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Free Study Guide-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Booknotes Summary
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Before the murder ever takes place, Shakespeare further develops the depth of Macbeth's fear, which is the man trait that leads to his self-inflicted downfall. As the time of the execution draws near, Macbeth's fears give way to imaginative hallucination. He believes he sees a dagger hanging in front of his face; but when he reaches for it, he cannot grab it, and it taunts him further by dripping blood. It is the first of many incidents when Macbeth's fears fan the flames of his imagination. It will happen again when he hears voices calling to him to "Sleep no more" and when he sees Banquo's ghost sitting in his chair at the royal banquet.

After the murder is committed, Macbeth's fear grows greatly and is compounded by deep feelings of guilt. When Lady Macbeth tells him to return the bloody daggers to the king's chambers, the troubled Macbeth says, "I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on it again, I dare not." The irony is that Macbeth's conscience will make him look at the murder over and over again with no escape. Macbeth senses the depth of guilt immediately. When he looks at his bloody hands, he realizes that all of the water in the ocean will not be able to cleanse the blood from them or from his heart. His wife, who believes that "A little water clears us of the deed," mocks his fear and tells him she would be ashamed to have a heart as white as his. Lady Macbeth, who knows her husband better than anyone else in the play does, realizes that her husband, basically kind in heart, will struggle with his conscience to the point of his undoing. She warns him not to be "lost so poorly in your thoughts." Macbeth can only reply, "Twere best to not know myself." His self-hatred has begun. Lady Macbeth also reveals another of Macbeth's traits; he is often not good at appearances or putting on a "false face." She warns him, as they make their plans to murder Duncan, that he must "look like the innocent flower," She also warns him to appear bright and jovial to the guests at the royal banquet. She is fearful that his face cannot lie. And her fears are well founded, for at the banquet, Macbeth's true soul cries out and incriminates him clearly.

Ironically, Macbeth cannot enjoy wearing the crown that he has stolen because of mounting fear of discovery, and he fears his friend Banquo the most. Because Banquo is a good, honorable person who has vowed to "fight treasonous malice" and because he knows Macbeth so well, the king is certain that Banquo suspects the truth about him and will seek to right the wrong. Macbeth is also jealous of his friend because the witches have prophesied that Banquo's heirs will become kings of Scotland. Macbeth, therefore, feels he has no choice but to murder Banquo and his son Fleance in order to protect himself and his stolen crown. He alone plans the second murder without consulting or telling his wife, and he has no indecision about this murder, as he did with the first. Macbeth only knows he must act quickly in order to control his power, his future, and his posterity. His has become a true tyrant!


By the time of the royal banquet scene, found at mid-point in the play, Macbeth's fear and guilt have driven him to irrationality, chaos, and loss of self-control. During the meal, he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in his chair and openly incriminates himself to all his guests by denying his guilt and saying, "Thou canst say I did it." His wife, who was always fearful about his being able to wear the false face, calls the ghost a "painting of you fear" and accuses her husband of being "quite unmanned in folly." This time the attacks against his manhood do nothing to calm him down or change his mind. Instead, he challenges the ghost to battle, as if he were still a noble warrior. But there is none of the old Macbeth in him. He is now so bathed in blood that he fears everyone around him and places paid spies in the houses of all his nobles. True paranoia has set in. He also transfers his old fear of Banquo to Macduff and acknowledges he must spill more blood to wash away his fright. In rashness and without thought of consequence, he has the family of Macduff murdered in revenge for the husband's flight fled to England and refusal to return at the king's summons. It is also rashness that leads him again to the three witches in order know his future, no matter what it holds.

Macbeth pathetically holds on to the false hope offered in the witches' prophecies until the very end. Since these is nothing left inside to encourage him, he seeks false encouragement and tries to believe he will not be murdered by a man or vanquished by an army. With false bravado, he dons his armor, prepared for battle and certain that his castle will hold until victory is won. But the armor does not seem to fit him correctly anymore; he appears to be a dwarf in giant's clothing and only a "dark shadow" of the brave general once honored by the king. He realizes that his chaotic existence has brought about his undoing and that his life has no meaning, "a tale told by an idiot, fully of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Still attempting to appear manly, he goes out to meet his end, brought on by the vengeful Macduff, who carries the tyrant's head on a pole for all to see.

Macbeth was truly a tragic character. He had much to look forward to as Thane of Cawdor, but he wanted more. His greed led him to murder and theft, which causes guilt and fear. The fear leads to chaos, which causes his downfall.

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