Studying the Banquet Scene in Macbeth
After studying the Banquet Scene in Macbeth, what proof do you discover of Shakespeare’s abilities as a dramatist and poet?
Shakespeare’s Macbeth was probably composed in late 1606 or early 1607, when Shakespeare was in his early 40’s. His other 3 terrific tragedies, (Hamlet, King Lear and Othello) had already been written and his track record as a gifted play writer and poet was well developed. Unlike the great majority of Shakespeare’s plays, (not including the English Histories) Macbeth has actually been set in Scotland and not abroad.
It is a fairly brief play without a major sub-plot, and is considered by numerous scholars to be Shakespeare’s darkest work. The play starts with Macbeth and Banquo, who are generals of Duncan, King of Scotland, returning from a triumphant campaign against rebels when they are met by 3 witches who welcome Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and king hereafter. The witches prediction that Banquo will be father to a line of kings, however the words have barely left their lips when messengers concern tell Macbeth that the king has developed him Thane of Cawdor as a benefit for his services.
After that, King Duncan honours Macbeth by pertaining to remain at his castle. There, after being stimulated on by his other half, Girl Macbeth, Macbeth murders him and takes the crown.
Since of the witches’ prophecy concerning Banquo, Macbeth tries to make himself sure of getting the throne by outlining the death of Banquo and his kid, Fleance. The guys he works with to do this for him achieve success in murdering Banquo, however Fleance leaves. Haunted by the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth looks for out the witches, who bid him be careful of Macduff, the Thane of Fife, however also provide him a sense of security by informing him that no one who was born of a woman will hurt him which he will never be vanquished up until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane hill.
Learning that Macduff has joined Malcolm, who is gathering an army in England, Macbeth surprises the castle of Macduff and murders Lady Macduff and her children. Lady Macbeth then goes mad and dies. Malcolm and Macduff’s army attacks Macbeth and every man who passes through Birnam wood cuts a bough and under these ‘leafy screens’ marches to Dunsinane. Macduff, who was ripped prematurely from his mother’s womb and therefore technically not ‘born of a woman’, kills Macbeth and Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland.
Although I have just briefly outlined the whole story of the play, I will only be focussing on Act 3 scene 4 in this essay. In this scene, Macbeth is holding a banquet when one of the murderers arrives at the door and informs the new king that Fleance has escaped. When Macbeth returns to his guests, he sees the ghost of Banquo at the table. Although no one else perceives the ghost, Macbeth is visibly shaken by this vision. Lady Macbeth tries to cover up her husband’s abnormal behaviour by explaining to their guests that he is suffering from a periodic illness he has had since his youth, and that his fit will only be momentary. Soon after, Macbeth appears to recover, but then the ghost of Banquo appears to him again. The banquet ends abruptly and when the guests have left, Macbeth tells his wife that he will seek out the witches to learn about all the remaining threats against him.
A s I have mentioned previously, there is an absence of sub-plot in this play. This gives a sense of rapidity to the action and is further helped by the fact that there are only two main characters – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In the banqueting scene a diversity of these two characters’ roles is clearly displayed.
At the beginning of the scene, Macbeth is portrayed as a man who is in control of the events around him. He orders the Lords to sit down in their ranks, he mingles and socialises with his guests and he plays the ‘humble host’. However, unlike her husband, Lady Macbeth is aloof from the general party. Although by being near the guests and giving them orders, Macbeth is displayed as an authoritive figure, Lady Macbeth’s position of authority is emphasised by the fact that she is seated on the throne of state – a strong symbol of power – therefore she herself is depicted as part of that power and this shows the audience that she is an authoritive figure also. What Shakespeare has done here is he has given each character his/her own individuality and has highlighted this by showing a contrast between Macbeth’s behaviour and Lady Macbeth’s behaviour. Macbeth tries to cover up his unease and adapts a two-faced approach by being extremely friendly and also a bit condescending towards his guests. He says:
“Ourself will mingle with society / And play the humble host”
The words ‘mingling’ and ‘humble’ suggest that Macbeth has put on a kind of mask. He may be acting like a genuinely nice man on the outside, but on the inside, he isn’t because he has murdered three people and has planned to murder two more. As I have mentioned, he is also being condescending since he has ‘stepped off’ his high throne to walk among his subjects. Lady Macbeth acts differently to Macbeth in the sense that she keeps her state – she has set out to become Queen of Scotland and now that she has achieved her goal and is Queen, she is not going to behave like she is anyone less important.
