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Macbeth Commentary - Act I.

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Macbeth Commentary provides a comprehensive description of every act with explanations and translations for all important quotes.

Act I. Scene I. - A desert Heath.

Second Witch: "When the hurlyburly's done, / When the battle's lost and won."

On a heath the Three Witches decide to meet again after a battle being fought nearby. Thunder, storms and the desolate heath, paint a gloomy picture, setting the tone of this play and defining an imagery of nature at war with itself, a recurring theme in this play...

The play begins upon a heath. Thunder and lighting rake the air. Three Witches ask themselves when they shall next meet, deciding that it will be "When the hurlyburly's done, / When the battle's lost and won" (Line 4). This will be later in the day at "the set of sun" (Line 5) upon a heath again where they will meet Macbeth. Together the Three Witches cry, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air" (Line 11).

Act I. Scene II. - A Camp near Forres.

A bleeding Sergeant: "For brave Macbeth,-well he deserves that name...."

Macbeth is introduced to us as the brave man who led King Duncan's forces to victory against the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, Macdonwald and The King of Norway, in a battle that could have gone either way were it not for Macbeth's leadership. We learn that Macbeth killed Macdonwald himself in battle. King Duncan, overjoyed, decides to make Macbeth his new Thane of Cawdor. The previous Thane of Cawdor will be executed.

King Duncan, his sons Malcolm and Donalbain, and noblemen Lennox enter, meeting with a bleeding Sergeant. He speaks to the King of a battle between the King's forces and those of the traitorous Macdonwald.

Victory was not assured, but then Macbeth entered the fray, "For brave Macbeth,-well he deserves that name,- / Disdaining fortune [ignoring the dangers], with his brandish'd steel [with his sword]… carv'd out his passage [carved his way through the battle / entered the fight]" (Lines 16-20).

Later we learn that Macbeth killed Macdonwald himself, securing his head to the King's battlements: "he unseam'd [cut him open] him from nave to the chaps, / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (Line 22).

The Norwegian Lord however began a fresh assault, the bleeding Sergeant explains, but Macbeth and Banquo met them: "they / Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe: [they redoubled their efforts against the enemy]" (Line 39).

The Sergeant finishes his report with praise: "They [Macbeth and Banquo] smack of honour both" (Line 45).

Nobleman Ross enters, announcing to the King and company that the King of Norway himself "With terrible numbers, / Assisted by that most disloyal traitor, / The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict;" (the King of Norway with huge numbers of men, helped by that traitorous Thane of Cawdor started a terrible battle), (Lines 52-54).

Only when Macbeth, described as the bridegroom of the goddess of war arrived, did the King's men emerge triumphant with the Norwegians now pleading for peace: "Till that Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof, / Confronted him with self-comparisons," (Lines 55-56).

We learn of King Duncan's great pleasure. "Great happiness!" (Line 59), King Duncan says on hearing that his forces have defeated the King of Norway's and that the King of Norway's dead are to buried but not before the payment of ten thousand dollars for the King's general use or rather as part of the terms of peace the defeated Norwegians have made with King Duncan.

Duncan is no longer fooled by the Thane of Cawdor's treachery and instructs Ross to "pronounce his present death, / And with his former title greet Macbeth" (Line 66).

King Duncan explains that "What he [the last Thane of Cawdor's title] hath [has] lost noble Macbeth hath won" (the title that the Thane of Cawdor has lost, Macbeth has now won], (Lines 66-67).

The Thane of Cawdor will be executed and Macbeth will now have the previous traitor's title.

Act I. Scene III. - A Heath.

Banquo: "What! can the devil speak true?"

The Three Witches' establish their malicious nature before meeting Macbeth and Banquo. The Three Witches tell Macbeth that he will be "Thane of Glamis!", "Thane of Cawdor!" and "king hereafter", or become the King of Scotland. Banquo learns that his descendants shall be kings.

Banquo is suspicious of the Three Witches, remembering that they often trick men. Macbeth initially agrees but when Ross and Angus tell him he has been made the new Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth in a very important aside (soliloquy), remarks, "Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind."

Macbeth now first questions Banquo on his feelings about his descendants becoming kings and then starts to think of killing King Duncan to make prophecy fact but later hopes fate alone will spare him the need to kill...

Again thunder foreshadows the Three Witches' appearance. The First Witch asks of the second's activities. We learn she has been busy "Killing swine" (Line 2). We learn a sailor's wife had chestnuts, which she denied the Second Witch.

Together they resolve to punish the women's husband. "I'll drain him dry as hay: / Sleep shall neither night nor day" the First Witch threatens (Line 18).

