Notes on Macbeth (2.3.88-115)

Lines 89-116 from Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth open with Macbeth entering King Duncan’s chamber and falsely decrying the monarch’s murder, claiming that “from this instant there’s nothing serious in mortality” (2.3.89-90). Macbeth describes Duncan as the very personification of “renown and grace” (2.3.91), implying that life is empty without him, attempting to soften the bloody sight of Duncan’s corpse by metaphorically describing his blood as “the wine of life” (2.3.92). Shakespeare has constructed the dialogue in this passage in a way that highlights Macbeth’s duplicity at this moment directly following the murder, but before remorse and grief have begun to take their toll upon his psyche.

Dramatic irony is used in this part of the play, with only the audience, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth being aware of who has committed the murder. It is both engaging and suspenseful to witness the murderer himself informing Donaldbain and Malcom of their Father’s death. Again, Shakespeare imbues Macbeth with flowery dialogue in an attempt to skirt around the horrific nature of what has happened, stating that “the fountain of your blood is stopped” (2.3.95-96). This contrasts tellingly with Macduff’s immediate translation of Macbeth’s poetry with the simple statement that “your royal father’s murdered” (2.3.97).

Lennox claims that the murder was committed by Duncan’s servants, although he uses the phrase “as it seemed” (2.3.98) which contains a level of suspicion and subtly triggers the audience’s knowledge advantage in their awareness that appearances do not reflect the reality of the situation. Macbeth follows this with the outright lie that he has killed them in rage, allowing the audience to realise that he has committed further murders in order to allay suspicion and cement his position. This strategy is not altogether successful, as Macduff’s blunt question of “wherefore did you so” (2.3.104) is another sign that suspicion will be aroused against Macbeth.

This passage ends with a longer speech from Macbeth, in which he attempts to explain his killing of the servants. The repeated motif of blood is continued, this time with regal overtones, referring to Duncan’s “golden blood” (2.3.109), yet Macbeth also seems to emphasise Duncan’s old age, referring to his “silver skin” (2.3.109), perhaps taking his own comfort from having killed an old man rather than a younger one. The image of Duncan’s death as a crime against nature itself is emphasised with Macbeth’s comparison of “his gashed stabs” to “a breach in nature” (2.3.110), bringing to mind the supernatural influence of the Weird Sisters and the strangely inclement weather on the “rough night” (2.3.55) before.

Despite these allusions to the supernatural, Macbeth is shown in this passage to be in his most rational and calculating state of mind while attempting to appear innocent, thus securing the throne for himself. On the night of Duncan’s murder, the audience has seen Macbeth’s uncertainty, unwilling to act until Lady Macbeth questions his masculinity. For the rest of the play, Macbeth’s descent into guilt and insanity allow the audience to feel a measure of sympathy at the fall of this tragic hero. However, at this moment, while he asks in cold blood, “who could refrain that had a heart to love, and in that heart courage to make love’s known?” (2.3.113-115), it is clear that Macbeth is seizing the moment that has been placed before him by the Weird Sisters and his wife, and acting with his own evil and ambitious intent.

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