However, although her two-facedness may not be as obvious as Macbeth’s, she too is being false by welcoming her guests warmly when what she feels inside is completely different. By portraying the characters’ false attitudes in slightly different ways, Shakespeare has given them each an individual personality. Even though they have been through the same crimes, and have experienced similar emotions, they both have separate ways of coping with the guilt and fear they both have, just like real humans are likely to have. By doing this, he successfully brings his characters to life in a way that his audience can understand and even relate to.
As the scene proceeds, Shakespeare introduces two characters who disrupt Macbeth’s emotional ‘cover-up’ – one of the murderers and Banquo’s ghost. When the murderer first enters, Macbeth doesn’t go over to him straight away. He says:
“See, they encounter thee with their hearts’ than Both sides are even: here I’ll sit i’the midst: Be large in mirth; anon, we’ll drink a measure
The table round. [He goes to the door] There’s blood
upon thy face.”
This single quote shows a big dramatic contrast. The entrance of the murderer is a reminder to the audience that this pleasant and magnanimous host isn’t genuine – he is a murderer. By contrasting Macbeth’s first words to the murderer against his last words to the guests, Shakespeare has highlighted Macbeth’s change of character.
Notice that when Macbeth is talking to the guests, he talks in long sentences, yet when he first talks to the murderer his sentences are short and to the point. By doing this, Shakespeare has emphasised Macbeth’s tension and also his eagerness to find out if the murderer has managed to kill Banquo. By having Macbeth saying ‘There’s blood on thy face’ straight after he tells the guests to enjoy themselves and to pass round the cup of wine, Shakespeare has really contrasted two different sides of Macbeth and has shown the audience just how quickly his personality can change by not having anyone speaking between ‘The table round’ and ‘There’s blood upon thy face’.
When Macbeth first speaks to the murderer, Shakespeare uses short sentences to play up the tension and anxiety that Macbeth is feeling. These short sentences also allow Macbeth to get straight to the point and to find out what he wants to know as quickly as he can, which is “Is he dispatch’d?” Once the murderer has told Macbeth what he wants to hear, that Banquo is dead, Macbeth’s tone completely changes. He begins to talk in longer sentences and the audience can see that he is full of praise for the murderer since he says ‘Thou art the best o’the cut-throats’
Although the murderer’s part in this scene is relatively small, Shakespeare seems to have used him to not only unsettle Macbeth but also I think to create a small amount of irony. Since the murderer is, quite obviously, a murderer, one might automatically assume that he has little or no respect for other people.
However, this murderer whom Shakespeare has created seems to have quite a lot of respect for Macbeth. Notice that he always addresses Macbeth as ‘Most royal sir,’ or ‘My good lord’. This is a quite ironic thing for the murderer to say (despite the fact that this would be how almost every person in the country would address him) because not only does it remind the audience that this man who has arranged Banquo’s murder is the King and also reminds them that this is the reason why he has murdered Banquo in the first place – in order to remain as King – but I think the irony comes when the murderer calls him “my good lord”, when the last word anyone is likely to use to describe a murderer is ‘good’.
