Explanatory Notes for Act 5, Scene 1
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
The last act brings about the catastrophe of the play. This does
not consist merely in the death of Macbeth upon the field of battle.
Shakespeare is always more interested in the tragedy of the soul
than in external events, and he here employs all his powers to
paint for us the state of loneliness and hopeless misery to which a
long succession of crimes has reduced Macbeth. Still clinging
desperately to the deceitful promises of the witches the tyrant sees
his subjects fly from him; he loses the support and companionship
of his wife, and looks forward to a solitary old age, accompanied
only by "curses, not loud, but deep." It is not until the very
close of the act, when he realizes how he has been trapped by the
juggling fiends, that Macbeth recovers his old heroic self; but he
dies, sword in hand, as befits the daring soldier that he was before
he yielded to temptation.
It is worth noting how in this act Shakespeare contrives to reengage our sympathies for Macbeth. The hero of the play no
longer appears as a traitor and a murderer, but as a man oppressed
by every kind of trouble, yet fighting desperately against an irresistible fate. His bitter remorse for the past and his reckless defiance of the future alike move us with overwhelming power, and we
view his tragic end, not with self-righteous approval, but with deep
and human pity.
The number of scenes in this act and the frequent changes of
place have necessitated many alterations for modern stage performances. But when the construction is regarded with an eye to the
simple Elizabethan stage for which Shakespeare composed his work,
it will be found a masterpiece of dramatic art. It opens with a prologue which shows us the mental ruin of Lady Macbeth and at the
same time recalls to our minds the sins for which she and her
husband are now to receive their just reward.
The second scene
shows us the revolt of the Scotch nobles; the third, Macbeth's still
unshaken reliance upon the witches' prediction; the fourth, the union
of the Scottish nobles with the English forces. In the fifth we see
Macbeth reduced to the lowest pitch of misery by his forced inaction and by the news of his wife's death. The report of the
moving wood which is brought to him in this scene opens his eyes
to the "equivocation of the fiend," and the manner in which he receives it prepares us for his final outburst of defiance. The sixth
scene brings the avengers before the walls of Dunsinane.
seventh, shows us Macbeth still clinging desperately to his last
hope, that no man, born of woman, can harm him; but in the
eighth even this hope is wrested from him, and he falls by the hand
of the man he has most deeply wronged. The last scene, for there
should be another, beginning at line 35 of the eighth scene, shows
Malcolm in Macbeth's stronghold, "compassed by his kingdom's
pearl," and points forward to a new era of peace and happiness in
At the beginning of this act Lady Macbeth who has apparently
dropped out of the story is brought back upon the stage that we
may see how she too pays the penalty of her crimes. The strong
will that enabled her to defy her woman's nature has broken
down utterly; left alone in her castle while Macbeth is in the
field she broods by day over past crimes and future punishment,
and at night wanders in uneasy sleep through the halls, betraying
to all who hear her the deadly secrets of the past.
In spite of the
doctor's statement (lines 65-67), we feel that she is doomed, and we
are prepared not only for the news of her death in scene v., but
also for the report in the last scene that she died by her own hands.
The most tragic part of her punishment is that she, who had sinned
so deeply for her husband's sake, drifts away from him and dies in
4. field. We must suppose that at this time Macbeth is in the
field endeavouring to suppress the revolt of the Scotch nobles,
alluded to in iv. 3. 182-185.
12, 13. do the effects of watching, perform the acts of waking hours.
13. slumbery agitation, activity of sleep.
16. report, repeat.
16. The gentlewoman is afraid lest she should get into trouble by repeating Lady Macbeth's words.
22, 23. her very guise, exactly her habit.
24. stand close, keep concealed.
27. 'tis her command. Note Lady Macbeth's terror of darkness.
She who had invoked thick night to come and cover her deeds of
blood dares not now be left alone in the dark.
29. sense, an old plural form.
32. accustomed. Note how Shakespeare impresses on us the fact
that this scene is only one of a number.
37. satisfy, assure.
39. Out, damned spot. Lady Macbeth imagines, herself trying
to wash the blood of Duncan from her hands.
40. to do't, to kill Duncan. She is living over again the night
of Duncan's murder. She thinks she hears the bell strike two, and
knows that this is the signal for her husband to enter the king's
40. Hell is murky. These words reveal Lady Macbeth's
brooding fear of the hereafter. They have no connection with the
sentence that follows, for Macbeth never showed the slightest dread
of future punishment.
44, 45. old man ... 'him. She now fancies herself in Duncan's
chamber, standing over the bed which streams with the blood of
the murdered king.
47, 48. The thane of Fife ... now. Lady Macbeth had not
been a party to the murder of Macduff's wife; but this crime of
her husband's is another of the burdens on her conscience. The
words in which she mentions Lady Macduff are thrown into the
form of an old song. Perhaps she had heard the snatch of a
lament sung for her husband's victims, and is now reproducing it in
49, 50. No more o' that ... starting. She now imagines herself
back at the feast where Banquo's ghost had appeared.
51. go to, an expression of proof.
57. Arabia, a land famous for its spices and perfumes.
58. little hand, one of the few allusions in the play to Lady
Macbeth's personal appearance.
59, 60. sorely charged, heavy laden.
65. beyond my practice, outside of my experience.
68. Wash your hands. She now fancies herself speaking to
her husband directly after the murder of Duncan. In the next
line she recurs to the scene at the banquet.
70. on's, of his.
72. Even so?, an expression of surprise.
79. Note the change to blank verse. The vivid realism of Lady
Macbeth's broken utterances would have been impossible in metre,
and while she spoke in prose her hearers naturally used the same
79. Foul whisperings, terrible rumours. The doctor may have
heard some such talk as that between Lennox and the Lord in
iii. 6. If so his suspicions would be more than confirmed by what
he has heard Lady Macbeth say.
79, 80. unnatural deeds ... troubles, deeds against nature
(cf. ii. 4. 10, 11) give rise to abnormal evils in the body.
80. infected minds, guilty souls.
84. the means of all annoyance, anything by which she could
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_5_1.html >.