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Act III, Scene 4
This very important scene, filled with flashback, symbolism, imagery, and irony, takes place in the banquet hall of the palace, and opens with King Macbeth entering with his queen, nobles, lords, and attendants. In the beginning, all seems a picture of perfect order. The table is prepared, and Macbeth tells everyone to sit according to their rank from the top of the table downward. He then tells Lady Macbeth to stay seated in order to welcome the guests while he mingles with them. He seems a man in perfect control (an appearance that is in stark contrast to the reality of his inner being).
As he passes among the guests, the king spies the first murderer, who has just entered the hall. Macbeth tells him, "There's blood upon thy face." The murderer replies that it belongs to Banquo. After Macbeth praises the murderer for this work, the king learns that Fleance has escaped. It is Macbeth's undoing. He pales at the news and says, "Then comes my fit again," a foreshadowing of the real "fit" he is about to display in the banquet hall. The king tries to regain his composure saying that at least the "grown serpent" (Banquo) lies dead, and the smaller serpent (Fleance) is too young to fear today. But the news has visibly shaken Macbeth.
The first murderer leaves, and Lady Macbeth seeks out her husband to come and give the toast. As he salutes his guests, Banquo's ghost enters the hall, unnoticed by Macbeth, and sits in his chair. When it is time to seat himself, Macbeth sees there is not an empty place for him and says, "The table's full." Since the others cannot see the ghost of Banquo, they know something is wrong with the king. Matters grow worse when Macbeth points to the ghost and asks, "Which of you have done this?" Then he openly incriminates himself by denying his guilt: "Thou canst say I did it,"
The nobleman Ross, recognizing Macbeth's state of mind, tells everyone to rise to leave, but Lady Macbeth wants to be in control and save her husband. She tells everyone to stay seated and explains that her husband often has "fits' and has had them since his youth. She further explains that "the fit is momentary; upon a thought he will again be well." She tells them that if they simply ignore him, it will pass. Then she turns on her husband and angrily asks, "Are you a man?" Macbeth answers that he is "a bold one (man), that dare look on that which might appall the devil." Lady Macbeth then ridicules him further, saying, "This is the very painting of your fear; this is the air-drawn dagger which...led you to Duncan." She ends this first tirade by saying, "Shame itself!" She takes up the verbal abuse against Macbeth again by attacking his male ego and calling him "quite unmanned in folly."
This entire dialog serves as a flashback to the former Lady Macbeth, chiding her husband about his lack of courage to murder Duncan. Macbeth then turns and challenges the ghost to speak, which causes the image of Banquo to temporarily depart. To himself, the king bemoans that "murdered men rise again....more strange than such a murder is." He tries again to regain his composure and cover up his damage by taking up his wife's story to the guests. He tells them, "I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing to those that know me." He then goes forth with a toast to all, but the ghost reappears to taunt him. Macbeth challenges the apparition to take any shape but that of a ghost, and he will battle and defeat it, brave words from a sick mind that recalls Macbeth's former self as a proud warrior.
Lady Macbeth turns on her husband again and chastises him for spoiling the party: "You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting." Then she turns to the guests and dismisses them, telling them to go out in any order. The well-planned, orderly banquet has dissolved into total chaos.
When the guests have departed, the King and Lady Macbeth have a brief conversation that clearly reveals the depth of Macbeth's tortured mind. He says of himself, "I am in blood, stepped in so far that returning were as tedious as go o'er." He fears that "blood will have blood," (sin will have its retribution), so he has put paid spies in the houses of all his nobles. Since Banquo is now dead, he turns his fear toward Macduff. He also says he will do whatever it takes to protect himself, for he is already in so deep it does not matter. He foreshadows further bloodshed when he says, "We are yet but young in deed." Two murders are behind him; more are to come.
In order to find out his fate, Macbeth plans to go tomorrow to consult again with the three witches, the personification of evil that he now trusts. The audience can already imagine his future, but Lady Macbeth, lying to herself, says that a little sleep will cure her husband. The irony is that sleep escapes him. There is no respite from his tortured mind.
Macbeth seems to slightly recover during the course of the scene and is brave enough to challenge his wife. When she asks if he is a man, he answers that it is a bold man who can look at a ghost (a symbol of his conscience) and acknowledge that what he sees appalls the devil himself. He also complains to her that she makes him doubt himself (an ironic situation when she is trying to challenge him to manhood). Macbeth is also recovered enough to taunt the ghost by saying, "If thou canst nod, speak too." There is, in this image, a flickering hint of the old warrior, and Macbeth momentarily wins, for the apparition temporarily disappears. When the ghost returns, Macbeth challenges again, daring the figure to take any shape but a ghost, be it "the rugged Russian bear, the armed rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger." Macbeth says he will gladly fight any of these forms without fear, or even fight Banquo in person if he will come back to life, but the audience wonders if he has any fight left in him. Then the king finally orders the "horrible shadow" to depart. The irony is that Macbeth is really the "horrible shadow", a mockery of the hero he used to be. When the ghost leaves for the last time, Macbeth pathetically says, "I am a man again."
When Lady Macbeth realizes that her husband is not recovering from his strange behavior, she hastily dismisses the guests (as she should have done earlier when Ross suggested it). The scene quickly turns into an image of even greater chaos with the lords and ladies leaving without order and in loud conversation about what has just transpired. Shakespeare has written a masterful and dramatic scene, where the chaotic ending of the banquet is in total contrast to its orderly beginning, just as Macbeth is in total contrast to his former heroic self.
The symbolism and irony of the banquet scene is the essence of the entire play. Macbeth in the beginning of the play had it all. He was a true man -- a brave warrior who had just won his greatest victory, saved Scotland from ruin, and was honored by the king. He had much to look forward to, until the three evil witches planted a seed of greed in his mind. Suddenly, he had thoughts of being more than just Thane of Cawdor. In weakness, he let his even greedier wife really talk him into murder. His conscience had warned him against the plot, but he was manipulated by Lady Macbeth in an unmanly manner to do it anyway. So by appearing like a man in his wife's eyes, he had, in reality, thrown away his manhood. In this scene, Lady Macbeth is urging her husband to again become a man, when she had earlier begged him to destroy his manliness by ignoring his conscience and committing the murder. But his conscience has now stolen his self-respect, forever. He is a lost soul. His wife cannot save him, as she tries to do in this scene; he can only save himself. Ironically, he has become too unmanly to do that, as clearly demonstrated in the banquet scene. As a result, from this point forward in the play, the audience will watch Macbeth as he totally unravels himself to ruin.