Context of the scene: A banquet has been set. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enter as King and Queen of Scotland, followed by their court – amongst the noblemen in attendance are Sir Ross and Sir Lennox. As Macbeth walks among the company, the first murderer appears at the doorway. Macbeth speaks to him for a moment, learning that Banquo is dead, but Fleance has escaped. This scene, commonly known as the Banquet Scene, is quite an important scene in the play because it’s a turning point in Macbeth’s life. Indeed, this is simultaneously the high point of Macbeth’s reign and the beginning of his downfall.
In a first part, we’ll explore the duality of Macbeth’s character, and show how full of oppositions this scene is. And in a second part, we’ll see how this slowly becomes the beginning of the end for Macbeth. 1. Duality & Opposition This scene depicts a clear picture of Macbeth’s confusing state of mind. We indeed get a lot of different reactions from him throughout this scene, reactions that are just as sudden as they are opposite. First of all, the arrival of the courtiers and the murderers almost simultaneously shows clearly the duality of Macbeth as King and criminal.
It is as if these two sides of him are present in the same room, personified by the noblemen and the murderer. At first, Macbeth is pleased with the news he just received and the murderer, praising him and telling him he is “the best,” “the nonpareil” (without equal); moreover, Macbeth’s own supposed invincibility is shown: “I had else been perfect;/ Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,/ As broad and general, as the casing air”. He is the King and he clearly feels like nothing and nobody can stop him anymore. He feels powerful.
But on hearing the unwelcome news that Fleance has escaped his treachery, Macbeth’s language abruptly changes: “But now I am cabin’d, cribbed, confin’d, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears. ” (25–26). The alliteration of the hard c sounds reveals Macbeth’s sense of constraint, in contrast to the freedom and power which he claims to have enjoyed previously. It plunges him back into insecurity. Then Lady Macbeth intervenes and brings him back to reason and the banquet itself. Returning to his guests, Macbeth goes to sit at the head of the royal table but finds Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair.
Horror-struck, Macbeth starts speaking nonsense to the ghost, which is invisible to the rest of the company: “Which of you have done this? ” The guests, confused by his behavior, think that he is ill: “What, my Good Lord? / Gentlemen rise, his Highness is not well. ” Lady Macbeth makes excuses for her husband, saying that he occasionally has such “visions”: “my Lord is often thus/ And hath been from his youth/; she then tell them they should simply ignore Macbeth, because acknowledging his behavior would offend him: ‘The fit is momentary, upon a thought/ He will again be well. She then draws Macbeth aside and attempts to calm him by asserting that the vision is merely a “painting of [his] fear”—just like the “air-drawn dagger” he saw earlier (60). She once again questions his manhood to try to snap him out of his trance: “Are you a man? ” Ignoring her at first, Macbeth continues to address the ghost and charges him to speak but it disappears. After Lady Macbeth scolds him for being “unmanned in folly” (73), Macbeth finally recovers, returning to his guests and claiming that he has ““a strange infirmity which is nothing / To those that know me” and which they should ignore (85).
As with the ethereal dagger, the ghost of Banquo appears to come and go, propelling Macbeth into alternating fits of courage and despair. Lady Macbeth tries to soothe her husband. In contrast to the urgent horror of Macbeth’s addresses to the gruesome apparitions are moments of comparative calm. Each time the ghost vanishes, Macbeth’s relief is recorded in softer, more lyrical expression, for exemple when he says later on in the scene: “Can such things be / And overcome us like a summer’s cloud, / Without our special wonder? ” (112–114).
So the entire structure of this scene shows a man swinging from one state of mind to another, recalling the structure of the earlier dagger speech. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, remains constant in her judgment. Unlike Macbeth, she cannot see the ghost, and her tone is typically pragmatic and down-to-earth: “When all’s done, / You look but on a stool. ” She appears to want to calm his rages, but anger simmers beneath her conciliatory words. It is unclear whether Banquo’s ghost really sits in Macbeth’s chair or whether the spirit’s presence is only a hallucination inspired by guilt.
Macbeth, of course, is thick with supernatural events and characters, so there is no reason to discount the possibility that a ghost actually stalks the halls. Some of the apparitions that appear in the play, such as the floating dagger in Act 2, scene 1, and the unwashable blood that Lady Macbeth perceives on her hands in Act 4, appear to be more psychological than supernatural in origin, but even this is uncertain. These recurring apparitions or hallucinations reflect the sense of metaphysical dread that consumes the royal couple as they feel the fateful force of their deeds coming back to haunt them. So, serie of oppositions: in Macbeth’s behavior itself; in characters (Macbeth # Lady Macbeth); and opposition reality/surnatural. 2. The downfall of King Macbeth The news of Fleance’s escape angers Macbeth: if only Fleance had died, he muses, his throne would have been secure. Instead, he’s now waiting for the time Fleance will come back to seek revenge: “The worm that’s fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (28–29). Throughout Macbeth, as in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the supernatural and the unnatural appear in grotesque form as omens of wickedness, moral corruption, and downfall.
Macbeth’s bizarre behavior puzzles and disturbs his subjects, confirming their impression that he is mentally troubled. Despite the tentativeness and guilt she displayed in the previous scene, Lady Macbeth here appears surefooted and stronger than her husband, but even her attempts to explain away her husband’s “hallucination” are ineffective when paired with the evidence of his behavior. The contrast between this scene and the one in which Duncan’s body was discovered is striking—whereas Macbeth was once cold-blooded and confident, he now allows his anxieties and visions to get the best of him.
The rich banquet, a symbol of great orderliness and generosity, now becomes a hellish parody of itself. Instead of Macbeth sitting “in the midst,” dispensing his largesse as he would wish, his throne has been usurped by the bloody apparition of his former friend. Macbeth’s language reflects this change. The ghost, so hideous that it would “appall the devil,” appears to have risen from a grave or a “charnel-house. ” Three times Macbeth sees the ghost, and three times he appears to recover his senses. This alternating structure adds strongly to the impression of Macbeth’s loss of control.
The short scene is dominated by the repeated word “blood” and by the idea that a tide of murder has now been initiated which Macbeth is powerless to stop. As noted previously, it is here that the downward spiral picks up pace. Macbeth, having harvested the benefits of his regicide, is beginning to see the down side of his actions. He is seen publicly as a madman, a fact reinforced by his wife’s comments that the fit witnessed has been an illness of long standing. Macbeth also refers to ‘tomorrow’ (133), indicating to the audience that there is more reckoning to come.
Once he sees the ghost, his image as King is changed, tarnished with questions of madness. Macbeth begins to question his sanity, he can’t believe his eyes, yet he cannot look away from Banquo’s ghost. In front of his dinner guests, he acts in an unstable, irrational manner. At this point, King Macbeth has lost some of the respect and admiration of his court. His subjects do not look at him the same way after this scene. Macbeth begins the slow descent into madness after this scene, losing his ability to control the future, something that he has killed to achieve.
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