Philip Weller caricature
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 3, Scene 1

Page Index:
Enter Banquo:
At the opening of a short soliloquy, Banquo speaks to Macbeth -- even though Macbeth isn't there -- saying, "Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all, / As the weird women promised, and, I fear, / Thou play'dst most foully for't" (3.1.1-3) Then he reminds the absent Macbeth that the witches also predicted that he, not Macbeth, would be the father of the future kings of Scotland. He asks Macbeth why he shouldn't think that the witches will be "my oracles as well, / And set me up in hope?" (3.1.10). Because Banquo speaks to Macbeth, the speech has a personal tone, as though Banquo is asking his old friend if he hasn't been pretty stupid.

Enter Macbeth, as king, Lady Macbeth, as queen, Lennox, Ross, Lords, Ladies, and Attendants:
Now we hear a "sennet" (a flourish of trumpets) and see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in royal robes. The robes probably look very much like the robes in which we last saw King Duncan, and we may be shocked to see the murderers wearing the clothes of the man they killed.

The new King and Queen are accompanied by Lennox, Ross, and other important people. Macbeth proceeds to put on a show for those people. He wants them all to see what a good friend he is to Banquo. He addresses Banquo as "our chief guest" (3.1.11), and requests his presence at an evening feast. Banquo answers that Macbeth, as King, can command him and it will be his duty to obey. This may sound a bit sarcastic, but Banquo is probably just being very cautious. If Macbeth is thinking that Banquo suspects him of killing King Duncan, it's in Banquo's best interest to remind Macbeth that he is King Macbeth's loyal subject.

Macbeth now asks some questions that are supposed to look like friendly chat, but which have a darker purpose. He wants to know if it's true that Banquo is going for a ride, and how long he will be gone, and if Fleance (Banquo's son) will ride with him. He finds out that all of that is true, and that -- the better for Macbeth's murderous purpose -- Banquo will be riding in the dark for an hour or two. Macbeth also mentions that "our bloody cousins [Malcolm and Donalbain] are bestow'd / In England and in Ireland, not confessing / Their cruel parricide" (3.1.29-31). But, he says, discussion of that matter can wait until tomorrow. Thus he shows Banquo, and whoever else is listening, that he's not afraid of what King Duncan's sons might be saying about him. He ends by giving Banquo a gracious farewell.

As soon as Banquo is gone, Macbeth announces that everyone can do as they like until the feast, at seven that night. As for himself, he will spend the time alone. This is his kingly way of getting rid of everyone except a certain servant with whom he has some particular business. It's interesting that one of those whom he thus dismisses from his company is his wife, who doesn't seem to be running his life anymore.

Exeunt all but Macbeth, and a Servant:
After sending the Servant to get two men who are waiting outside the palace gate, Macbeth has a soliloquy in which he reveals that being king isn't enough; he needs to feel safe in the position, and he has reasons to fear Banquo: "To be thus is nothing; / But to be safely thus.--Our fears in Banquo / Stick deep" (3.1.47-49). He doesn't mention what we might think is the obvious reason for fearing Banquo -- that Banquo heard the witches' prophecy and could suspect Macbeth of murder. He seems to fear Banquo on general grounds, because Banquo has "royalty of nature" (3.1.49), and courage, and wisdom. Macbeth says of Banquo, "under him, / My Genius is rebuked" (3.1.54-55). A man's "Genius" is his guardian spirit, but Macbeth isn't being particularly mystic here. He feels that Banquo is naturally superior to him, and just being near Banquo makes Macbeth feel ashamed of himself. For example, he recalls, Banquo defied the witches and challenged them to speak to him. (In contrast, we should remember, the witches' prophecy put Macbeth into a kind of trance, a reverie of ambition and murder.)

It's not only Banquo's character that makes Macbeth afraid. There's also the witches' prophecy, which Macbeth resents, because "If 't be so, / For Banquo's issue [descendants] have I filed [defiled, dirtied] my mind; / For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd" (3.1.63-65). He is determined not to let it happen: "Rather than so, come fate into the list, / And champion me to the utterance!" (3.1.70-71). This is Macbeth's challenge to fate. "Come fate" means "let fate come." A "list" is an arena in which knights joust against one another. "Champion me" means to fight as a champion against him. And "the utterance" has the now-obsolete meaning of "the very end." In short, Macbeth is challenging fate to a fight to the bitter end. He appears to know that he is up against long odds, and he imagines himself as a knight, going bravely into battle against fate itself.

