Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

A hungover porter answers the knocking from the previous scene and finds Macduff and Lennox at the gate. Macbeth arrives wearing his dressing gown and says the king is not yet awake. Macduff goes to wake the king, who had asked to be roused early. While they wait, Lennox describes a night of unruly weather with strong winds and sinister voices in the air. Macduff returns to say the king has been murdered. He goes to wake the castle while Macbeth and Lennox hurry to Duncan's room.

Lady Macbeth comes to see what is going on, and Macduff tells her it is too gruesome for a woman to hear about. At this moment, Banquo arrives, and Macduff tells him what has happened. Lady Macbeth, still in the room, seems shocked. Macbeth and Lennox return with Ross, just ahead of Malcolm and Donalbain. Macbeth confirms the king is dead, and Lennox adds that they found the guards with bloodied faces and daggers lying on their pillows. Macbeth says he killed them in a fury after finding the dead king, and Macduff asks why. Macbeth says he did it out of love for Duncan. At this moment, Lady Macbeth appears to faint, and everyone goes to her aid, except Malcolm and Donalbain. The brothers decide they may be the assassin's next target and decide that they must leave Scotland. Malcolm will travel south to England, and Donalbain will depart for Ireland.

Analysis

The porter's description of his night's drinking includes some jokes about how drink affects sexual performance, which provides a comic mirror image to Lady Macbeth's near-constant questioning of her husband's manhood. Likewise, Lennox's small talk mirrors the conversation Banquo and Fleance had in the previous scene, in which they observed the night's strange mood.

Macbeth reacts to the news of Duncan's murder with predictable outrage, claiming to have been so overcome with emotion that he killed the guards right away. Of course, he actually killed them so they would have no chance to deny the assassination or talk about Lady Macbeth giving them drink, which might cast suspicion in her direction. The other thanes and lords seem satisfied by Macbeth's reaction, but Macduff's single question about killing the guards—"Wherefore did you so?"—reveals his doubt, however small, about Macbeth's story. Macduff knows dead guards can provide no information about who was behind the killing.

Lady Macbeth shows in this scene that while she privately rejects the expectations for her gender, she will happily play the part to suit her ends. Macduff's comment that the talk of murder is not suitable for her ears is an example of dramatic irony, considering she planned said murder. She seems to realize that Macbeth's claim of love for Duncan as the motive for killing the guards is overstated and recognizes the doubt framed in Macduff's single question, which is why she fakes a fainting spell just as Macbeth finishes his declarations. She clearly does not want her husband to answer more questions. Her ruse works, as all the men in the room rush to her aid, except Malcolm and Donalbain.

Malcolm also seems to suspect Macbeth in his father's death, as he and his brother decide not to meet with the thanes to investigate further. Malcolm says that a treacherous man can easily show emotions he doesn't feel, a comment which could be aimed at any of the thanes but seems a direct dig at Macbeth's overly passionate speech.

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