Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Act Two: Scene Two

The way in which the murder takes place off-stage is dramatically effective, but also strongly reminiscent of classical tragedy in which such events – the murder of Agamemnon, for example – are always unseen by the audience.

1 ‘That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’ – Yet another antithesis, and a further example follows in the next line. There is a theme of inebriation running through these scenes, which is possibly intended to reflect upon the actions of the central characters. Drink frequently emboldens those who partake of it; here, ironically, it is Lady Macbeth who is feeling ‘bold’ after having encouraged others to drink.

3 ‘the fatal bellman,/ Which gives the stern’st good-night.’ – A town’s ‘bellman’ (still familiar today in England as the Town Crier) might be employed to call the hours through the night in much the same way as the Watch. Lady Macbeth is thinking of this function – which Macbeth also alluded to in the last scene – and she is also recalling that the bellman would ring through the town to announce a death, exhorting the townsfolk to pray for the deceased. This is why he is ‘fatal’ and ‘gives the stern’st good-night.’

5 ‘grooms’ – ‘servants’.

6 ‘possets’ – a posset is a drink made with hot milk curdled with ale or wine, usually spiced and sweetened.

8-9 ‘That Death and Nature do contend about them/ Whether they live, or die.’ – Both Death and Nature are personified; the one representing the inanimate, the other the animate world: they are imagined as arguing over whether the servants are dead or merely sleeping very soundly.

12-13 ‘Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t.’ – This resolves the issue of why it is Macbeth that commits the murder and not his wife, who had previously intended to do the deed. Her calculated and murderous cool partially evaporates in these lines, and the audience will recognise that her previous speeches – in particular, her invocation to the spirits of darkness to ‘unsex’ her – were all attempts to force her nature into a brutal, unfeeling coarseness which is contradicted by her words here, as well as by her breakdown at the end of the play. It is dramatically effective that the very one who has strengthened Macbeth in his terrible deed is seen to be suddenly weakened. The suggestion that Duncan looks like Lady Macbeth’s father is intriguing: there was probably no great imaginative distance between patricide and regicide for a Jacobean audience.

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William Shakespeare