We hear drums. Macbeth arrives. He is with his friend Banquo. Banquo is not sure the Three Witches are actually women: "Upon her skinny lips: you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so" (Line 45).

Macbeth asks them to speak if they can. The First Witch addresses Macbeth as "Thane of Glamis!" (Line 48). The Second Witch pronounces Macbeth as the "Thane of Cawdor!" (Line 49) and the Third Witch as "king hereafter [ever after] " (Line 50).

Banquo asks that his future be told. The Three Witches cryptically comply: "Lesser than King Macbeth, and greater" and "Not so happy, yet much happier" ending with the line, "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:" (Lines 65 -67).

Macbeth demands to know more...

He is already Thane (Lord) of Glamis. But how can he be The Thane of Cawdor and later King when both titles are already taken? The Three Witches vanish.

Macbeth realizes that Banquo's children will be kings, and Banquo realizes that according to the Three Witches' prophecy Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor.

Ross and Angus arrive, informing Macbeth that he is indeed Thane of Cawdor. Banquo is amazed "What! can the devil speak true?" (What! Can the devil be trusted to tell the truth?), (Line 107).

Macbeth makes his first great soliloquy: "Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind" (Line 115). Ross and Angus depart, leaving Macbeth and Banquo.

Macbeth darkly (and suspiciously) questions Banquo's ambitions: "Do you hope your children shall be kings, / When those [the witches] that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me / Promis'd no less to them?" (Lines 118-119).

Banquo like many of his time, fears the Three Witches: "The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles [honest tidbits of information], to betray's / In deepest consequence. Cousins, a word, I pray you", (the instruments of darkness such as the Three Witches often tell us meaningless truths in order to later betray us most damagingly later), (Lines 124-127).

Macbeth is still confused by his good fortune: "This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good; if ill, / Why hath [has] it given me earnest of success, / Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor:" (this advise from the Three Witches cannot be evil but it cannot be good either. Why has it given me reason to believe it by predicting my new title?), (Lines 130-133).

In an important turning point for Macbeth, he now starts to have murderous thoughts:

If good, why do I yield [give in] to that suggestion [idea of murdering King Duncan] / Whose horrid image doth [does] unfix my hair [make me sick] / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature? Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings; / My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not (Lines 135-141)

Macbeth hopes in an aside (private speech revealing Macbeth's thoughts to the audience) that fate not murder, may bring him his kingdom instead: "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir [without me doing anything about it]" (Line 143). Macbeth and Banquo resolve to see the King.

Act I. Scene IV. - Forres. A Room in the Palace.

Macbeth: "Stars, hid your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires...."

Macbeth meets King Duncan, thanking him for his new title (The Thane of Cawdor). The also loyal Banquo receives nothing. King Duncan remarks how he completely trusted the previous Thane of Cawdor. King Duncan announces that his son, Malcolm will be the new Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth sees Malcolm as a threat to what he now takes seriously as his destiny to become King of Scotland, a major turning point in Macbeth's changing morality. Macbeth makes this clear by famously asking in an aside (private speech), for the stars to hide their fires least they reveal his dark and deadly purpose or intent to kill King Duncan.

King Duncan at his castle asks of the fate of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. Malcolm explains that the previous Thane of Cawdor did confess his treason and that he died "As one that had been studied in his death / To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd, / As 'twere a careless trifle [as if his life was unimportant]" (Line 9).

Ominously and in view of Macbeth's future betrayal, ironically, Duncan exclaims one can't tell a person's character by their face adding that the previous Thane of Cawdor was a gentleman upon which the King "built / An absolute trust" (a man King Duncan trusted completely), (Line 13).

Next Macbeth, Banquo, Ross and Angus enter. Macbeth humbly explains in thanks that what he did for the King is nothing more than that of a loyal subject: "The service and the loyalty I owe, / In doing it, pays itself" (Line 22).

Banquo too is loyal but receives no title nor thanks. King Duncan announces that his son Malcolm is to be made the Prince of Cumberland.

In an aside (soliloquy), Macbeth ends the scene already plotting his way to kingdom: "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'er-leap [leap over / remove], / For in my way it lies" (Line 48).

Macbeth already sees Duncan's son as an obstacle to his destiny. Ominously, Macbeth adds "Stars, hid your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires;" (Line 50).

Duncan will soon arrive at Macbeth's castle.

Act I. Scene V. - Inverness. Macbeth's Castle.

Lady Macbeth: "Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe full / Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood, / Stop up the access and passage to remorse...."