Re-enter Servant, with two Murderers:
At the end of Macbeth's soliloquy, his Servant brings in "two Murderers." Macbeth immediately sends the Servant to wait outside the door, indicating that the conversation is going to be very private. And, it turns out, the "two Murderers" are not professional hit men. They're just two guys who have had tough lives. Before this, Macbeth has been busy telling them that Banquo is the source of all of their problems. Now he wants to know if they have come around to his way of thinking, and he asks, "Well then, now / Have you consider'd of [thought about] my speeches?" (3.1.74-75).

The two men don't say anything, or maybe Macbeth doesn't give them a chance, because he presses on. He points out that he has not only told them that Banquo was their enemy, he has proved it, and his proofs would "To half a soul and to a notion crazed / Say 'Thus did Banquo'" (3.1.82-83). In other words, anyone who didn't believe Macbeth would have less than half a soul and a mind worse than crazed.

After all this, the only response is a noncommittal "You made it known to us" (3.1.83). This is not nearly good enough for Macbeth. They need to be as angry at Banquo as he is. He pictures them as overly religious wimps, asking sarcastically, "Are you so gospell'd / To pray for this good man and for his issue, / Whose heavy hand hath bow'd you to the grave / And beggar'd yours [your families] for ever? (3.1.87-90). To this, Macbeth gets another noncommittal response: "We are men, my liege" (3.1.90).

Failing to get the response he wants by other means, Macbeth challenges their manhood, as Lady Macbeth challenged his manhood to get him to kill Duncan. (See the Summary of Act 1, Scene 7.) Yes, says Macbeth, they are men, in the way all kinds of dogs are dogs. But most dogs are good for something; for example, a hound hunts, and a greyhound races. If a dog is good for nothing in particular, he's just a dog. The same with men. Real men "have a station in the file" -- a place in the list of men who are worth something. So, says Macbeth, now is the time for them to prove that they are real men: "Now, if you have a station in the file, / Not i' the worst rank of manhood, say 't" (3.1.101-102). If they "say't," if they can show that they are worth something, he will give them a job that will allow them to get rid of their enemy, and which will be a favor to Macbeth, who is sick of Banquo.

How much of this pitch do the two men buy? It's hard to tell, because they don't respond directly to what Macbeth says. They don't say that they hate Banquo, too, or that they are now ready to be real men and get their revenge on Banquo. Instead, they whine. Second Murderer describes himself as one "Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world / Have so incensed that I am reckless what / I do to spite the world" (3.1.108-110). First Murderer feels the same way and describes himself as "So weary with disasters, tugg'd with fortune, / That I would set my life on any chance, / To mend it, or be rid on't" (3.1.111-113). Both men feel that life hasn't been fair to them, and they're desperate. Second Murderer is willing to do anything to get back at ("spite") the world. First Murderer will also do anything, and he doesn't much care whether it makes his life better or ends it.

Maybe these two men haven't been listening very closely to Macbeth's arguments, but they are the right men for Macbeth's purposes. They're losers who feel they have nothing left to lose. Like Macbeth, who is willing to take his chances against the witches' prophecy, these men will take their chances against a world which has treated them badly.

Having gotten this much from the two men, Macbeth gets down to business. He says that Banquo is dangerous to him, and that therefore he has a right to kill him, but that he also needs the friendship of Banquo's friends. All of which means that the two men are going to be doing the right thing, but they have to keep it a secret. They start to assure him that they are the men for the job, but he hurries on to the practical matters. Within an hour he will tell them just where and when to lie in ambush for Banquo. It has to be away from the palace, so that no one will suspect him. Also, they have to kill Fleance, Banquo's young son. He doesn't say why they have to kill Fleance, just that it's important to him that they do so.

Finally, after Macbeth has told the two men that he has already planned all the details of Banquo's murder, he tells them that they can still talk it over, and decide if they really want to do it. But of course, they're already committed to the plan, so Macbeth sends them away to await further instructions. Once they're gone, Macbeth ends the scene by saying, "Banquo, thy soul's flight, / If it find heaven, must find it out to-night (3.1.140-141). Thus, as the scene opened with Banquo speaking to the image of Macbeth that was in his mind, the scene closes with Macbeth speaking to Banquo in the same way.