Previously in Macbeth: Witches wait to meet with Macbeth. Duncan, King of Scotland, facing rebellion and treachery, has his battle saved by the military exploits of Macbeth, on whom he will confer the land and titles of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor. The witches meet Macbeth and his brother-in-arms Banquo. They hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (his title before the battle), Thane of Cawdor (which he won in battle, only he doesn’t know it yet), and King hereafter; they also say Banquo is better off than Macbeth in a way–he will father kings but not be one himself. Macbeth begins to flirt with the idea of becoming king, but learns that Duncan has named his own son Malcolm as his successor. Lady Macbeth, hearing of the prophecy, begins to plan Duncan’s murder, fearing her husband is too kind to move forward on this himself. The king visits, Macbeth vacillates, Lady Macbeth manipulates, and the first act ends with murder on Macbeths’ minds.
Act Two, Scene One of Macbeth takes us to the battlements of Macbeth’s castle at Inverness, where Banquo and his son Fleance ponder the late night sky.
Banquo knows that it’s time for sleep but he fears “the curséd thoughts that nature // Gives way to in repose” (II.i.9-10). One wonders what those cursèd thoughts are. Macbeth enters, and this gives Banquo the opportunity to move on to happier thoughts: Duncan, now abed, was in “unusual pleasure” (II.i.14) and had given Lady Macbeth a diamond. Banquo then says, “I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters. // To you they have showed some truth” (II.i.21-22). Well, I guess we know what those cursed thoughts are now. Macbeth claims to not think of the witches, but says that at some point in the near future he does want to talk about it.
Banquo and Fleance leave to go to bed, and Macbeth is left alone. And it seems cursed thoughts come to him as well, as he hallucinates a dagger floating in the air, “a dagger of the mind, a false creation” (II.i.39). When he realizes that it leads him in “the way [he] was going” (II.i.43), he now sees it covered with “gouts of blood” (II.i.47). With his own dagger now drawn, he heads off to kill Duncan.
In Act Two, Scene Two, Lady Macbeth enters, “bold” (II.ii.1) and on “fire” (II.ii.2), having left the king’s guards passed out from drugged drinks. And yet, she is rattled, starting at owl shrieks and admitting, “Had [Duncan] not resembled // My father as he slept, I had done’t” (II.ii.12-13). Macbeth enters, no less rattled. He proclaims, “I have done the deed” (II.ii.14), but noises fright him as well. The sons sleeping in the second chamber had awoke, and when they “cried, ‘God bless us’ and ‘Amen’” (II.ii.29), Macbeth could not say “Amen” himself. Lady Macbeth is unable to allay his fears, especially since he also remembers hearing “a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! // Macbeth does murder sleep’” (II.ii.38-39). When she tells him to clean up, she notices he still has the bloody daggers. She cannot convince him to take the weapons back to the scene of the crime, so she takes care of the weapons. A knocking at the gate begins: another noise to fright Macbeth, who wonders if any amount of water can wash Duncan’s blood from his hand:
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
When Lady Macbeth returns, showing blood on her hands as well, she berates his fear and tells him to wash up and get his bed clothes on so that he can answer the knocking at the gate, a knocking Macbeth wishes could wake the now dead Duncan.
Act Two, Scene Three brings us the comic porter who, as he makes his way to answer the knocking at the gate, expounds on devils and equivocations (something I’ll be touching on in greater detail in the coming months). At the gate are Macduff and Lennox, who were supposed to call on the king early in the morning. Macbeth arrives to greet them and leads Macduff to the door of Duncan’s chamber. When Macduff exits to wake the king, Lennox tells Macbeth of the “unruly” (II.iii.52) night, filled with visions like those seen in Rome the night before the assassination in Julius Caesar.
Macduff returns shocked, delivering the news we already know. As he wakes up the rest of the house, Lennox and Macbeth go to investigate. Soon everyone is back, including Lady Macbeth, Banquo and the king’s two sons, along with Lennox and Macbeth. When Malcolm asks who murdered his father, Lennox says that it seems his guards did it, and Macbeth says, “O, yet I do repent of my fury // That I did kill them” (II.iii.104-05).
Say what? And that’s not just me, but Macduff asking, too.
Macbeth says that he was so enraged seeing the guards covered in Duncan’s blood that “the expedition of [Macbeth’s] violent love // Outr[a]n the pauser, reason” (II.iii.108-09). To divert attention, Lady Macbeth cries for help and seemingly faints. Macbeth calls for everyone to dress and meet in the hall to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, Malcolm and Donalbain realize that if their father was killed then they may be in danger, too; and they decide to flee, Malcolm to England, Donalbain to Ireland.
The fourth and final scene of Act Two takes us outside the castle at Inverness, as Ross and an old man discuss recent events. The old man has been around 70 years (“threescore and ten” [II.iv.1]), but he can’t remember a night as strange as this last one. Day is dark, and even Duncan’s horses have “broke their stalls” (II.iv.16) and ate each other.
The horses ate each other. Let that one sink in…
And with that bizarre bit of news, Macduff enters, with more headlines: “Malcolm and Donalbain, the king’s two sons, // Are stol’n away and fled, which puts upon them // Suspicion of the deed” (II.iv.25-7). Ross says that in light of this, it seems like Macbeth might be next in line, but Macduff tells him that Macbeth has been “already named” (II.iv.31) king, and that Macbeth heads to the town of Scone to be crowned. Macduff refuses to follow, opting instead to head back to his home at Fife.
Thus, Macbeth‘s second act ends with a dead king, a new king, and a suspicious and fracturing kingdom.