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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.



Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5


Page Index:
Enter Macbeth's Wife, alone:
As the scene opens, Lady Macbeth is reading a letter from her husband. The letter tells of the witches' prophecy for him, which is treated as a certainty, because "I have learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them than mortal knowledge" (1.5.1-3).

"The perfectest report" means "the most reliable information," so it appears that Macbeth has been asking people what they know about the reliability of witches. If that's the case, he has ignored the advice of Banquo, who is quite sure that witches can't be trusted. But Macbeth seems to trust the witches absolutely, because he is writing to his wife, his "dearest partner of greatness," so that she "mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing" (1.5.11-12). That is, he believes that she has a right to rejoice because she will be a queen. However, Lady Macbeth doesn't rejoice. She is determined that he will be king, but she suspects that he doesn't have the right stuff to do what needs to be done. Speaking to him as though he were really there, she says: "Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" (1.5.16-18).

Her reaction to the letter shows that Lady Macbeth is a woman who knows her husband very well, perhaps because she shares some of his instincts. For both of them, murder is the "nearest way." In an earlier scene, Macbeth had commented that "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir" (1.3.143-144), but later he assumes that he must be an assassin in order to be king. And this is always his wife's assumption.

In addition, Lady Macbeth seems to share the witches' views on good and bad. She says to her absent husband, "Thou wouldst be great; / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it" (1.5.18-20). She, like the witches, believes that foul is fair. Ambition "should" be accompanied by "illness." Yet she does not believe that Macbeth is really good. She says that he "wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win" (1.5.21-22). In her view, he's something of a coward, because he has that within him that tells him what he must do if he is to have the throne, but he's afraid to do it. She tells her absent husband that he should hurry home so that she can "chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round" (1.5.27-28). In other words, she plans to nag him until he's ashamed of himself for being afraid to be bad. After all, it's only that fear that's keeping him from wearing the crown.

Enter Messenger:
As Lady Macbeth is wrapped up in these murderous thoughts, a messenger comes in with the news that the King is coming to stay the night. Lady Macbeth's first reaction is almost enough to give her away.
"Thou'rt mad to say it!" (1.5.31), she exclaims. To her, it must seem that there's some magic at work, because just as she's thinking about killing the King, here comes the news that he's going to be sleeping under her roof. She covers up by saying that Macbeth must be with the King, and that her husband would have sent someone ahead to tell her, so that she could prepare for the King's arrival. The messenger informs her that Macbeth's messenger has just now come, only moments ahead of Macbeth himself. With that, she sends the messenger away and prepares herself for what's next.

As she waits for her husband, Lady Macbeth works herself into a killer's state of mind. She says, "Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!" (1.5.40-43). In Shakespeare's time, as now, women were thought to be naturally more kind and gentle than men. But, Lady Macbeth, who is thinking deadly ("mortal") thoughts, calls on the "spirits" of murder to take away her womanliness. We would say that those "spirits" are that part of her that can kill and not care; nowadays we might show such a person talking to herself, saying "you can do it." But can she? For a person who wants to be cold-hearted, she seems to be talking quite a lot. She wants her blood to be thick and her milk to be bitter poison, but at the end she--as her husband did earlier--asks for the ability to kill without seeing what she is doing, and without being seen. She says:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry "Hold, hold!"   (1.5.50-54)
In an atmosphere of black on black, of dark night darkened with the smoke of hell, Lady Macbeth's knife won't see what it's doing, and neither will heaven. Of course, a real knife has no eyes and God's eyes in heaven can see through night and smoke and all. The knife, then, is a metaphor for something else, perhaps her steely will, and "heaven" is probably a metaphor for her conscience. In short, she thinks she's a killer, but there's a part of her that wants to close its eyes to what she wants to do.

Enter Macbeth:
As Lady Macbeth is working herself up to a fever pitch of murderous intentions, Macbeth enters. She greets him as "Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!" (1.5.54-55), and tells him that she feels "The future in the instant" (1.5.58). In other words, she already feels like a queen.

Macbeth then says that Duncan is arriving that night, as though he's just telling her the news. However, Lady Macbeth already knows about Duncan's arrival, and Macbeth probably knows that his wife knows, because he's the one who sent the messenger. Given this, it seems likely that he's sounding her out, that he wants to know if she's thinking what he's thinking.

Of course she is. When he says that Duncan will leave "to-morrow," she responds, "O, never / Shall sun that morrow see!" (1.5.60-61). The sun will rise, but not on a tomorrow in which Duncan is alive. She goes on to give him a little advice, which is that "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters" (1.5.62-63). In other words, he's not a very good hypocrite. Now we use the word "matter" a little differently, and we would say that just by looking at his face, anyone could see that something is the matter with Macbeth. He should, says his wife, "look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (1.5.65-66).

Macbeth answers, "We will speak further" (1.5.71), but if he intends to appear noncommittal, he hasn't fooled his wife. She tells him that all he has to do is put on a pleasant face, and "Leave all the rest to me" (1.5.73). With that, they hurry out to welcome the King they are going to kill.