Next: Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 2
Explanatory Notes for Act 5, Scene 1
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
The last act brings about the catastrophe of the play. This does not consist merely in the death of Macbeth upon the field of battle. Shakespeare is always more interested in the tragedy of the soul than in external events, and he here employs all his powers to paint for us the state of loneliness and hopeless misery to which a long succession of crimes has reduced Macbeth. Still clinging desperately to the deceitful promises of the witches the tyrant sees his subjects fly from him; he loses the support and companionship of his wife, and looks forward to a solitary old age, accompanied only by "curses, not loud, but deep." It is not until the very close of the act, when he realizes how he has been trapped by the juggling fiends, that Macbeth recovers his old heroic self; but he dies, sword in hand, as befits the daring soldier that he was before he yielded to temptation.
It is worth noting how in this act Shakespeare contrives to reengage our sympathies for Macbeth. The hero of the play no longer appears as a traitor and a murderer, but as a man oppressed by every kind of trouble, yet fighting desperately against an irresistible fate. His bitter remorse for the past and his reckless defiance of the future alike move us with overwhelming power, and we view his tragic end, not with self-righteous approval, but with deep and human pity.
The number of scenes in this act and the frequent changes of place have necessitated many alterations for modern stage performances. But when the construction is regarded with an eye to the simple Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare composed his work, it will be found a masterpiece of dramatic art. It opens with a prologue which shows us the mental ruin of Lady Macbeth and at the same time recalls to our minds the sins for which she and her husband are now to receive their just reward.
The second scene shows us the revolt of the Scotch nobles; the third, Macbeth's still unshaken reliance upon the witches' prediction; the fourth, the union of the Scottish nobles with the English forces. In the fifth we see Macbeth reduced to the lowest pitch of misery by his forced inaction and by the news of his wife's death. The report of the moving wood which is brought to him in this scene opens his eyes to the "equivocation of the fiend," and the manner in which he receives it prepares us for his final outburst of defiance. The sixth scene brings the avengers before the walls of Dunsinane.
The seventh, shows us Macbeth still clinging desperately to his last hope, that no man, born of woman, can harm him; but in the eighth even this hope is wrested from him, and he falls by the hand of the man he has most deeply wronged. The last scene, for there should be another, beginning at line 35 of the eighth scene, shows Malcolm in Macbeth's stronghold, "compassed by his kingdom's pearl," and points forward to a new era of peace and happiness in Scotland.
At the beginning of this act Lady Macbeth who has apparently dropped out of the story is brought back upon the stage that we may see how she too pays the penalty of her crimes. The strong will that enabled her to defy her woman's nature has broken down utterly; left alone in her castle while Macbeth is in the field she broods by day over past crimes and future punishment, and at night wanders in uneasy sleep through the halls, betraying to all who hear her the deadly secrets of the past.
In spite of the doctor's statement (lines 65-67), we feel that she is doomed, and we are prepared not only for the news of her death in scene v., but also for the report in the last scene that she died by her own hands. The most tragic part of her punishment is that she, who had sinned so deeply for her husband's sake, drifts away from him and dies in lonely isolation.
4. field. We must suppose that at this time Macbeth is in the field endeavouring to suppress the revolt of the Scotch nobles, alluded to in iv. 3. 182-185.
12, 13. do the effects of watching, perform the acts of waking hours.
13. slumbery agitation, activity of sleep.
16. report, repeat.
16. The gentlewoman is afraid lest she should get into trouble by repeating Lady Macbeth's words.
22, 23. her very guise, exactly her habit.
24. stand close, keep concealed.
27. 'tis her command. Note Lady Macbeth's terror of darkness. She who had invoked thick night to come and cover her deeds of blood dares not now be left alone in the dark.
29. sense, an old plural form.
32. accustomed. Note how Shakespeare impresses on us the fact that this scene is only one of a number.
37. satisfy, assure.
39. Out, damned spot. Lady Macbeth imagines, herself trying to wash the blood of Duncan from her hands.
40. to do't, to kill Duncan. She is living over again the night of Duncan's murder. She thinks she hears the bell strike two, and knows that this is the signal for her husband to enter the king's chamber.
40. Hell is murky. These words reveal Lady Macbeth's brooding fear of the hereafter. They have no connection with the sentence that follows, for Macbeth never showed the slightest dread of future punishment.
44, 45. old man ... 'him. She now fancies herself in Duncan's chamber, standing over the bed which streams with the blood of the murdered king.
47, 48. The thane of Fife ... now. Lady Macbeth had not been a party to the murder of Macduff's wife; but this crime of her husband's is another of the burdens on her conscience. The words in which she mentions Lady Macduff are thrown into the form of an old song. Perhaps she had heard the snatch of a lament sung for her husband's victims, and is now reproducing it in her sleep.
49, 50. No more o' that ... starting. She now imagines herself back at the feast where Banquo's ghost had appeared.
51. go to, an expression of proof.
57. Arabia, a land famous for its spices and perfumes.
58. little hand, one of the few allusions in the play to Lady Macbeth's personal appearance.
59, 60. sorely charged, heavy laden.
65. beyond my practice, outside of my experience.
68. Wash your hands. She now fancies herself speaking to her husband directly after the murder of Duncan. In the next line she recurs to the scene at the banquet.
70. on's, of his.
72. Even so?, an expression of surprise.
79. Note the change to blank verse. The vivid realism of Lady Macbeth's broken utterances would have been impossible in metre, and while she spoke in prose her hearers naturally used the same form.
79. Foul whisperings, terrible rumours. The doctor may have heard some such talk as that between Lennox and the Lord in iii. 6. If so his suspicions would be more than confirmed by what he has heard Lady Macbeth say.
79, 80. unnatural deeds ... troubles, deeds against nature (cf. ii. 4. 10, 11) give rise to abnormal evils in the body.
80. infected minds, guilty souls.
84. the means of all annoyance, anything by which she could harm herself.
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