Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4

Page Index:
Enter King Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain, Lennox, and Attendants:
When we see the King and the members of the royal circle, the King is asking "Is execution done on Cawdor?" (1.4.1). Malcolm tells him that the rebel Thane of Cawdor has just been executed, and that he had a good death. Cawdor confessed his treason, asked the King's forgiveness, and went to his death willingly, so that "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it" (1.4.7-8). The King comments that he an "absolute trust" in the man, but "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" (1.4.11-12). In other words, you can't tell a book by its cover.

[The story of the Thane of Cawdor foreshadows the story of Macbeth. Both appear to be honest and are trusted by King Duncan. But both turn bad and betray their king. In the end what they have done catches up with them, and they both die courageously.]

Enter Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus:
Just as the King is commenting on the fate of the former Thane of Cawdor, in comes the new Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth, along with Banquo, Ross, and Angus. The King greets Macbeth as "worthiest cousin!" (1.4.14) and says in several different ways that he can't thank him enough. Macbeth answers with heroic modesty that "The service and the loyalty I owe, / In doing it, pays itself" (1.4.22-23). That is, it's payment enough to know that he did the right thing as a loyal servant of the King. Then Macbeth, speaking for every subject of the King, says that they only do what they should when they do everything they can to ensure the King's safety and show their love for him. Macbeth appears sincere as he delivers these noble sentiments, but in two or three minutes we'll overhear him as he thinks about killing both the King and his son.

King Duncan, after telling Macbeth that there are more rewards in store for him, turns to Banquo and thanks him, too. He hugs him and tells him that he will hold him in his heart. Banquo graciously replies "There if I grow, / The harvest is your own" (1.4.32-33), meaning that if Banquo grows in the King's heart, the King will have himself to thank, for being a good king. Finally, the King says to everyone, "My plenteous joys, / Wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves / In drops of sorrow" (1.4.33-35). In short, he's so happy he's crying.

[Shakespeare doesn't write many stage directions, but this is an implied stage direction that should be taken seriously. The King is indeed weeping. These two warriors, Macbeth and Banquo, have saved his kingdom and probably his life. Today men try to hide tears of joy, because they're considered to be a sign of weakness, but Duncan isn't weak, he's just very very happy that his men won. And his joy in his men, particularly Macbeth, makes Macbeth's murderous plans even more shameful.]

Overcoming his tears, King Duncan now announces that his oldest son, Malcolm, is heir to throne, and has therefore been given the title of Prince of Cumberland. The King promises that others will receive honors, too, and then tells Macbeth that he is coming to visit him at Inverness, the location of Macbeth's castle, Dunsinane. Macbeth replies that he'll be glad to have the King as a guest, and that he'll go immediately to tell his wife.

No sooner said than done, and Macbeth hurries away. As he is leaving, we hear him thinking to himself, "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, / For in my way it lies" (1.4.48-50). Of course he means that Malcolm, too, is now between him and the throne. (This is something that Macbeth should have thought of before. The throne of Scotland was not strictly hereditary, but it should be no big surprise to Macbeth that the King would name his son heir.) As soon as he thinks this thought about Malcolm, it's obvious that it's a murderous thought. He says to himself:
              Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.  (1.4.50-53)
Macbeth wants impossibilities. He wants the stars to go out, so that no one can see what it is he wants, not even himself. His own eye should "wink," that is, blind itself to what his own hand wants to do. "Let that be" he says, because he wants the thing done, even if afterwards, "when it is done," his own eye would be afraid to look at what his hand had done. What could he be talking about, except murder?

With that thought, Macbeth disappears from the scene. Meanwhile, the King and Banquo have been talking about him, and the King is saying how much he enjoys praising Macbeth. As he looks forward to Macbeth's hospitality, the King says that he is a "a peerless kinsman" (1.4.58). Thus a chilling irony is created by the contrast between the King's thoughts about Macbeth and Macbeth's thoughts about the King.