Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Late at night, Banquo harbors a slight anxiety, as he tells his son Fleance, but his “cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (II.i.8-9) remain unspecified.
He encounters Macbeth and the two verbally circle each other, Macbeth testing him out and Banquo remaining evasive and noncommittal. Banquo mentions the weïrd sisters, and Macbeth says, “I think not of them” (II.i.21) — a statement that seems must be a lie intrinsically, under any circumstances. Macbeth suggests another future business meeting: “when we can entreat an hour to serve, / We would spend it in some words upon that business, / If you would grant the time” (II.i.22-24). He then hints that they might be allies, to Banquo’s advantage. Banquo equivocally indicates that he’s fine with that so long as nothing compromises his honor: “So I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchis’d and allegiance clear, / I shall be counsell’d” (II.i.26-29). So Macbeth’s subtextual overture doesn’t work and he immediately ends the encounter right there: “Good repose the while” (II.i.29).
Macbeth now has his “dagger of the mind” apostrophe, an eerie hallucination that points the way towards the King:
Thou marshal’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use. (II.i.42-43)
This is another instance of Macbeth’s “vaulting,” “o’er-leap[ing]” verbs. An odd reference to taking “Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design” (II.i.55). Tarquin is not a murderer but a rapist; so this reference blurs sex and violence disturbingly. [There is later another poetic echo of Lucrece, so perhaps these two works were written near the same time.]
Of further linguistic interest, “‘murder’ is mentioned for only the second time in the play. We may notice how hard he tries to avoid the word, to avoid putting a verb to the noun, an action to the idea” (Garber 708). “Macbeth displaces the agency from himself onto a personified ‘murder,’ who resembles one of the witches (‘withered’) [II.i.52]. Subordinate clause after subordinate clause postpones and retards the move to the verb ‘Moves'” (Garber 709).
A bell rings, presumably Lady Macbeth’s signal that all is ready: “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell, / That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (II.i.63-64).
Lady Macbeth claims that “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold” (II.ii.1), referring to wine. She seems self-possessed momentarily, but she’s wrong. She jumps at every owl noise and confesses she could not kill Duncan because the old man resembled her own father (II.ii.12-13) — not all that bold.
Think how many are murdered onstage in Shakespeare, and reflect why we are not allowed to watch Macbeth’s stabbings of Duncan. The unseen nature of the butchery allows us to imagine, rather horribly, the location and number of Macbeth’s thrusts into the sleeping body of the man who is at once his cousin, his guest, his king, and symbolically his benign father. (Bloom 531)
“A sorry sight” (II.ii.18) emerges: Macbeth with blood on his hands. After their panicked, rapid-fire exchange, he whimpers that he couldn’t pronounce the word “Amen,” but Lady Macbeth’s attitude is “Consider it not so deeply” (II.ii.27). Nevertheless, Macbeth now anticipates perpetual insomnia: “Macbeth does murther sleep” (II.ii.33). Lady Macbeth is paradoxically motherly (relatively so), but also calls him “Infirm of purpose” (II.ii.49) and instructs him to wash while, due to his screw-up, she clinically returns the daggers to the two guys they are framing for the murder. She may have to smear them with more blood too: “I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, / For it must seem their guilt” (II.ii.53-54). “Guilt is internal; gilt, external — another equivocation” (Garber 711). Macbeth hears “Knocking within,” as does his wife when she returns. (Most productions present the loud knocking, but it’s possible that, at first, the knocking is indeed “within.” The dagger was an hallucination, and best not represented on stage and in film, so the other senses ought to be afflicted similarly.) The dialogue between the Macbeths has been called “fast-paced … like a racing heartbeat, connoting anxiety and confusion” (Carey 374). They are alternately grandly poetical and snippy. When Lady Macbeth returns with blood on her hands, she claims, “A little water clears us of this deed; / How easy it is then!” (II.ii.64-65), whereas Macbeth had just said, “my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnardine, / Making the green one red” (II.ii.58-60). This Hamlet-like imagination seems to be why Macbeth himself is the tragic figure here and that the play is not titled The Macbeths (Goddard, II 114). By way of contrast, general consensus is that “Shakespeare does little to individualize Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm. The drunken porter, Macduff’s little son, and Lady Macduff are more vivid in their brief appearances than are all the secondary males in the play, who are wrapped in a common grayness” (Bloom 517).
