K. Harger


AP/UCONN English Literature

6 February 2014

Macbeth Act II, Scene 1, Lines 33-64

            In this scene, Macbeth is hallucinating a dagger as he experiences his final moments of hesitation – and resolve – before murdering Duncan. Just prior to this soliloquy, Macbeth is speaking with Banquo, who is also at Inverness (the Macbeth home). He is trying to ascertain if Banquo still believes in the witches’ prophecy. After Banquo leaves, Macbeth “sees” a dagger floating in the air in front of him; he tries and fails to grab it (lines 33-34). He wonders if the dagger is a supernatural apparition (“fatal vision”) or a hallucination brought on by his own internal conflict (“a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppresséd brain?”). He pulls out his own (very real) dagger and declares the imaginary dagger is there to lead him onward in his murder of Duncan. He then sees the dagger dripping in blood (“dudgeon gouts of blood”) and determines that it is his own internal conflict causing the hallucination (“It is the bloody business which informs”). He notes that now that it is night, evil doings are afoot, such as witches casting spells, murders, and rapes (the allusion to Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of Lucrece in line 55). He asks the earth to mute his steps so no one hears him approaching Duncan. He tells himself to stop hesitating – that the deed will not be accomplished unless he acts (“Whiles I threat, he lives / Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives”). A bell rings – the signal from Lady Macbeth that Duncan’s guards are in a drugged sleep – and he affirms his intent to kill the king (“I go, and it is done.”).

            The soliloquy represents Macbeth’s final battle with his conscience over the killing of Duncan, and while he “wins” this battle in steeling his resolve, we also realize that he has “lost” it as well – he has now moved completely to the side of evil. The “dark side” if you will.

            The dagger itself is a symbol both of Macbeth’s downward turn to evil and of the crown he will gain, but not be able to keep. “Come, let me clutch thee,” he says in line 34. He is metaphorically reaching for evil to help him commit an evil deed. But he cannot lay hold of the dagger  – “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still” (35) – representing that the crown is not really his to claim. For those who know how the play ends – with Macbeth’s head on a pike and Malcolm installed as king as his father had planned – Macbeth’s inability to grab hold of the dagger is foreboding and foreshadows his inability to keep the crown he gained through murder.

            We see the final dregs of Macbeth’s goodness attempting to persuade him not to kill Duncan not just in the hallucination – which even Macbeth himself refers to as the product of a “heat- oppresséd brain” (39) and “bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (48-49) – but in his series of apostrophizing questions to the dagger in lines 33-39.

Shakespeare makes use of the short declarative sentence in line 47 – “There’s no such thing.” – to indicate Macbeth’s return to surety over the murder. This is further reinforced by his stating the evil deeds that happen at night, including murder, rape and spell-casting. The allusion to Tarquinius should be a reminder that he is about to usurp the natural order and will be eventually usurped himself as Tarquinius was, but he instead co-opts it to his own twisted logic.

The final stab of conscience comes when he implores the earth to mute his steps so that no one – including himself – can hear what he’s about to do. This echoes Lady Macbeth’s earlier request to Heaven not to “peer through the blanket of the dark / To cry ‘Hold; hold!” (I.5.52-53). Even the dichotomy of “hot” and “cold” in line 61 echoes the final battle for Macbeth’s soul. But when the bell rings, the return of the short, declarative sentence announces his final resolve. “I go, and it is done.” From this point on, Macbeth is lost to goodness.


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