Macbeth's Soliloquy: Is this a dagger which I see before me (2.1.33-61).
Macbeth, after discussing the crime with Lady Macbeth, has decided to go through with the "terrible feat" (1.7.75). Now he sits alone, waiting for the bell which will summon him to murder Duncan, pondering his decision one final time. The focus of the soliloquy, the invisible dagger, is our first glimpse of Macbeth's powerful imagination – imagination that is largely responsible for his mental torment throughout the drama.
Although Macbeth knows that the dagger is an optical illusion, and suspects that it could be brought about by his potentially "heat-oppressed brain" (39), he nonetheless allows the phantom dagger, soon stained with imaginary "gouts of blood" (46), to affect him greatly. Enhancing the ominous and eerie atmosphere of the speech is the use of successive allusions to people and practices which conjure up images of satanic and earthly evil. Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and a strong presence overall in Macbeth, is preparing her sacrificial victims, and Murder himself, summoned by his trusted watchman, the wolf, moves with the power and speed of evil king Tarquin towards his prey.
Just as talk of the murder is about to stifle his courage, Macbeth's intense illusion is shattered by the bell, a signal from Lady Macbeth that Duncan's chamberlains are asleep, and Macbeth races away to commit the heinous crime. One can only wonder if a few more moments of deliberation would have changed Macbeth's mind.
For information on the metaphors in this soliloquy and in the play in general, please see my article, Biblical Imagery in Macbeth or Figures of Speech in Macbeth.
For general commentary and line annotations for the whole scene, please click here.
The excellent BBC production of Macbeth, starring Nicol Williamson, is freely available on YouTube. This soliloquy can be found at 0:36:42.
Back to Soliloquy Annotations.
Questions for Review
1. How would you represent the dagger on stage? Should it be visible to the audience?
2. Does seeing the dagger fill Macbeth with confidence or fear?
3. What convinces Macbeth that the dagger is an illusion?
4. How does line 61 -- "Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives" -- remind you of Macbeth's first soliloquy?
5. Why is the ringing of the bell significant?
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Macbeth Commentary: Is this a dagger which I see before me. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/soliloquies/isthisadaggeranalysis.html >.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. W. F. Langford. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.
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Macbeth goes to an empty room and waits for his wife to ring the bell, signaling that Duncan's guards are in a drunken slumber. Macbeth's mind is racing with thoughts of the evil he is about to perform and he begins to hallucinate, seeing a bloody dagger appear in the air. He soliloquizes on the wickedness in the world before concluding that talking about the murder will only make the deed that much harder to complete. Read on...
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