Lady Macbeth learns by letter from Macbeth of the Three Witches' prophecies for her husband and eagerly embraces them as fact. Fearing Macbeth is too compassionate and weak-willed to do what needs to be done (killing King Duncan), she famously asks the gods to remove from her all signs of compassion and femininity, replacing them with cold remorseless ruthlessness.

Learning from a messenger that King Duncan will stay at their castle, she enthusiastically greets this news, suggesting that she already has plans to kill King Duncan. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to speak again on the issue of the prophecies, Macbeth still uncertain of the need to kill King Duncan.

At Macbeth's castle we meet Lady Macbeth who is reading a letter. We learn that she knows of Macbeth's meeting with the Three Witches. Immediately, Lady Macbeth accepts the prophecy as fact.

No doubts like Banquo, Lady Macbeth enthusiatically says: "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou [you] art [were] promis'd" (Line 16).

She fears Macbeth is too good to seek what he is his by destiny: "Yet do I fear thy [Macbeth's] nature; / It is too full o' [of] the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way [to do what needs to be done];" (Line 17).

Lady Macbeth wishes to use her powers of persuasion to prevent Macbeth denying them his destiny: "And chastise with the valour of my tongue / All that impedes thee from the golden round," (Line 28).

She learns from a messenger that King Duncan will soon arrive. Pleased, she immediately makes plans saying the messenger has announced or "croaks [announces] the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements into my castle]" (Line 40).

She famously calls upon the spirits to rid her of all her good: "Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe [head to toe]top full / Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood, / Stop up the access and passage to remorse," (Lines 41-45).

Macbeth arrives and Lady Macbeth already tells Macbeth to appear innocent like a flower but to be "the serpent under't" (Line 66). She advises him to entrust the evening to her care and exclaims that King Duncan will not see tomorrow. Macbeth says they will speak further on the issue.

Act I. Scene VI. - The Same. Before the Castle.

At Macbeth's castle King Duncan arrives whilst Lady Macbeth plays the most perfect of hostesses. Macbeth's castle seems to be a haven of snactuary, so much so that Banquo describes it as being almost heaven like in its peacefulness. King Duncan asks "Where's the Thane of Cawdor?" who is not yet present (Line 20).

Act I. Scene VII. - The Same. A Room in the Castle.

Macbeth: "False face must hide what false heart doth know."

A guilt-ridden Macbeth wrestles with his conscience, certain that he should not kill King Duncan yet guiltily having to remind himself of all the reasons why it would be wrong. Macbeth decides against murdering his King but Lady Macbeth belittles him for not being able to murder, threatening to take away her love for him if he does not. This threat wins Macbeth over and Lady Macbeth outlines her plan to kill King Duncan in his sleep while he is a guest at their castle.

The scene begins with Macbeth in his castle. Macbeth is wrestling with his conscience. Can he kill a King who is in his trust as a guest in his home?

He's here in double trust: / First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, / Strong [strong reasons] both against the deed [killing King Duncan]; then, as his host, / Who should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself.

(King Duncan is here in double trust. First because I am his kinsman and a subject of his, I have two very good reasons not to murder my King. Then as his host I should be shutting the door on King Duncan's murderers not holding the knife against him myself), (Lines 12-14).

Additionally King Duncan has been so good a King that "his virtues / Will plead like angels trumpet-tongu'd against / The deep damnation of his taking-off [dying];" (Line 18-20). Furthermore, Macbeth argues that he has no reason to kill his king but to satisfy "Vaulting ambition, which o'er-leaps [overleaps] itself / And falls on the other.-"

Macbeth will not kill his King... Lady Macbeth enters and upon learning this, scolds him as being less than a man. Additionally Lady Macbeth makes an ultimatum: "From this time / Such I account thy love" (from now on or what you now do will I measure your love for me), (Line 38).

She argues that Macbeth was a man when he discussed this "enterprise" with her (Line 48). Finally she informs him that she would have "dash'd the brains out," (Line 57) of her own children had she "so sworn as you [Macbeth]" to the act of murdering King Duncan (Line 57).

Macbeth is worried of the consequences should they fail. Lady Macbeth outlines the plan to kill King Duncan in his sleep reassuring him that this will be easy.

Macbeth and wife will approach the sleeping King and perform their deed.

Afterwards, Lady Macbeth explains, the King's two guards will be smeared with blood implicating them: "Will it not be receiv'd, / When we have mark'd with blood those sleepy two / Of his own chamber and us'd their very daggers, / That they have done't?" (will it not be believed that these two men who sleep with the King and will have been smeared with blood will be accused of murdering the King with their own daggers?), (Line 74).

Macbeth ends this scene, decided on the murderous task ahead of him: "False face must hide what false heart doth [does] know" (Line 82).

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