The Shakespeare Project is simply me reading Shakespeare and writing about it, act by act. My introductory post about it is here. This of course, as you can see from the title is my third post on Macbeth. The first two, on Act I and II, respectively, are here and here.  Please note that these posts are not spoiler free. Just to recap, so far, Macbeth and Banquo, victorious in battle encounter the weird sisters on the heath, where they foretell that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then King, while Banquo’s children will be kings though he himself will not.

Macbeth and Banquo Meet the Witches
Source: John Wootton [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

When the first of these prophecies comes true, Macbeth begins to have foul thoughts, and plots to kill the King, Duncan to realise the second of these prophecies without leaving matters to fate. He is weak however, and his resolve wavers constantly, but the formidable Lady Macbeth is there to steer him towards his goal. And so Macbeth murders the King and also his two guards who he successfully blames for the deed. He is crowned King while King’s sons have escaped and ended up being suspected as the true culprits. However, while Macbeth may have made the witches’ prophecies come true, he has already begun to be haunted by his deeds.

The 1994 Penguin ed.

The third Act opens with Banquo reflecting on how Macbeth has achieved all that the witches prophesised, but Banquo suspects that Macbeth is responsible for all of what has come to pass and has certainly not played fair in achieving what he has achieved. Macbeth now enters the scene and commands Banquo to attend a banquet that is planned for later that evening, while also inquiring into Banquo plans for going out riding that day, and whether his son Fleance accompanies him. Clearly, he isn’t simply “making conversation”, and has an ulterior motive in finding this out.

As soon as Banquo leaves, Macbeth’s true thoughts are revealed to us. He begins to think that there is no point in being King if his position were not secure, and if the witches’ prophecies were true, then all that he has done to secure the throne for himself, will end up benefiting Banquo’s sons. And since he can’t let that happen, he decides to challenge fate, charging two murderers with the task of doing away with Banquo and Fleance. And that too is done, by convincing these men that Banquo is responsible for their fate.

Macbeth and The Two Murderers by H.E. Selous

In the next scene, in conversation with his wife, Macbeth confesses that he is still being plagued by nightmares, and that his mind is not at rest. But he also tells her that he cannot be at peace while Banquo and Fleance are alive. He asks Lady Macbeth to be nice to Banquo at the banquet, but refuses to tell her what he has planned until the deed is done. 

In the third scene, we find the two murderers whom Macbeth has sent to kill Banquo. They are joined by a third, also sent by Macbeth but without their knowledge (I wondered at this point whether the third man was supposed to kill them once the deed was done). The three waylay Banquo and Fleance, and kill Banquo but Fleance manages to escape.

Macbeth in the 1916 film
Source:Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Now we find ourselves back at Macbeth’s castle, where the banquet is prepared and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enter with nobles and attendants. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth welcome the guests and bid them to enjoy themselves. In the mean time, the first murderer returns and informs Macbeth that Banquo is dead but Fleance has gotten away. This naturally shakes him, but he is still happy that Banquo is dead. Lady Macbeth now has to remind him to be attentive to his guests, and Macbeth, back to his pretence begins to comment on how Banquo has still not appeared. Ross remarks that this means Banquo has broken his promise.

Banquo’s Ghost
Source: Théodore Chassériau [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

But just then, Macbeth notices the table is full, but Lennox, another noble insists that there is an empty seat. Banquo has kept his promise after all, even if he has now become a ghost. Macbeth begins to babble while his Lady tries to calm him down and make his excuses to his guests. When Macbeth does finally come to his senses and begins to entertain his guests, proposing a toast to the “missing” Banquo, the latter reappears, causing Macbeth to react once again, wishing the hallucination away.

When Lady Macbeth finds she is unable to get him to stop hallucinating, she sends their guests away. Macbeth, however, continues to be haunted by his thoughts, convinced that the guilty (himself) will be brought to justice. He decides to seek out the witches the next day, and learn the worst that is to befall him.

And so we return to the witches. But before Macbeth arrives, the sisters are chided by Hecate for having revealed their prophecies to one so undeserving. She also decides to work some spells which will give Macbeth illusions, and trick him into thinking that he is above everything, and this will prove to be his downfall.

The Three Witches
Source: William Rimmer (American, 1816-1879) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the final scene of this Act, we find ourselves back at the palace witness to a conversation between Lennox and another Lord. They discuss Duncan’s death for which Donalbain and Malcolm were conveniently held responsible, as may Fleance be for his father’s death, for he fled the scene. Macbeth as they have realised has been handling things far too well. We also learn that Macduff has made his way to England where Malcolm also currently is, and is seeking help from the King to restore to Malcolm what Macbeth has stolen from him. Macbeth is preparing for war, while Lennox hopes that Duncan will return soon to free them from the tyrant, as they now refer to Macbeth.

So it seems that Macbeth’s downfall is imminent, with many things bringing it about. The witches, Hecate, specifically is planning some spells which will have this effects. Macbeth’s own conscience, if one can say that he has one, seems to be making sure that the truth will be revealed from his own lips before long, and is torturing him rightly for what he has done. And the others in the Kingdom aren’t as blind to what has been happening or as naive as to fall for his pretences any more. 

It was interesting in this Act to see Macbeth’s conflicting thought processes. On the one side, he is well aware that it is his ill deeds that are responsible for his nightmares and all that he is facing, while on the other, he continues to do more and more, this time also killing Banquo (even if not by his own hand) at the same time well aware that one ill deed leads to others. He knows why he is going through what he is, the throne has not brought him the pleasure that he perhaps supposed, yet he is getting drawn deeper and deeper in. Now, he doesn’t even made Lady Macbeth privy to his plans, even though she continues to give him courage and support him. But she isn’t as much “in” things as she was initially. Is Macbeth going to end up losing the support he has from her too?

A puzzle that this Act throws up is the true identity of the third murderer, which has been the subject of some discussion, theories ranging from the Thane of Ross to Macbeth himself (see wikipedia here).

Macbeth is now all set to seek out the witches for the second time (first actually since on their first meeting, it was they that sought him out). He wants to learn the worst, but Hecate has other plans in store for him, plotting to bring about his downfall rather than help him. The next Act will tell how that pans out!

Macbeth is truly turning out to be a very complex character. What do you make of him? Do You have a theory on who the third murderer was?


4 thoughts on “The Shakespeare Project: Macbeth Act III

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