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Next: Macbeth. Act 2, Scene 4


Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 3

From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.

(Line numbers have been altered.)


There is no change of scene here. As Macbeth and his wife leave the courtyard, the porter, who has been slowly wakened from his drunken sleep by the repeated knocking on the gate, staggers upon the stage. Evidently he is not quite sober yet; he is in no hurry to open the gate, and he improves the time by a whimsical speech on the duties of the porter of hell-gate. Indeed he seems for a time to fancy himself in the position of that functionary, and exhausts his ingenuity in guessing who the malefactors may be that are so clamorous for admittance to the infernal regions.

The authenticity of this scene has been denied by some famous critics and editors; but there seems no good ground for any such suspicion. In the first place an intervening scene of this kind is absolutely necessary to give Macbeth time to wash his hands and change his dress; in the second the porter's speech contains several distinctly Shakespearean phrases, "old turning of the key," "devil-porter it," and "the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire." The jokes about the farmer, the equivocator, and the tailor, seem rather flat to us, but they are topical 'gags' which likely enough set the audience in a roar when first spoken. A 'gag' can hardly be expected to retain its charm for three centuries.

53. this is a joyful trouble. your entertaining the king is a trouble that you are glad to take upon you.

61. heard. "Were" is understood before this participle.

62. prophesying. This word is here used, not as a participle, but as a noun, the subject of "were heard" in line 61.

64. the obscure bird. the bird of darkness, the owl. "Obscure" is accented on the first syllable.

73. The Lord's anointed temple. the temple of the Lord's anointed, that is, the body of the king.

77. Gorgon. The Gorgons were monsters of Grecian mythology whose aspect turned all who saw them into stone. Macduff means that the figure of the murdered king is as terrible a sight as a Gorgon would be.

81. death's counterfeit. the picture, or likeness, of death.

83. The great doom's image. a picture of the Judgment Day. Macduff compares the horror of the murder of Duncan to those of the last day itself, and calls on all within the castle to rise up, as the dead will on the last day. Note how his extreme excitement finds utterance in broken ejaculations and startling figures.

87. hideous trumpet. Lady Macbeth compares the bell which has so suddenly roused the sleepers of the house to a trumpet in war time.

90, 91. The repetition. fell. The mere recital to a gentle lady of what has happened would be enough to kill her. Note how Macduff restrains himself for a moment out of consideration for his hostess, and then, overmastered by his horror, bursts out with the news to Banquo.

96-101. Had I but died, etc. This beautiful speech of Macbeth's is by no means to be regarded as a piece of pure hypocrisy. He has no sooner committed the murder than he has been seized with remorse (cf. ii. 2. 74) and he seizes the opportunity to give vent to his feelings, well knowing that his hearers will not understand the full meaning of his words.

101. this vault. the world, here compared to an empty cellar from which the wine has been taken.

110. were distracted. The distraction of the grooms was no doubt due in part to

the sleeping-potion with which their possets had been drugged.

113. wherefore, etc. Note how Macduff here assumes the attitude of opposition to Macbeth which characterizes him to the very end. It seems as if he already suspected him of the murder.

114-124. Who can be wise, etc. The pompous diction and strained imagery of this speech of Macbeth's is Shakespeare's way of indicating his hypocrisy. Compare this speech with lines 96-101, where Macbeth is really lamenting his own ruined life, not the death of Duncan.

117. the pauser reason. reason which bids us pause and not act hastily.

122. Unmannerly breech'd. The naked daggers had put on breeches of blood. But these breeches, instead of being decent coverings, were "unmannerly," i.e, indecent.

124. Macbeth's description of the murdered king recalls to his wife so terrible a remembrance of the chamber of death into which she had stolen barely an hour before that she is unable to endure it and faints. This is another indication of her slight physical strength.

128. an auger-hole. a small unnoticeable hole. Donalbain thinks that fate, i.e. a bloody death, may be lurking for him and his brother in any corner of Macbeth's castle.

130. upon the foot of motion. ready to move and show itself. These speeches of the princes are exchanged in swift whispers while the nobles are crowding about Lady Macbeth. The young men are not heartless, but their fear overmasters their sorrow, and their one thought is flight.

132. our naked frailties. our half-dressed, weak bodies. The nobles have rushed half-dressed from their rooms at the sound of the alarm bell, and the courtyard where they have gathered is bitter cold.

134-138. And question. malice. Banquo realizes that there is something behind the murder of the king that calls for investigation. He feels that the company of nobles is shaken with fears and suspicions; but he puts his trust in God and declares himself the foe of whatever secret intention the treason that has slain the king may yet have in store. If Banquo suspected Macbeth, this was a direct declaration of hostilities; but he did nothing to make his words good, for when next we find him he is the most submissive servant of the new king.

139. manly readiness. the dress, perhaps the armour, that suits a man.

140. Well contented. agreed. When the nobles go out the princes remain to consult about their flight. Malcolm seems to distrust all the nobles; Donalbain's words, lines 145, 146, show that he suspects Macbeth. The flight of the princes is one of the fortunate accidents that help Macbeth in the first part of the play. It shifts the suspicion upon them and opens the way for his election to the throne.

146. daggers in men's smiles. Donalbain is thinking of the smiles with which his father had been welcomed into the castle.

146. near. This is an old comparative form of the adjective "nigh." The phrase may be paraphrased as follows: "The nearer a man stands to you in blood relationship, the likelier he is to shed your blood." The reference, of course, is to Macbeth, the nearest relative of the princes.

147, 148. This murderous shafts etc. This murderous plot is not yet fully accomplished. So long as the princes lived they stood between Macbeth and the throne.

151, 152. There's warranty etc. That theft is justifiable which steals itself away from a place where it can expect no mercy. This is one of the many sententious rhyme tags that abound in Macbeth.

________ How to cite the explanatory notes:

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co. 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. ________

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