Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 1

Page Index:
Enter Banquo and Fleance:
The scene opens with some casual conversation which tells us that it's very dark, and that something bad is about to happen.

Banquo and his son Fleance are in the courtyard of Macbeth's castle, and Fleance is carrying a torch. Banquo asks Fleance, "How goes the night, boy? (2.1.1). He's not asking Fleance how he's doing; he's asking how late it is. Fleance hasn't heard a clock strike, but the moon is down, so it must be past midnight. Banquo then hands his sword to Fleance, who is apparently serving as his father's squire. Banquo also gives Fleance something else, perhaps the belt and sheath for the sword. It appears that Banquo is getting ready to go to bed, and he remarks that "There's husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out" (2.1.5). "Husbandry" is thriftiness; Banquo means that heaven has gone to bed, and has put out its "candles" (the stars) for the night.

The moon is down, the night is starless, and there are no street lights in Macbeth's castle. In short, it's darker than any dark most of us have ever seen. And within this dark is fear. Banquo is dead tired and feels as heavy as lead, but he's fighting sleep because he's afraid of his own thoughts or dreams. He asks the powers above to "Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose!" (2.1.8-9), but we don't know exactly what "thoughts" he's afraid of. A little later he says that he has dreamed of the weird sisters, so maybe he's been thinking about their prophecies. Perhaps he fears that Macbeth is planning murder. Or he might fear his own thoughts about how he might become the father of kings. Or maybe he's just been having uncanny thoughts, such as seem to creep up on us in a very dark night, when every bush can be a bear.

Whatever fear it is that's keeping Banquo awake, it's also made him edgy. When he sees another torch, he takes his sword from Fleance and calls out "Who's there?" (2.1.10). Logically, he should have nothing to fear within the locked gates of Macbeth's castle, but he still feels the need to have his sword ready, just in case.

Enter Macbeth and a Servant:
When Banquo recognizes Macbeth in the dark night, he wonders why Macbeth is still up, and then tells him how pleased the King is with Macbeth's hospitality. The King has sent gifts to the cooks and other servants, and Banquo has a diamond which is a gift from the King to Lady Macbeth, to thank her for being a "most kind hostess" (2.1.16). Macbeth, with apparent modesty, replies that he and his wife were unprepared for the King's visit, so they weren't able to entertain him as they would have wished to.

Banquo reassures Macbeth that he has been an excellent host to the King, then brings up the subject of the witches. He says that he dreamed of the weird sisters the night before, and tells Macbeth that "To you they have show'd some truth." Macbeth replies, "I think not of them" (2.1.21), which is a lie. True, we haven't heard him mention the witches, but he's been thinking of nothing except how to make their prophecies come true.

After this lie, Macbeth adds, with seeming casualness, that sometime he'd like to talk with Banquo about the witches. Banquo replies that he's willing, anytime. Then Macbeth almost gives himself away by saying, "If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis, / It shall make honour for you" (2.1.25-26). "Cleave to my consent" means "give me your support"; "when 'tis" means "when the time comes"; and "honour," as it is used here, seems to mean the sort of honor which Macbeth himself received when the King gave him the title of Thane of Cawdor. In short, it looks like Macbeth is offering Banquo a bribe for Banquo's support regarding something having to do with the witches, who said that Macbeth would be king.

Despite Macbeth's vagueness about the purpose of the support he might need from Banquo, Banquo senses that something could be very wrong, and replies, "So I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchised and allegiance clear, / I shall be counsell'd" (2.1.26-29). Both the "none" and the "it" refer back to "honor," so Banquo is saying "So long as I don't lose my honor (my personal integrity) in trying to gain honor (rewards), and so long as I can act with a clear conscience, I'll listen to your advice." This is very nearly an insult to Macbeth. Banquo has very clearly implied that Macbeth could have something dishonorable in mind. Understandably, Macbeth has no more to say to Banquo, and bids him goodnight.

Exeunt Banquo and Fleance:
After Banquo and Fleance leave him, Macbeth sends his servant to tell Lady Macbeth to ring a bell when Macbeth's drink is ready. The servant is supposed to think that the drink is some sort of toddy that one would have just before going to bed. Actually, there is no drink, and the bell is Lady Macbeth's signal that the coast is clear for Macbeth to go and murder the King.

Alone now, Macbeth is so obsessed by thoughts of the murder that he starts to hallucinate. He says, "Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? (2.1.33-34), and reaches for it. Of course he can't grasp it, and he realizes that he's seeing the dagger that he plans to use in the murder, a dagger which beckons him toward King Duncan's door, and a dagger upon which appear thick drops of blood. He understands that "It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes" (2.1.48-49), but he is not horrified. Rather, he wants to be as deadly as that dagger.

The darkness of the dark night suits Macbeth's purpose and mood. In the dark terrible dreams come, and witchcraft celebrates its rites, and Murder itself stalks the night. In Macbeth's words:
                     . . . 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.    (2.1.52-60)
In his imagination, Macbeth sees Murder as a withered man who is "alarumed," called to action, by his sentinel, the wolf. Normally, a sentinel would keep an eye out for danger and call out a warning, but Murder's sentinel keeps an eye out for the opportunity to kill, and his howl is his "watch," his announcement that another victim has been found for Murder.

At this point, where Macbeth describes Murder as moving "thus with his stealthy pace," it's important to notice the "thus." It doesn't make sense unless Macbeth himself is now pacing like Murder itself, like the murderous rapist Tarquin, "like a ghost." He asks the earth to be deaf to his steps, not to "prate [chatter] of my whereabout," because the present silence of the night suits the horror of what he's about to do. Thus we see in Macbeth a man who wants to be a silent and deadly figure of horror. If he were alive today, Macbeth would be comparing himself to the Night Stalker, or the Hillside Strangler, or Charles Manson.

But Macbeth hasn't done the murder yet; he hasn't even gone to the King's door yet, and he tells himself that "Whiles I threat, he lives: / Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives" (2.1.60-61). In other words, while he's saying all these threatening things, King Duncan still lives, and his words haven't yet inspired him to actually do the deed. Then the bell rings, and Macbeth answers the call, finally moving from horrifying words to a horrible deed only when his wife's bell tells him it's time.