Macbeth Act Five: down goes Mackers, down goes Mackers!

Previously in Macbeth: Witches, war, heroism, prophecies, and thoughts of murder consume the first act. A floating imaginary dagger, regicide, the death of sleep, flight of the sons, the second act. Suspicions, murder, ghosts and another flight, the third. In Act Four, Macbeth visits the witches and receives warnings but what he thinks are reassuring prophecies. Macbeth’s murderers visit the Macduff castle and kill the absent lord’s wife and children. In England, Macduff convinces Malcolm to return to Scotland and fight for the throne (in what is The. Weirdest. Job Interview. Ever.), before learning that his family has been killed.

We enter the fifth and final act of Macbeth primed for war.

Act Five, Scene One takes us to Macbeth’s castle, where a Doctor of Physic questions a Waiting Gentlewoman about the behavior the latter has seen in Lady Macbeth. She has told him she has witnessed the queen sleepwalking. When the Doctor asks what (if anything) Lady Macbeth says in these incidents, the Gentlewoman refuses to report what she has heard “neither to [the Doctor] nor anyone, having no witness to confirm [her] speech” (V.i.17-8). What Lady Macbeth has said must be so horrible that the Gentlewoman thinks that no one would believe her.

And we find out why. Lady Macbeth enters, and the famed sleepwalking/”Out, damned spot!” scene is on. The Doctor provides a little dialogue-embedded stage direction, describing how Lady Macbeth is “washing her hands” (V.i.29). Lady Macbeth then says the infamous “Out, damned spot!” (V.i.35), and while it’s obvious she isn’t sending out the dog, it’s fairly innocuous. What follows isn’t: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” (V.i.38-40), and then “The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” (V.i.42-3). It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon (yeah, yeah, I know) to figure out she’s talking about the dead king Duncan and the late Lady Macduff.

The Doctor and Gentlewoman are shocked but not above feeling pity for the queen (“The heart is sorely charged” [V.i.53]). Lady Macbeth continues, dropping another sleeping bombshell, “I tell you yet again, Banquo’s dead and buried. He cannot come out on’s grave” (V.i.62-3). When she leaves, the Doctor orders the Gentlewoman to “look after” (V.i.69) Lady Macbeth, and to remove anything she might use to hurt herself (“the means of all annoyance” [V.i.75]).

The short Act Five, Scene Two takes us to the countryside where three Scottish thanes discuss the upcoming war, listing the leaders and armies who are moving against Macbeth, letting us know Donalbain will not be returning to Scotland for the battle to come, and that they will join the other forces near “Birnam Wood” (V.ii.5).

And if that’s sounds familiar, it’s because it was the third of the warning/prophecies the witches gave to Macbeth in Act Four. And if it doesn’t ring a bell, Macbeth rings it himself with his first speech of Act Five, Scene Three: “Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane, // I cannot taint with fear” (V.iii.2-3). He also dismisses Malcolm with “Was he not born of woman?” (V.ii.4); that was the second one. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t mention the first prophecy: to beware Macduff. (My Lit Crit class would have a field day with that omission in a psychoanalytic reading of the speech.)

Word arrives of “ten thousand” (V.iii.13) soldiers marching against the king. He berates the messenger on his lack of courage. He’s not above feeling something, however: “age” (V.iii.26). But there’s no time for talk of that. He asks the Doctor about his wife, and the exchange that follows is prescient to our modern psychology:

Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
  • V.iii.39-47

That sounds a lot like modern therapy (and pharmaceuticals). But they didn’t exist then, and when the Doctor tells Macbeth that in such cases the person has to cure himself, Macbeth responds, “Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it” (V.iii.49). As he arms himself, he moves from what he thought physic could do–help his wife–to what he must know it can’t–cleansing all of Scotland. He may be feeling old, he may be worried about his wife, but he still doesn’t see death in his future “Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane” (V.iii.62).

The fourth scene of the act takes us to that very forest, where Malcolm tells his army,

Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear ’t before him. Thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host and make discovery
Err in report of us.
  • V.iv.4-7

It’s a brilliant military tactic. And we know where this is going. With the Scottish and English forces as they march toward Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane.

Act Five, Scene Five takes us back inside the castle, where Macbeth is confident. Even if he cannot beat their army, his castle can “laugh a siege to scorn” (V.v.3). There is the cry of women, and Macbeth talks about how earlier in his life he would been afraid of such noises (personally, I’m remembering his freak-out at the knocking back in Act Two). Nothing bothers him now. But then he learns what the cry was about: Lady Macbeth is dead.

Macbeth ponders life, living, and its meaning(lessness). But even that is interrupted by a messenger who “know[s] not how to” (V.v.32) report what he’s seen: “Birnam … wood began to move” (V.v.34, 35). Macbeth threatens to hang the messenger if he’s wrong, but says he doesn’t care if the messenger does the same to him if the report is true. Recounting the witches’ warning, he abandons thought of a prolonged siege, and calls for taking the battle to the opposing forces: “At least we’ll die with harness on our back” (V.v.52). This is NOT a brilliant military tactic.

In the incredibly short Act Five, Scene Six, those opposing forces arrive at Dunsinane, and throw down their “leafy screens” ( The trumpets sound and the battle is on.

The seventh scene takes us to the battle already in progress. Macbeth enters, feeling “bearlike” (V.vii.2), but not in a good I’m-strong kind of way, but in the I’m-tied-to-a-stake-in-a-bear-baiting-pit kind of way. The son of Siward (Lord of Northumberland) enters, they fight, and Macbeth slays Young Siward. “Thou wast born of woman” (V.vii.11), Macbeth says before leaving the stage. One Mac leaves, another Mac enters. Macduff is looking for revenge, hoping not to find a dead Macbeth, fearing “if [Macbeth] beest slain…{Macduff’s] wife and children’s ghosts will haunt [him] still” (V.vii.15, 16). He exits and Malcolm and Siward enter. We learn that the castle has surrendered, and some of Macbeth’s forces have switched sides.

The eighth and final scene of the act (and thus the last of the play) is still on the battlefield and we get the showdown we’ve been waiting for: a little Mac-on-Mac violence. They fight and Macbeth tells Macduff that the thane cannot win: “Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests. // I bear a charmed life, which must not yield // To one of woman born” (V.viii.11-13). Macduff informs the king that he “was from his mother’s womb // Untimely ripped” (V.viii.15-6). Never has the news of a Cesarean birth had a greater impact.

Macbeth at first refuses to fight Macduff, but when Macduff calls him a “coward” (V.viii.23), Macbeth decides to fight rather than kneel before Malcolm. Fight they do, and Macbeth is slain. Macduff drags off Macbeth’s body. Malcolm, Ross, Siward, and assorted thanes re-enter. Siward learns of his son’s death, and instead of feeling sorrow, he feels only pride. Macduff re-enters, too, now with only part of Macbeth–his head. They all hail Malcolm, the new king of Scotland.

End of play.

Now, my wife and I are digging the soundtrack to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Hamilton. One of the recurring themes of that play is “You have no control // Who lives // Who dies // Who tells your story…

Macduff, Malcolm, and Fleance live.

Lord and Lady Macbeth are dead, and are reduced “this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen” (V.viii.69).

Who tells your story indeed…

[by the way, the title of today’s entry is a tribute to the GOAT who passed last weekend…]

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