Previously in Macbeth: Witches, war, heroism, prophecies, and thoughts of murder consume the first act. In Act Two, Banquo is troubled by thoughts of the weird sisters, but Macbeth doesn’t want to talk about it. Macbeth hallucinates a floating dagger and it seems to lead him where he was already going, to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth, despite being rattled herself by the similarity in appearance between Duncan and her own father, tries to comfort a clearly upset, post-homicidal Macbeth. When Macduff and Lennox come to wake Duncan, the king’s corpse is discovered. Macbeth kills Duncan’s guards, citing his rage over seeing them sleeping and covered in the king’s blood. Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing for their own safety, flee Scotland, which both puts suspicion on them, and clears the way for Macbeth to assume the throne.
Act Three, Scene One of Macbeth opens on Banquo soliloquizing over the situation,
“Thou hast it now — king, Cawdor, Glamis, all, // As the weird women promised; and I fear // Thou play’dst most foully for’t” (III.i.1-3). So the suspicion is there. However, Banquo also ponders, “May they not be my oracles as well?” (III.i.9), and he won’t have to play foully for it. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth enter, now king and queen, attended by a number of lords. Macbeth greets Banquo as “our chief guest” (III.i.11), and–as so was Duncan in Act Two–this can’t be comforting to either Banquo or the audience.
Lady Macbeth talks of the “great feast” (III.i. 12) coming that night, and Macbeth requests Banquo’s attendance. Banquo, of course, accepts, then Macbeth asks if Banquo is going out riding that afternoon. Hearing the affirmative, Macbeth puts on his Captain Exposition cap and delivers news that the king’s sons are now in hiding in England and Ireland, and “filling their hearers // With strange invention” (III.i.31). The implication is that more than Banquo are now suspicious. Adding fuel to the suspicious fire is Macbeth’s follow-up question: “Goes Fleance with you?” (III.i.35). If your Spidey-Senses are a-tingling, you probably also have a pulse. Macbeth excuses all, but then calls for “those men” (III.i.44).
As Macbeth waits for them, he soliloquizes on Banquo, and his “fear” (III.i.55) of his brother-in-arms. He grouses that if the prophecy is true, then “for [Banquo’s heirs] the gracious Duncan ha[s Macbeth] murdered” (III.i.66). The men arrive, and the character listing says it all: “two Murderers” (III.i.72 stage direction). As they talk, it becomes clear that while the two had blamed Macbeth for their being “so under fortune” (III.i.78), the king has been able to convince them that it was all Banquo’s fault. Macbeth goads them on in much the same fashion as Lady Macbeth did to him in Act One: belittling their “patience” (III.i.87) and questioning their “manhood” (III.i.103). And it works: they agree to kill both Banquo and Fleance.
Act Three, Scene Two finds Lady Macbeth questioning the worth of all they’ve done:
Naught’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy
If Macbeth was too full of the milk of human kindness before the killing of Duncan, and Lady Macbeth the driving force, then now he is pushing forward to more violence and she is the voice of doubt. When Macbeth enters, she tries to help him move past what has happened, as “what’s done is done” (III.ii.13). Macbeth feels they are still in danger and that maybe it would
better [to] be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy.
He hints that to quell the “scorpions” (III.ii.37) in his mind, Banquo and Fleance are “assailable” (III.ii.40). When she asks what he means, he only responds, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, // Till thou applaud the deed” (III.ii.46-7). I’m not sure if he’s trying to protect her or impress her, but regardless he’s now no longer sharing his thoughts with her, as he had earlier in the play.
The third scene of the act takes us to the Murderers, now numbering three under Macbeth’s “mistrust” (III.iii.2). That mistrust may be well-founded, as–while they are successful in killing Banquo–Fleance flees.
Act Three, Scene Four takes us to the banquet that evening. As his guests, the attending lords, sit down, Macbeth meets with the Murderers, even trying to joke with them (“Thou art the best o’ th’ cutthroats” [III.iv.17]), until he learns that Fleance has escaped. He sends them away, and Lady Macbeth pulls the now disturbed king back to the party. While they discuss the missing Banquo, his bloody ghost appears.
And Macbeth loses his ever-lovin’ mind, berating the ghost, which–of course–no one else can see. Ross attempts to get the rest of the lords to leave, but Lady Macbeth says to pay the king no mind as he “is often thus, // And hath been from his youth” (III.iv.54-5). It’ll pass, she says. In the meantime, she goes to him and returns to her old line of attack: “Are you a man?” (III.iv.59). She goes on to say this apparition is like his earlier one, of “the air-drawn dagger” (III.iv.63) from before the king’s murder. His response borders on the comic (or at least like the description of the next season of The Walking Dead): “The time has been // That, when the brains were out, the man would die, // And there an end. But now they rise again” (III.iv.79-81).
The ghost exits, and Macbeth tries to pull it together, playing it off to his guests, only to have the ghost re-enter. Macbeth loses it again, and this time Lady Macbeth sends them off. The ghost exits again, and Macbeth can only say, “Blood will have blood. // Stones have been known to move and tries to speak” (III.iv.123-24). [quasi-foreshadowing there, ladies and gentlemen: trees will move, I tell ya]
Macbeth complains that “Macduff denies his person // At [their] great bidding” (III.iv.129-30), noting he knows this because of spies he has in the homes of his enemies. Macbeth decides he’s going to visit the witches and find from them what is going to happen. Lady Macbeth can only say that this is all because he “lack[s] the season of all natures, sleep” (III.iv.142). Not surprising, given Macbeth had heard someone (something?) cry out after the murder of Duncan, that Macbeth does murder sleep.
The fifth scene of the act is a weird one: the witches’ coven and their leader Hecate, berating them for “trad[ing] and traffic[king] with Macbeth” (III.v.4) without bringing her in on the fun.
The sixth and final scene of the third act opens on one of the lords, Lennox, expounding on the suspicions that opened the act (plus one):
- The death of Duncan, blamed on the sons.
- The death now of Banquo, sarcastically blamed on the son as well: “Fleance killed, // For Fleance fled” (III.vi.6-7).
He tells another lord that he hears that “Macduff lives in disgrace” (III.vi.22).
The second lord, we’ll call him Lord Exposition (as he has no other name), tells Lennox and us that Malcolm is “in the English court, and is received // Of the most pious Edward” (III.vi.26-7) the Confessor. Macduff has headed to England to convince Malcolm to retake Scotland with the help of “Northumberland and warlike Siward” (III.vi.31), English lords whose lands border on Scotland. The news of this mission, the lord continues, has reached the ears of the king and “he // Prepares for some attempt at war” (III.vi.38-9). These two lords pray for Macduff’s success so “that a swift blessing // May soon return to this our suffering country” (III.vi.48-9).
And thus the third act of Macbeth ends, with a crazed king and heading down the tracks to impending war.