As I have just mentioned, before Macbeth was certain that Banquo was dead, Shakespeare created his worry and tension by having him speaking in short, sharp sentences, causing him to sound anxious, demanding and a little angry also i.e. “There’s blood upon thy face”. However, when Macbeth starts to worry again, after he has heard that Fleance has escaped, his anxiety is no longer portrayed in the same way. Instead of simply having Macbeth adapting a tense and anxious tone again, Shakespeare has displayed his ability to portray anxiety in more than one way. When Macbeth is worried about Banquo, he seems to be tense and on edge, but when he is worried about Fleance having escaped, his tone is more of despair than of tension. Also, instead of speaking in short sentences, his speeches are longer and for the first time in this scene, Macbeth actually tells us how he is feeling i.e.
“Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect;
Whole as marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears. But Banquo’s safe?”
Here, we can tell that Macbeth is a very frightened man. When he says ” I had else been perfect; /Whole as marble, founded as the rock” he means that if he hadn’t heard that Fleance had escaped, he would have felt strong and free – free from the fear that his secret was unsafe. Now, however, he says that he feels the reverse, he is “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d”.
By using these words, Shakespeare not only conveys to his audience that Macbeth feels trapped, venerable and scared, but he also shows that he can use language techniques such as alliteration both effectively and appropriately. Notice the dominant “c” sound in “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d”. This is a rather harsh sound that would come from the back of the actor’s throat. The effect that this has is that Macbeth would actually sound like he was, in a sense, ‘choking’ on his fear and so this would emphasise his anxiety and lack of freedom that he is describing, thus making the character and his emotions seem even more real than they did before.
However, even though Macbeth is in complete despair over the escape of Fleance, he tries to focus on the positive by asking at the end, “But Banquo’s safe?”, even though he has been told the answer already. I think he does this not only to reassure himself that the person he wanted dead most of all is gone, but also to reassure himself that since Banquo is no longer a threat, he still has a chance of being King, despite the unsettling fact that Fleance is still alive. It is as if he needs that tiny bit of ‘good news’ to keep him from falling apart completely and also to keep his sense of ambition alive, an ambition that he wants to achieve whatever the cost.
Once Macbeth has been reassured that Banquo is definitely dead, he seems to compose himself and once again pretends that everything is fine in front of his guests, demonstrating his two-faced personality again i.e.
“Now good digestion wait on appetite,
And health on both!”
However, this act is short-lived. Very soon after the murderer has left the ghost of Banquo enters, much to the unawareness of Macbeth. Shakespeare shows his talent as a great dramatist at this point in the scene since he adds an unexpected twist to the plot (the audience weren’t expecting Banquo’s ghost to turn up) which helps to keep the audience interested. He also adds dramatic irony because only a few seconds after the ghost discreetly enters the room, Macbeth says:
“Here had we now our country’s honour roof’d,
Were the grac’d person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mishance!”
Again, Macbeth is being extremely two-faced here by pretending to express his pity and disappointment that Banquo isn’t present, when what he actually feels is relief that he is no longer alive. His speech also reminds us of the reason why Banquo isn’t there – Macbeth murdered him. It is very ironic and somewhat humorous that the ghost enters just before Macbeth makes his speech because his insincere wish that Banquo should have been present is suddenly granted which is the complete opposite to what Macbeth really wanted.
I think by doing this, Shakespeare is actually mocking Macbeth and is trying to expose his insincerity to the other characters. By having an authoritive figure such as the King make a fool of himself in front of his important guests, Shakespeare is reminding us that Macbeth is not meant to be King – Banquo is. Also, by showing such an important person as the King displaying a weak and fearful temperament, he is successful in highlighting the fact that Macbeth is supposed to be a human being with ‘real’ emotions and by displaying these emotions so subtly (when Macbeth is being charming and two faced) and also so clearly (“Here comes my fit again”) the character of Macbeth is really brought to life.
