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 2

Page Index:
Enter Lady Macbeth and a Servant:
As the scene opens, Lady Macbeth appears with a servant. She asks if Banquo has gone, and the servant says he has, but will return that night. She then sends the servant to ask her husband to come and speak with her. Something is weighing on her mind, and when the servant has gone, she gives it voice: Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire is got without content: / 'Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy" (3.2.4-7). Because they rhyme, her lines sound a bit like proverbial folk wisdom such as "a stitch in time saves nine." The first rhyme expresses a common experience, which is that if we get what we want, but aren't happy with it, we really don't have it. The second rhyme deepens the thought by saying that it would be better to be dead than to feel what Lady Macbeth is now feeling. She and her husband destroyed King Duncan, who is now safe from all the world's problems. In contrast, the lady and her husband live in "doubtful joy." In Shakespeare's time the word "doubt" was commonly used to mean "suspicion" or "fear," and Macbeth and his wife live in fear that their guilt will be discovered, and suspicion that the witches' prophecy about Banquo will come true.

Enter Macbeth:
Despite her own depression, Lady Macbeth tries to make her husband cheer up. She asks him why he has been keeping to himself, and why he has been keeping company with his "sorriest fancies" (3.2.9). A "fancy" is a daydream or fantasy; a "sorry" fancy is one that is depressing or frightening. We have already seen one of Macbeth's sorry fancies: his vision of a bloody dagger just before he murdered King Duncan. But recently Macbeth has been seeing visions of the men he killed, the King and his grooms. Lady Macbeth tells her husband that such thoughts "should indeed have died / With them they think on," because it's no use thinking about things that you can't do anything about: "Things without all remedy / Should be without regard: what's done is done" (3.2.10-12)

Macbeth replies, "We have scorch'd [slashed] the snake, not kill'd it: / She'll close [heal] and be herself" (3.2.13-14). In other words, there is still a job to be done, a snake to be killed, not just wounded. But what is that snake? It's not only the threat posed by Banquo. In Macbeth's mind, the snake seems to be everything that is against Macbeth. Whatever it is, he is determined to fight it, no matter what the cost, to "let the frame of things disjoint [fall apart], both the worlds [heaven and earth] suffer" (3.2.16), rather than continue to "sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly" (3.2.17-19).

Macbeth goes on to say what Lady Macbeth has already said to herself: that it would be better to be dead than to live like this. And like Lady Macbeth, Macbeth expresses envy of Duncan, because "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well" (3.2.23). But Lady Macbeth thinks that the only thing to do is to carry on. She asks her husband to "sleek o'er your rugged looks; / Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night" (3.2.27-28).

Macbeth's reply is bitter. He promises to do as she says, and advises her to do the same. Banquo is a great danger to them, so they must "make our faces vizards [masks] to our hearts, / Disguising what they are" (3.2.34-35). It's clear that he hates the idea that they have to flatter Banquo.

Lady Macbeth continues to try to calm her husband. She tells him that he must stop thinking that way, and when he reminds her that Banquo and Fleance are alive, she answers that they won't live forever. He says that there's comfort in that thought. If they are mortal, they can be attacked. Therefore she should be happy because before night falls, "there shall be done / A deed of dreadful note" (3.2.43-44).

Lady Macbeth asks what's going to be done, but her husband answers, "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed" (3.2.46). "Chuck" is a pet name, a variant of "chick." So it seems that now Macbeth has the upper hand in their relationship. He's telling her that she doesn't need to worry herself about anything until it comes time to be his cheerleader.

After this, Macbeth speaks to the approaching night:
                   Come, seeling [blinding] night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day;
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
[Banquo's lease on life]
Which keeps me pale! Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.     (3.2.46-53)
Thus Macbeth summons the pitiless powers of darkness to his aid. "Night's black agents" come alive in his mind, and they are going to bring down the curtain on Banquo's life. Then Macbeth realizes that he has gone off into his own world, and he says to his wife, "Thou marvell'st at my words: but hold thee still; / Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill" (3.2.54-55). Even if she doesn't understand precisely what he's talking about, she will, and then she'll see what her husband can really do. The thing he's doing was "bad begun" with the killing of Duncan, but by doing another "ill," he's going to make it stronger. His evil is torturing him, and he's going to fix it by doing more evil. Like a gangster, he seeks safety and respect in being bad and then badder.