with double meaning. Spoken to show Macbeth's grief to the world, they really refer to Macbeth's wish that he had not lived to kill Duncan and fall out of grace into the living hell of his own conscience. Lady Macbeth, knowing the real meaning of his words and fearful her husband will continue and incriminate himself, pretends to faint. Appearance vs. reality is rampant in the scene!

An analysis of Macbeth's words and their tone in this scene show the conflict of good and evil that rages in his soul. In the beginning of the scene, he is so scared and guilt-ridden he can barely speak. When Malcolm and Donaldbain join the others, they ask, "What is amiss?" Macbeth answers in an almost irreverent manner, "You are, and do not know it," meaning they no longer have a father to guide them, just as Macbeth feels he no longer has a God to protect him since he has sold his soul to hell. As Macbeth grows more fearful in the scene, he tries to hide it with his eloquence, but his words are incriminating him as his soul cries out. His last words in the scene, "Let's briefly (quickly) put on manly readiness," are an invocation to the others to do what he cannot do -- pull himself together as a man. How ironic for one who has just won honors as a valiant warrior! To intensify Macbeth's conflict, the scene is filled with a cacophony of sounds from the deafening knocking at the gate and the porter's loud, drunken speeches to Macduff's shouting "horror" and sounding the alarm to the final rush of people and conversation. Each auditory image reinforces the chaos that tortures Macbeth's soul.

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