Lady Macbeth, however, never seems to display any emotions of guilt, fear or regret in this scene, but still her character is brought to life. Instead of Lady Macbeth having ‘fits’ like Macbeth, she is portrayed as a rather unemotional woman in the sense that she remains calm and collected in front of her guests at all times. As I mentioned before though, she too is two faced as she clearly demonstrates after Macbeth starts having a public fit:
“Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
He will again be well. If you much note him,
You shall offend him and extend his passion:
Feed, and regard him not. [aside to Macbeth] Are
you a man?”
This single quotation says an awful lot about Lady Macbeth’s character. Unlike any other quotes that we have come across so far, this one actually shows the strong relationship between Lady Macbeth and her husband. Although Lady Macbeth is extremely annoyed with Macbeth for making such a scene, she still protects him by lying to the other guests about him having fits from his youth. Also, she doesn’t embarrass him publicly, but takes him aside to tell him off, which shows that although she is mad, she still loves her husband and doesn’t want him to make a fool of himself in front of the guests. As I mentioned, the quote also displays Lady Macbeth’s two-facedness since she is pleasant to her guests and then immediately after she drags Macbeth aside and her character changes from being pleasant to very unpleasant.
However, Lady Macbeth’s falseness isn’t really the main point I want to make about this quote. Notice how she immediately takes over Macbeth’s authority and puts herself in charge of the situation. This would have been a very unusual and rather unnatural thing for a woman to be doing in Shakespeare’s time. At the time that the play was written, women were seen to be inferior to men and would never have dreamed of ordering their husbands around. I think that maybe Shakespeare has used his characters to subtly question whether men are really stronger and more superior than women. I think he does this by showing how even the most superior man in the country i.e. the king needs his wife to put him in his place and so this shows that women actually have qualities that have been overlooked by society.
After Lady Macbeth has had harsh words with Macbeth, and the ghost disappears, Macbeth again puts on his act in front of the Lords by pretending that everything is fine. He makes a short excuse as to why he behaved so extraordinarily and then quickly changes the subject by offering everyone wine. Then, not learning from the consequences of his last speech he says:
“And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss;
Would he were here! to all, and him, we thirst,
And all to all.”
When Macbeth makes this speech he is probably confident that since the ghost has already appeared, he isn’t going to appear again. Yet Shakespeare introduces the ghost for the second time in the scene straight after Macbeth has made another insincere wish. I think that Shakespeare does this to imply that its not going to be easy for Macbeth to keep up this act and that he will always be reminded of what he did to Banquo. When Macbeth has his fit this time, Lady Macbeth does not drag him aside. Firstly, she explains to the guests that he has fits all the time and that it is nothing to be alarmed about. However, once the ghost has gone and Macbeth says,
“Why, so; being gone, / I am a man again. Pray you, sit still.”
she seems to lose her patience with her husband and instead of dragging him aside like last time, she actually tells him off in front of all the Lords:
“You have displac’d the mirth, broke the good
With most admir’d disorder.”
Yet again Lady Macbeth shows how differently she acts in public than she does when she is alone with Macbeth because although she is probably as angry as she was when she took Macbeth aside earlier, her tone is much calmer and controlled this time so that she looks authoritive and dignified in front of the Lords.
However, once Macbeth begins to question his wife’s calmness Lady Macbeth doesn’t reply but instead she tries to cover up the situation by telling the guests not to ask any questions and orders them to:
“Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.”
The theme of order and disorder were very important in Shakespeare’s time. The people thought that every thing and every person had a natural place, decided by God. In this scene, we have two images of order and disorder. Notice that at the start of the play the Lords sit down in order but at this point in the scene, Lady Macbeth sends them away in a great disorder. I think that Shakespeare has done this to not only show that what Macbeth has done has caused great chaos, but I think that maybe also to hint to the audience that Macbeth’s reign will plunge from being in order to being in disorder i.e. he is implying that his reign will sink in to chaos, just like the Banquet has.
