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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7

Page Index:
Enter Macbeth:
The scene opens with the same "hoboys and torches" that announced the King's arrival in the previous scene, then we see a "Sewer" (a butler) and some assistants carrying dishes for the feast that Macbeth is giving for the King. But Macbeth himself has ducked out to think things over. Apparently it's difficult for him to play host to a man he's about to kill.

Macbeth says to himself, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly (1.7.1-2). That is, if everything could be over with as soon as Duncan is killed, then it would be best for Macbeth to kill him quickly. If only, Macbeth thinks, the assassination could be "the be-all and the end-all--here / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come" (1.7.5-7). Where Macbeth says "but here," we would say "just here" or "only here." In other words, Macbeth knows that he can get away with murder only here on earth. In the afterlife he will certainly be punished. He also knows that the afterlife is very long; it's like a boundless ocean, and our life is only a "bank or shoal" on the edge of that ocean. Nevertheless, if one murder could be the last murder, he would take his chances with the afterlife.

The problem is, it's not very likely to be "done when 'tis done," and Macbeth knows this, too. He knows that--as we say--what goes around comes around, that acts of violence are "Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor" (1.7.9-10). Of course, Macbeth has good reason to be afraid. In a warrior society such as his, there would be plenty of kith and kin eager to avenge the murder of any man, even if he weren't a king.

To put it bluntly, Macbeth is about to chicken out because he thinks that he's likely to get caught. Only at this point does he start thinking of other reasons that he shouldn't kill his king. As the King's subject, as his kinsman, as his host, Macbeth is supposed to protect his king, not kill him. Besides, Duncan has done nothing wrong. He is a good king, and he is "meek," not arrogant, so when he is killed, pity itself "Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, / That tears shall drown the wind" (1.7.24-25). This outpouring of pity for King Duncan will make things even more dangerous for Macbeth. On the other hand, his only motivation is his "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself / And falls on the other" (1.7.27-28). This image suggests his inner emptiness. He is obsessed with the idea of doing the deed and becoming king. After that, he hasn't a clue.

Enter Lady Macbeth:
Just as Macbeth is thinking about the senselessness of the murder he's planning, his wife comes looking for him. She very forcibly points out that the King has almost finished his supper, and Macbeth should be there, pretending to be the happy host.

Macbeth then attempts to put an end to his problem by saying that "We will proceed no further in this business" (1.7.29). He explains that he wants to enjoy the honors that the King has just bestowed upon him. In saying this, he may sound firm and reasonable, but it turns out that he doesn't have a chance against his wife's passionate scorn.

She accuses him of being the kind of person who can dream of wearing kingly robes only when he's drunk. She asks sarcastically, "Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since?" (1.7.35-36). This is harsh enough, but it gets worse. She tells him that if he's going to go back on his word, he doesn't really love her, and he's a coward, no better than the "poor cat i' the adage" (1.7.45), who wants a fish, but doesn't want to get its feet wet.

Macbeth tries to defend himself by saying, "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none" (1.7.46-47). He's right about what a real man will and won't do. A real man will dare risk his life to protect his King, but a man who dares to murder his King is not a true man. This perfectly reasonable statement only makes his wife more scornful. She tells him that "When you durst do it, then you were a man" (1.7.49).
[A note: When was that "when"? Lady Macbeth refers to a previous time when Macbeth did not have the opportunity to kill the King, but was thinking about ways to create such an opportunity. But there is no previous scene which matches her description. It's possible that Shakespeare wrote such a scene, but it was lost.]
Now, Lady Macbeth declares, the perfect opportunity to kill the King has presented itself, and Macbeth is backing out, making him less than a man. Then, after ridiculing Macbeth's manhood, Lady Macbeth declares that she's more man than he is:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.   (1.7.54-59)
After this, it's really all over. Lady Macbeth wins. Macbeth asks what happens if they fail, and his wife pooh-poohs the very idea. She will get King Duncan's two attendants drunk, so they won't be able to protect him, and then they'll take the blame for the King's death. Macbeth replies with admiration, "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males" (1.7.72-74).
[A note on their children: They have no children, but Lady Macbeth has nursed a child. This does not mean that they are in late middle age, as they are often portrayed in movies. In Shakespeare's time the child mortality rate was very high, so that it was quite common for a young woman to have given birth, and nursed an infant, without having any living children.]
Macbeth improves a bit on his wife's plan by saying that they'll use the daggers of Duncan's attendants, and then smear his blood on the attendants. Lady Macbeth assures him that nobody will dare raise any questions because he and she will "make our griefs and clamour roar / Upon his death" (1.7.78-79). With that, Macbeth's courage is up again. As they leave he is promising to be a good hypocrite, saying "False face must hide what the false heart doth know" (1.7.82).