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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. < >.

Suggested Reading
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. W. F. Langford. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.


Even More

 Explanatory Notes for Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy (1.5)
 The Psychoanalysis of Lady Macbeth (Sleepwalking Scene)
 Is Lady Macbeth's Swoon Real?

 Explanatory Notes for the Witches' Chants (4.1)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)
 Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)
 How to Stage a Production of Macbeth (Scene Suggestions)

 A Comparison of Macbeth and Hamlet
 The Effect of Lady Macbeth's Death on Macbeth
 The Curse of Macbeth
 On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

 Macbeth Q & A
 Essay Topics on Macbeth
 Aesthetic Examination Questions on Macbeth
 What is Tragic Irony?

 Stages of Plot Development in Macbeth
 Time Analysis of the Action in Macbeth
 Macbeth Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Quotations from Macbeth (Full)
 Top 10 Quotations from Macbeth

 Shakespeare's Workmanship: Crafting a Sympathetic Macbeth
 Origin of the Weird Sisters
 Temptation, Sin, Retribution: Lecture Notes on Macbeth
 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

Lionel Barrymore as Macbeth, 1921. NYPL DG.

Act 2, Scene 1 in Context

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...


More to Explore

 Macbeth: The Complete Play with Annotations and Commentary
 The Metre of Macbeth: Blank Verse and Rhymed Lines
 Macbeth Character Introduction
 Metaphors in Macbeth (Biblical)
 Figures of Speech in Macbeth

 The Three Apparitions in Macbeth
 Supernatural Solicitings in Shakespeare
 Shakespeare on Omens

 Macbeth, Duncan and Shakespeare's Changes
 Contemporary References to King James I in Macbeth
 The Royal Patent that Changed Shakespeare's Life

 Soliloquy Analysis: If it were done when 'tis done (1.7.1-29)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Is this a dagger (2.1.33-61)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be thus is nothing (3.1.47-71)
 Soliloquy Analysis: She should have died hereafter (5.5.17-28)