Soliloquies in Macbeth: An Analysis
The soliloquies in Macbeth are not only of utmost importance because of its apparent lyrical quality, but they interweave the narrative beautifully and reveal the dilemma and motivation of the characters.
Soliloquies in Act I
Scene iii – Macbeth’s first soliloquy after meeting the witches
“This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill; cannot be good…..And nothing is, but what is not.”
This soliloquy comes at a critical point in the play. The witches have prophesied that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and eventually the King. Following the prophecy, Ross and Angus come with the news that Macbeth has been made the new Thane of Cawdor for his martial prowess in suppressing the revolt that the former Thane had initiated. Such brisk fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy fills Macbeth’s mind with apprehensions and expectations.
The conflict that will tear Macbeth apart in subsequent scenes reveals itself as he fails to comprehend the nature of the prophecies as they cannot be profitless because they have shown him a glimpse of greatness. On the other hand, the realization of the prophecies will lead him through an unnatural series of events which perturbs Macbeth. That the conception of the murder was on Macbeth’s mind even before the witches appeared is clear from his musings. The supposition of the things to come is disturbing the whole microcosm of Macbeth’s body.
Scene v – Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy on reading Macbeth’s letter
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be…..To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’”
Lady Macbeth learns about the witches’ prophecies from Macbeth’s letter. In this soliloquy, Lady Macbeth reveals to the audience her perception about her husband, and in turn, shows her character. She believes that her husband has high ambitions but lacks the menace to achieve it. She brands Macbeth’s moral compunctions as weakness and assumes the responsibility of leading him to the throne by her aggressive rhetoric, which she believes destiny has secured for Macbeth. Lady Macbeth invokes the evil spirits to stifle all her feminine qualities and replace her milk with poison so that no feeble pangs of age-old morality can thwart her objective. Almost in a trance, she calls upon the dark forces to envelop the world in darkness so that neither can she see her deadly knife nor can Heaven’s instruments dampen her resolve.
Scene vii – Macbeth reflects on the impending murder
“If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well…And falls on th’other-”
Duncan has come to pay a royal visit in Inverness. Macbeth, influenced by the Lady Macbeth’s chastisement has finally decided to take up the knife to realize the third prophecy of the witches of being the “king thereafter.” Yet, this soliloquy reveals that Macbeth has not been able to harden himself completely. He wishes that the deed is done fast and is afraid of the consequences of his evil act. A point to note here is that Macbeth fully comprehends the sin that he is about to commit and the judgement that he may have to face not only on earth but in the afterlife as ordained by the even-handed Justice.
Shakespeare shows the efficacy of his art as through Macbeth’s lines he underlines the grave act of betrayal that Macbeth has planned as he is both a soldier and a subject of Duncan. Moreover, Duncan has been so benevolent in the discharge of his royal duties that the macrocosm will revolt against Macbeth with Pity, in the image of a new-born baby, and Cherubins of Heaven, exclaiming about the evil deed to all beings. In almost a desperate confession, Macbeth compares himself to an overambitious horse rider who in an attempt to jump upon the saddle will overleap and fall on the other side of the horse.
The premonitions are two-fold here: one, the impending murder of Duncan, two, the disintegration of Macbeth’s self.
Soliloquies in Act II
Scene i – Hallucinations that Macbeth faces before killing Duncan
“Is this a dagger, which I see before me…..That summons thee to Heaven or Hell.”
This much famous soliloquy filed with literary devices, popularly known as the dagger speech, indicates to the audience the range of Macbeth’s imagination that will be the cause of his mental torment throughout the play. Ridden in guilt, Macbeth’s imagination conjures up an impalpable image of a bloody dagger which directs him to Duncan’s sleeping chamber. The disintegration of his body and mind has started as he thinks his eyes are deceiving other senses.
Taking recourse to his sense of sin, Macbeth creates a sense of foreboding with images like dead Nature and Hecate’s rituals which vivify his state of mind. Murder is personified as a stealthy man walking with his wolf towards his desired victim. Macbeth compares Murder to Tarquin who secretly entered Lucrece’s chamber to rape her. He entreats the Earth to ignore his footsteps as he fears that the very ground on which he is walking will speak about his intentions. As he hears the bell, Macbeth proceeds to murder Duncan, but in a trance created by his innate dilemma and unnatural ambition.
Soliloquies in Act III
Scene i – Macbeth ponders on Banquo’s murder
“To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:……And champion me to th’utterance!
Macbeth has changed from the conflicted man of Act I and II to a shrewd criminal by this act. He has planned Banquo’s murder and this soliloquy underlines the reason why Macbeth fears him. The courage of Banquo, his firmness and wisdom make him a threat as Mark Antony was to Caesar. Macbeth remembers how the witches prophesied that Banquo would be the father of a line of kings. Macbeth, therefore, wonders that did he bear the brunt of evil on his shoulders to see Banquo’s sons succeeding the throne and not his lineage. Macbeth will not let Banquo’s sons rule, hence, as the soliloquy ends he appoints assassins to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance.
In the context of the play, this soliloquy is vital as it marks the point of Macbeth’s complete moral downfall.
Soliloquies in Act iv
Scene i – Macbeth plans the murder of Macduff’s family
“Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits…..But no more sights!”
Lenox brings the news that Macduff has left for England. Macbeth repents that he missed the chance to murder him because of his procrastination. Macbeth resolves from that moment that he will execute an idea as soon as it occurs to him. Macbeth plans to send his troops to Macduff’s castle in Fife to kill his wife and son so that he can eliminate any threat from Macduff’s successors.
From this point on, the tides will start to turn as Macbeth in his insecurity realizes that his days on the throne are numbered. Macbeth has reached the nadir of cruelty, and only death awaits him.
Soliloquies in Act V
Scene v – Macbeth’s final soliloquy on the futility of life
“Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow…….Signifying nothing.”
Here we see Macbeth as a man who has reached philosophical transcendence above mundane trivialities and mortality. As he learns about Lady Macbeth’s death, he feels it would have been better to mourn her death at a later date-tomorrow. It leads him to a reflection of the futility of human life and how all of our past leads to the termination of the present, thus, leading to death. This soliloquy creates sympathy in the audience for Macbeth. In one of the best soliloquies of literature, Macbeth compares life to an actor who engages in elaborate histrionics on the stage of life, but then never returns. He compares life to a story narrated by an idiot, who deceitfully portrays it as vital but which is actually meaningless.
A titanic play like Macbeth would never have been so effective on stage without the magnificent soliloquies. Through them, Shakespeare highlights his mastery over the art of dialogue under the facade of a random chronicle play to entertain the Elizabethans.