Macbeth speaks the last lines of the gruesome scene, including, “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself” (II.ii.70).
The famous and controversial Porter scene ensues, the only comic (some think inappropriately so) scene in the play. A stock borrowing from medieval “Harrowing of Hell” dramas, this character dramatizes his own job into gatekeeper at Hell. He blabs about booze, but what he says applies to other matters in the play if one acknowledge that you can be drunk on many things: “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance” (II.iii.29-30) — another indirect connection between sex and violence. He openly introduces the notion of equivocating also (II.iii.8-11, 31, 35), and we get some lovely vomit wordplay (III.iii.41).
Macduff and Lennox need to see the King. While Macduff enters the chamber, Lennox tells Macbeth about last night’s omens: chimneys blown down, screams, owls, slight earthquakes. The strained understatement, “‘Twas a rough night” (II.iii.61), is all Macbeth can say.
Macduff reports the murder, the bodily violation rendered in architectural terms: “Most sacrilegious murther hath broke ope / The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence / The life o’ th’ building” (II.iii.67-69). “The Lord’s anointed” is also a phrase from 1 Samuel 26: 11-12 — marked in de Vere’s Geneva Bible. Parallels to an earlier topicality trump the supposed James connections:
As in the play, an ambitious rival assassinated Scotland’s king [Darnley], who had gone to bed thinking he was a welcome guest. Just as the play includes a knocking at the porter’s gate, investigative reports of Darnley’s murder twice mention a “knocking at the gate” — while Bothwell was said to have cried “Treason!” when informed of Darnley’s murder. (Whalen 60)
Lady Macbeth is distressed that this took place “in our house.” “Too cruel any where,” replies Banquo, perhaps taken slightly aback (II.iii.88). Macbeth orates:
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv’d a blessed time; for from this instant
There’s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
Macbeth explains that he killed the two attendants in a rage of “violent love” for his former king. [Two servants were killed along with Lord Darnley, and two survived to give testimony (Ogburn and Ogburn 797).]
Th’ expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin lac’d with his golden blood,
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance; there, the murtherers,
Seep’d in the colors of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech’d with gore. Who could refrain,
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make ‘s love known?
“Macbeth speaks blithely and pictorially of his supposed discovery of Duncan’s body, describing that body almost as if it were a work of art” (Garber 711). Perhaps he says too much, for with a “Help me hence, ho!” (II.iii.118), Lady Macbeth faints (or feints!) — it’s unclear. [Asimov is sure she’s faking (173).]
Duncan’s two sons decide to flee the country one to England and one to Ireland, since “There’s daggers in men’s smiles; the near in blood, / The nearer bloody” (II.iii.140-141).
Banquo’s line, “In the great hand of God I stand” (II.iii.130), supposedly echoes “Il est un homme de dieu.” Several Scottish women on trial for witchcraft in 1591 explained that they had been instructed to raise tempests by bounding cats to the severed joints of dead bodies and tossing them into the sea. They asked the Devil why and were told that it was to destroy James, for “Il est un homme de dieu” (Wells 283).
“By th’ clock ’tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp” (II.iv.6-7). Rosse and an old man discuss more omens, including horses that went berserk and cannibalistic last night (II.iv.14-17)! Macduff is going home, not to Macbeth’s coronation at Scone. Macduff thus handily avoids taking any oath of loyalty to Macbeth, so there will be no feudal qualms about honor if Macduff should decide to lead a rebellion later (Asimov 176). On a historical note, the Stone of Scone was probably a prechristian object of worship, later christianized and then seized by England in 1296 and brought to London; it has served under the coronation throne in Westminster ever since (Asimov 176).
Some productions make Rosse the third murderer in Act III, which would mean he’s a real hypocritical rat-bastard.