Summary of Act 2, Scene 2 (2023)

Page Index:

  • Enter Lady Macbeth.
    —Lady Macbeth waits for Macbeth to come with the news that he has killed the King.
  • Enter Macbeth.
    —Macbeth announces that he has done the deed, but he is so shaken by the murder that he brings the bloody daggers with him, and Lady Macbeth takes them from him, to place them with the sleeping grooms.
  • Exit Lady Macbeth.
    —A knocking at the castle gate frightens Macbeth, and his wife comes to lead him away, so that they can wash the blood from their hands.

Enter Lady Macbeth:
This scene, like the previous one and the next, is usually shown as taking place in the courtyard of Macbeth's castle. In the previous scene Macbeth had an ostensibly casual conversation with Banquo, but as soon as Banquo went to bed, it became apparent that Macbeth was awaiting his wife's signal (a bell) to go do the murder. Now, where Macbeth waited for his wife's bell, she waits for the news that he has killed the King.

The courtyard is apparently quite near the King's bedchamber, and she listens intently, as though she could actually hear the murder being committed. She is very excited, and says of herself, "That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold / What hath quench'd them hath given me fire" (2.2.1-2). The "them" whom she refers to are the King's two personal servants, his "grooms." She has given each of them a "posset," a mixture of wine and milk. It's something you would drink just before going to bed, to help you sleep, but Lady Macbeth has drugged the grooms' possets, so that their sleep is the next thing to death. Lady Macbeth herself has also had some wine, but she feels bold and fierce, not drunk and sleepy.

At this moment she thinks she hears something and says, "Hark! Peace! / It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern'st good-night. He is about it" (2.2.2-4). A lot happens in these few words. When she says "Hark!" she's telling herself to listen, and then when she says "Peace!" she's telling herself to be quiet, so that she can hear what she's listening for. After she listens, she decides that she heard a screech owl, and she takes that as a good omen, because the screech owl is nature's own "fatal bellman." A "fatal bellman" is a night watchman who rings a bell at the door of a prisoner scheduled for execution in the morning, and an owl does the same job in nature, because--according to folklore--the screech of a screech owl foretells the death of a person. Therefore, Lady Macbeth believes that because she has just heard the owl's screech, her husband must be "about it," doing the murder at this very moment. But suddenly she hears her husband say--probably in a hoarse whisper--"Who's there? what, ho!" (2.2.8). Just as Lady Macbeth thinks she heard something, so now Macbeth thinks he hears someone, and he's trying to check it out. Immediately, Lady Macbeth assumes the worst, that the grooms have awakened before the murder has been done, and that all will be lost.

She also assumes the worst about her husband. She says to herself, "I laid their daggers ready; / He [Macbeth] could not miss 'em. Had he [King Duncan] not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't" (2.2.11-13). She's thinking that maybe her husband is so addled that he can't find the grooms' daggers, even though she put them in plain sight. And she's thinking that she should have done the job herself, which she would have, if the King hadn't looked like her father.

[This momentary revelation of a spark of human sympathy foreshadows Lady Macbeth's descent into madness later in the play. It turns out that she's not nearly so steely as she now believes herself to be.]

Enter Macbeth:
As Lady Macbeth is thinking that she would be a better killer than her husband, he appears, and says, "I have done the deed" (2.2.14). But though he has done the deed, he can't handle the psychological consequences. For one thing, he is hearing things, or thinks he is. He asks his wife if she heard a noise, and she says she heard only the owl and some crickets. Then he asks her if she was talking as he came down the stairs from King Duncan's bedchamber, and she says she was. But now he thinks he hears something else, and asks who's sleeping in the bedchamber next to the King's. His wife answers that Donalbain has that room, and Macbeth says "This is a sorry sight" (2.2.18).

This last remark of Macbeth's shows how his mind is jumping around. After worrying about this noise and that, Macbeth suddenly says something is a "sorry sight." Editors always explain it by inserting a stage direction, "Looking on his hands," which are covered with blood.

His wife tells him he's a fool, but his mind has already jumped to something else. As he was leaving the King's bedchamber, Macbeth heard someone in another room laugh in his sleep, and someone else call out "Murder!" These two sleepers then awoke, and prayed, and settled down to sleep again. Meanwhile, Macbeth was frozen in his tracks outside their door, and as the two settled down to sleep, "One cried "God bless us!" and "Amen" the other; / As they had seen me with these hangman's hands" (2.2.24-25). "As" means "as if" and the idea is that Macbeth felt that the two sleepers could see his bloody hands -- and his guilt -- right through their door. Now Macbeth wonders why he couldn't say "amen" to the "God bless us" that he heard.

Lady Macbeth tells her husband that he'll drive them both crazy if he keeps thinking like that, but he says, "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'" (2.2.32-33). Now his mind has made a very large leap, not just a jump. This "voice" is a pure hallucination, just as the "dagger of the mind" was. He praises sleep as innocence, as the one sure relief from all of life's problems, but seems sure that he -- who murdered an innocent man in his sleep -- will never sleep again.

His wife asks who the voice belonged to, but he doesn't answer the question, and she says, "Why, worthy thane, / You do unbend your noble strength, to think / So brainsickly of things" (2.2.41-43). She tells him to "Go get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand" (2.2.43-44). The "filthy witness" is the blood of Duncan, which acts as a witness to Macbeth's crime, but as Lady Macbeth is saying this, she sees another "witness": Macbeth is still carrying the grooms' daggers! She tells him he must take the daggers back, put them with the grooms, and smear the grooms with blood, so it will look like the grooms killed the King.

Macbeth, however, is paralyzed with the horror of what he has done. He says, "I'll go no more: / I am afraid to think what I have done; / Look on't again I dare not" (2.2.47-49). Now Lady Macbeth is scornful of her husband. She takes the daggers from him and tells him that it's childish to be afraid of the sleeping or the dead. And she's not afraid of blood, either. She says, "If he [King Duncan] do bleed, / I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal / For it must seem their guilt" (2.2.52-54). With these bitter words, she goes to finish her husband's job for him.

Exit Lady Macbeth
As soon as Lady Macbeth has exited, we hear a knocking. Macbeth hears it, too, and it frightens him, but he can do nothing except stare at his hands. He looks at them as though he had never seen them before, and he feels that looking at them is like getting his eyes gouged out. It is the blood on his hands that causes this horrible fascination, and he feels that the blood can never be washed away. Before his hands are clean, they will make all the seas of the world turn red: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red" (2.2.57-60).

As she returns, Lady Macbeth hears what Macbeth is saying to himself, and she comments, "My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white" (2.2.61-62). She means that her hands are red, too (because she has been busy smearing the King's blood on the grooms), but that she would be ashamed to have a heart as white as Macbeth's. A white heart is white because it has no blood, and the person with a white heart is a coward. As she delivers this insult, we hear the knocking again, and Lady Macbeth takes her husband away so that they can wash up. In her opinion, it will only take a little water to make them innocent. She also tells him he must put on his night-gown, so that if they have to get up and talk to whoever is knocking, it won't look like they've been up all night.

He's unresponsive, and seems lost in his thoughts. She advises him to snap out of it, but he can't. As he is being led away, he says that "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" (2.2.70). He means that if he fully understands what he has done, he will see what a monster he has become, and he doesn't want to know that monster. At the very last, as we hear the knocking again, Macbeth wishes none of it had ever happened, and he calls out "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" (2.2.71).

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