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This extremely important, dramatic scene marks the turning point in the play. It is purposefully opened in sharp contrast with the last chaotic scene where Banquo is murdered and Fleance flees. The banquet hall is bright and organized, the table has been carefully set, the guests are seated by rank. Pleasant conversation flows, especially from the hypocritical queen, who is seated and greeting each guest. All is a picture of elegance and order; it, however, is a totally false appearance, for Macbeth is still in a chaotic state and will bring ruin to the banquet, just as he is bringing ruin to his life.
The calm of the banquet is first interrupted when the murderer appears. He is the first of two uninvited guests that totally unravel Macbeth and destroy the evening. The murderer still has Banquo's blood upon his face. (In reality, it is Macbeth who should bear the blood, just as he did after Duncan's murder.) The king learns from this intruder that although Banquo is dead, Fleance has escaped. This news puts Macbeth in a "fit", and he suddenly feels out of control and "cabined, cribbed, confined...to saucy doubts and fears." At least he is glad that the adult serpent (the good Banquo) is dead. (Note the irony in this image of Banquo as a snake and recall that earlier in the play Lady Macbeth told her husband to look innocent but strike like a serpent.) Macbeth tries to regain his composure and toast the guests, but it, like the banquet, is a shallow, false appearance of order and control. Macbeth cannot hide the reality of his inner turmoil.
After the toast, Macbeth makes note of Banquo's absence (as if to cast guilt away from himself) and says how much he misses the presence of the noble (words full of double-meaning). On cue of hearing his name, the ghost of Banquo appears, the second uninvited guest of the evening that only Macbeth sees. The king points at the apparition in horror and accuses his guests by asking, "Which of you have done this?" He then incriminates himself publicly by denying any wrong doing: "Thou canst not say I did it." (And the truth of the statement and the lie to himself is that he did not actually commit the murder, but had it commissioned; the blood of Banquo, therefore, was on the uninvited guest, not him,) The irony of the moment lies in the fact that none of the other guests, not even Lady Macbeth, can see the ghost; neither do any of them know about Banquo's murder. They can only assume he is referring to Duncan's recent execution, and at this point in time the common belief is that it was accomplished at the hand of Malcolm and Donaldbain.
Lady Macbeth, in her old, controlling manner, tries to save the situation for her husband and herself by explaining to the guests that Macbeth has had "fits" since his youth. She claims they are always momentary in nature and insists that the guests stay seated for dinner, even though the nobleman Ross has suggested they all leave. The irony is that by keeping the guests in the banquet hall, she is insuring her husband's ruin. His fit is not momentary, but a true sickness of his soul that he can no longer hide. The confident Lady Macbeth, unknowing of her husband's latest blood letting, is certain that through her typical chiding, she can bring her husband around. She begins by asking Macbeth, " Are you a man?", a question that always seems to get to him. (Remember, it is how she convinced him to carry through with Duncan's murder.) She then reminds him that all of his visions, such as the air-born dagger in an earlier scene, have been his imagination run wild, and she tries to convince him that this one is the same. She summarizes her tirade by saying that his folly is making him unmanly and closes by saying, "Shame on you," the image once again of a mother scolding her child. Later in the scene she pouts to Macbeth that he has spoiled the party, "displaced the mirth."
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.