As I have previously mentioned, this scene has some great dramatic moments that help to keep the audience interested throughout the play. One of the main ways in which Shakespeare makes the scene particularly interesting for them is that he allows them to see and understand things that the other characters are oblivious to. The first time he does this is when the murderer enters. Whilst Macbeth is talking to the murderer and is asking him if he has murdered Banquo, the other characters are happily passing around the cup of wine in a good spirit, completely unaware of the fact that just a few metres away from them, their King is praising someone for committing a murder.
By having the characters so near by and yet so unaware of what is going on, Shakespeare is able to make the audience feel as if they have been let in on a secret and that they are the only ones who really know what Macbeth is doing. Because of this, the audience are more likely to unconsciously put themselves in Macbeth’s shoes and so they probably become more involved in the plot and can relate to the frustration Macbeth must feel when none of the other characters understand his talk about the ghost i.e.
Lords: ” What, my good Lord?”
Macbeth: ” Thou canst not say I did it: never shake
Thy gory locks at me.”
Here, the characters in the play have no idea as to what Macbeth is talking about, but since Shakespeare has allowed the audience to both see the ghost and to understand what significance this ghost has to the plot, they can enjoy watching the other characters’ confusion whilst knowing exactly what Macbeth is saying.
The moment in which the ghost enters the scene for the first time is yet another demonstration of Shakespeare’s skills as a dramatist since he uses this to create dramatic irony. Notice that the ghost enters just before Macbeth makes his false speech about how he supposedly wishes that Banquo was present. The fact that the ghost appears at this particular moment causes this point in the play to be somewhat amusing to the audience. Not only is the entrance of the ghost likely to surprise them, since this in an unexpected twist to the plot, but, like I have just mentioned, it would also be rather amusing since the ghost not only hears Macbeth make his false wish but also sees his reaction when his ‘wish’ is granted. This causes the ghost to be portrayed as someone (or something) that is gloating at Macbeth and is enjoying his unease. The audience are likely to pick up on this and may even mock Macbeth, unconsciously siding with the ghost.
However, although the point in which the ghost enters for the first time is ironic, it is also ironic when the ghost enters for the second time. I think that this time the audience may be even more unsuspecting of the ghost’s arrival since because he has already been and gone once in the scene, the audience is unlikely to expect Shakespeare to reintroduce the character in the same scene. This is because the ghost provides such dramatic influence the first time and it is very rare to have two dramatic appearances by the same character in such a short period of time. Yet Shakespeare introduces the ghost again and, most importantly, he does this effectively. Again, the ghost arrives almost immediately after Macbeth makes another false wish and the effect is as dramatic and amusing as it was the first time.
However, because Lady Macbeth can’t see the ghost and doesn’t believe Macbeth, this second appearance of Banquo causes her to feel more exasperated with her husband than she did before. The fact that Banquo then disappears as quickly as he reappeared makes Macbeth look like a fool in front of everyone since he makes such a quick recovery from his fit, implying to the characters that his words aren’t true. The effect that this has on the audience is that they understand what Macbeth is saying, and they know that he isn’t making any of it up, but because the other characters don’t know this, the audience again is let in on the secret and so it is interesting for them to see the reactions, in ignorance, made by the other characters.
Although the entrance of the ghost is the most dramatic part of the scene, Shakespeare also displays his dramatic ability on the very last words of the scene:
“Come, we’ll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use:
We are yet but young in deed.”
Here, the words “we are yet but young in deed” gives the audience a sense of anticipation as to what ‘evil doings’ Macbeth is going to commit next. By having the characters exiting straight after saying these rather powerful words, it adds to the suspense felt by the audience since this statement is not explained in any way – Macbeth doesn’t tell us what he is going to do.
