Macbeth is one of Shakespeare great tragedies, full of murder and madness. The play is set in Scotland and follows the downfall of army general and hero; Macbeth. After meeting three witches who prophecies his rise to the throne, Macbeth and his wife plot the murder of King Duncan. After successfully becoming King, Macbeth and his wife slowly descend into madness and their initial action has unfolding consequences of more death and tragedy, before order is finally restored.
What has just happened?
In the moment before this monologue Macbeth and Banquo discuss their fate and the prophecies told to them by the witches. It is late at night and Macbeth is on his way to kill Duncan. He runs into Banquo and the two talk about the how pleased the King is with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s hospitality. In a foreshadowing remark, Macbeth ask if Banquo will continue this conversation another time. And should Banquo follow Macbeth, it will bring much honour. To which Banquo replies he will, as long as his allegiance is clear. This exchange sets up the division of their moral code. The two say good night and right after Banquo has left, Macbeth sees a dagger before him.
Let’s break this monologue down into smaller parts-
Space = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest.
I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.
There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.
Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
[a bell rings] I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
Is that a dagger I see in front of me,
the handle pointing at me hand? Come, let me grasp you.
You’re not in my hand and yet I can still see you.
Deadly vision, am I not able
to feel you as well as see you?
Or are you only a dagger in my mind, an illusion,
created from my hot and feverish brain?
I can still see you, as real as this dagger I draw now.
You directed me to where I was going;
And are the same as the weapon I was to use.
My eyes are either being fooled over my other senses
Or else they’re the only ones working.
I can still see you,
And on your blade and handle are drops of blood,
Which were not there before.
This isn’t real:
It is the gruesome business of murder that makes
Me see you. Now half of the world
Is asleep, and nightmares destroy
Witches make sacrifices
to the goddess Hecate, and haggard Murder,
Woken by the howls of his protector, the wolf
Move without a sound, and with the
Hungry strides of the rapist Tarquin, towards the act
Like a ghost.
You solid and firm-set earth,
Do not hear my steps and where they’re going, for I fear
The stones will echo and tell of my whereabouts,
And ruin the silence which suits the murder I
Am about to commit. While I talk, he lives:
And talking cools my nerve to do the deed.
[a bell rings] I’m going, and it is as good as done; the bell bids me.
Do not listen, Duncan; for it is a sound
That calls you to heaven or to hell.
Unfamiliar words & Phrases
Fatal vision: Deadly vision.
Form as palpable: Shape as real.
Marshall’st: Lead, directed.
O’th’: Over the.
Bloody Business: The murder.
Hecate: Greek Goddess, known for witchcraft and magic.
Withered Murder: Here, murder is personified as a withered man, with a wolf as a guard dog.
Tarquin: A Roman Prince, who snuck into the room of Lucretia and raped her.
Prate: Talk idly.
Knell: The sound of a bell.
This is one of the most famous speeches of the play and for good reason. It is the final moment before the murder of Duncan and Shakespeare’s use of language techniques allows for the tension to build climactically.
Note the quick changes to the thought patterns, the use of commas and full stops that indicate Macbeth’s mind is racing and the ideas moving quickly and feverishly. One question the actor must ask themselves is; is Macbeth crazy? This is the first of a few hallucinations he will have and you decide how he reacts to the vision. Is he scared of it? Is he intrigued by it?
Macbeth is a wonderful example of how Shakespeare used language and images to set the genre. The use of clipped words, open vowels, the images of witches and wolves, help create an eerie, nightmarish tone. So, it’s important to lean into these elements as you perform this speech. And do not to forget the circumstances of the moment; it’s the dead of night, silence looms and murder is imminent.