As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare has given each character an individual personality and so each character has different ways of coping with such a horrendous thing as murder. Lady Macbeth’s way of coping is not to think about the wrong they have done but just to think of the result these murders are likely to bring which is that Macbeth will be King and she will be Queen. Macbeth however seems to be haunted by what he has done and has fits as a result of this. Earlier on in the scene it seems to be that Macbeth is, for a short moment, actually regretting killing Banquo (i.e. he has a guilty conscience) since the presence of Banquo’s ghost disturbs him so much. However, once the Lords have gone Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that he would sacrifice everything in order to get what he wants. He says:
“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Strange things I have in head that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d”
This quote demonstrates Shakespeare’s great skills as a poet. When Macbeth talks about feeling like he is wading in a pool of blood, the blood is significant to the plot since when he murdered Duncan there was blood on his hands and earlier on in the scene, when Macbeth spoke to the murderer he said “There’s blood on thy face”.
Also, the blood is there as a result of the murders Macbeth has committed and by having Macbeth metaphorically wading in this blood, Shakespeare not only displays his ability to use language effectively and significantly, but also I think that because Macbeth says he is ‘wading’ in this bloody pool and then goes on to say that he plans to murder even more people, Shakespeare may be subtly implying that once more people are murdered the ‘pool’ will get deeper and that eventually Macbeth may even ‘drown’ in this ‘pool’ that he has helped to create.
When Macbeth talks about wading in a ‘pool of blood’ it is quite clear that his state of mind is not quite ‘normal’ and that he is feeling very disturbed about what he has done. However, the thing that disturbs him most of all is the appearance of Banquo’s ghost:
“What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear
The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or be alive again,”
Here, Macbeth is saying that if he had to fight a Russian bear, a rhinoceros or a tiger, he wouldn’t be scared, but since Banquo’s ghost cannot be killed with a sword, he is more nervous of him. Notice that Shakespeare puts an adjective before the bear, rhinoceros and tiger to emphasise their power and fear that they would inflict upon the average human. By doing this, Shakespeare makes the ‘animals’ out to be more fearful than one would have originally imagined them to be and then tells us that Macbeth would not be scared of them, but is terrified of Banquo’s ghost. It is after hearing or reading this that we begin to realise just how scared of Banquo Macbeth really is and it is Shakepeare’s use of language that portrays Macbeth’s fear so well.
In this next quote, Shakespeare again uses interesting language which shows off his poetic talent:
“There the grown serpent lies: the worm that’s fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for the present. Get thee gone; to-morrow
We’ll hear ourselves again.”
What Macbeth is metaphorically saying here is that at the moment, Fleance is a ‘worm’ but, in time, he will grow into a ‘poisonous snake’. Shakespeare uses metaphors here to compare Fleance to a snake and a worm. I think he does this because a worm is completely harmless, like Fleance is at the moment, but a serpent is a very poisonous snake that can be rather threatening under certain circumstances and since Fleance has escaped, he will eventually become a great threat to Macbeth as he is bound to find out that his father, Banquo, was murdered by him. Shakespeare also uses a metaphor when Macbeth says:
“No teeth for the present. Get thee gone; to-morrow / We’ll hear ourselves again.”
When he says “No teeth”, he obviously doesn’t mean that Fleance doesn’t have any teeth, but that since he doesn’t yet know Macbeth’s secret, he is not that much of a threat and so Macbeth says “No teeth” because if a snake didn’t have any teeth it would not be dangerous, but one with teeth would be. What Macbeth is simply doing is he’s instructing the murderer to find Fleance before he finds out his secret, yet Shakespeare turns this simple command into an effective display of his ability to use interesting and metaphorical language to create the mood he wants.
After studying this scene in Macbeth, I have found many examples of where Shakespeare openly displays his dramatic and poetic talent. However, I personally believe that the greatest evidence of Shakespeare’s extraordinary playwriting skills is the fact that the play Macbeth has survived the test of time. Although it was written just under four centuries ago, it is still an extremely popular and much loved play and for a writer to achieve something as great as this unanimously proves that Shakespeare was an extremely talented man indeed – perhaps the greatest writer of all time.
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