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 4

Page Index:
Enter Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Ross, Lennox, Lords, and Attendants:
The first stage direction, "A banquet prepared " (3.4.1, s.d.), is important. To prepare a banquet, servants would bring in tables, stools, dishes, cutlery, cups, food, and drink. This hustle and bustle makes it seem like a good time is going to be had by all. Macbeth certainly seems in the mood. He welcomes everyone at once, saying, "You know your own degrees; sit down. At first / And last the hearty welcome" (3.4.1-2). The "degrees" of the guests are their social ranks. Normally, each guest would receive an individual greeting and then be escorted to his seat, with the highest ranking person sitting closest to the king, and the next highest the next closest, etc. Macbeth tells them that they know where they should sit, and welcomes everyone at once. He will "play the humble host" (3.4.4), showing how friendly and down-to-earth he is, even though he is now the king.

First Murderer appears at the door:
Just as Macbeth is taking his place among all of his loving subjects, he sees First Murderer come to the door with blood on his face. Not wanting anyone else to see the bloody man, Macbeth jumps up and hurries to the door. As he goes, he tells his guests that in a minute "we'll drink a measure / The table round" (3.4.11-12).

Macbeth whispers with the murderer at the door. (Of course we can hear what they say, but Macbeth's guests can't.) First Murderer says that the blood on his face is Banquo's. In reply, Macbeth makes a cruel joke, saying that it's better for the blood to be on the outside of the murderer than on the inside of Banquo: "'Tis better thee without than he within" (3.4.14). Then tells the murderer that he will be the best cut-throat in the world if he can report that Fleance is dead, too. But the murderer honestly reports that Fleance has escaped. "Then comes my fit again" (3.4.20) Macbeth complains, as though he feels a migraine coming on. He says that if Fleance were dead he would feel free and easy; instead, he is "cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears" (3.4.23-24).

Despite his disappointment that Fleance escaped with his life, there's nothing more to be done in this matter, so Macbeth tells First Murderer to leave. Just at this moment Lady Macbeth comes with some advice for her husband. She is afraid that Macbeth's behavior — standing at the door and apparently saying nothing — will make the guests feel unwelcome. She tells him, "The feast is sold / That is not often vouch'd, while 'tis a-making, / 'Tis given with welcome" (3.4.32-34). She means that a host makes his guests feel welcome by often inviting them to eat and drink freely. If a feast is not thus "vouch'd," it's no better than a meal that is "sold" at an inn. She goes on to say that if a person just wants to eat, the best place to do that is at home. Away from home, the most important thing for a guest is to be treated like a guest.

Enter the Ghost of Banquo and sits in Macbeth's place.
Taking his wife's advice to heart, Macbeth returns to his guests, wishing them good digestion, good appetite, and good health. As he is doing so, the last stool is take by an uninvited guest — the Ghost of Banquo.

Macbeth is so busy playing the good host that he doesn't notice the ghost. No one else sees the ghost, either, because it's invisible to everyone except Macbeth. Ironically, Macbeth now chooses to comment about Banquo's absence from the banquet. He says, "Here had we now our country's honour roof'd, / Were the graced person of our Banquo present / Who may I rather challenge for unkindness / Than pity for mischance!" (3.4.39-42). If you "roof" an honor, you put the top on it. Macbeth is literally praising Banquo to the skies, but he also takes care to mention that he's sure that Banquo is absent because of Banquo's own "unkindness," not because of any "mischance" that could have happened to him. Ross agrees that Banquo should have kept his promise to come to the banquet, then invites Macbeth to sit among them. This is exactly the sort of thing that Macbeth wants; he hopes to be seen by the thanes as not only their king, but their friend. He starts towards the table, then sees that there's no empty stool. He can't find a place for himself and says, "The table's full" (3.4.45).

It takes Macbeth a moment before he sees why the table is full. When Lennox points to the empty place, Macbeth asks where it is, looks harder, and sees the bloody figure of Banquo's Ghost. At first Macbeth thinks it might be some sort of ghastly joke, and asks, "Which of you have done this?" (3.4.48), but no one knows what he's talking about. Then Macbeth speaks to the ghost, saying "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me" (3.4.50). The ghost's "locks" of hair are "gory" because — as First Murderer told Macbeth — Banquo died with twenty gashes on his head

At this point Ross thinks it best if they all just go away and leave Macbeth alone, but Lady Macbeth covers for her husband. She asks everyone to stay seated, and explains that Macbeth is often like this, and has been ever since he was young. He'll recover in a moment, she says, but if they stare at him, it will only make him worse, so they should just eat and pretend that nothing has happened.

The guests do as they are told, and Lady Macbeth takes her husband aside. As she did early in the play, Lady Macbeth challenges her husband's manhood. The first thing out of her mouth is the insulting question, "Are you a man?" (3.4.57). Macbeth answers that he's not only a man, he's a bold man who can look at things that might frighten the devil. His wife is not impressed. She exclaims sarcastically, "O proper stuff!" Then she tells him that "This is the very painting of your fear: / This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said, / Led you to Duncan" (3.4.59-62). She also tells him that he's making ridiculous faces, so that he reminds her of a woman telling a scary story that she heard from her grandmother. His fear is shameful because, "When all's done, / You look but on a stool" (3.4.66-67).

Of course, where Lady Macbeth sees a stool, Macbeth sees the Ghost of Banquo. He tells her to "see" for herself, to "behold," to "look." As Macbeth speaks, the ghost nods at him, and he challenges the ghost to speak up: "Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too" (3.4.69). Of course, the ghost does not speak, but Macbeth does, saying "If charnel-houses and our graves must send / Those that we bury back, our monuments / Shall be the maws of kites" (3.4.70-72). "Monuments," like "charnel-houses" and "graves," are the places where the dead belong. "Kites" are hawks, and their "maws" are their entire eating apparatuses — beaks, gullets, and stomachs. An ancient fear was that a person who was not properly buried would have his bones picked clean by birds. Macbeth thinks that the dead ought to stay where they belong; if the graves are going to send the bodies back, the kites, with their maws full of human flesh, are going to be the only real graves. In short, Macbeth is describing the horror that he himself has created. He wanted Banquo killed away from the castle, in the dark, out of sight. That was done, but the body was left in a ditch, and now it has come back to show Macbeth the truth of what he has done.

As Macbeth is saying this, the Ghost of Banquo exits. (We don't know if the Ghost is supposed to suddenly vanish, or just walk out. Shakespeare doesn't provide a stage direction.) Lady Macbeth continues her tongue-lashing, but Macbeth is sure he saw what he saw. He even tries to explain that it's not his fault that the Ghost showed up. He says that men have been killing men for a long time, since before there were even laws against it: "Blood hath been shed ere now, i' the olden time, / Ere human statute purged the gentle weal" (3.4.74-75). It's a natural thing to shed blood; what's not natural is that now the dead "rise again, / With twenty mortal murders on their crowns, / And push us from our stools" (3.4.81).

Having said this, Macbeth seems to calm down. At the same time, his wife changes her tune. Instead of telling him again that he's not a real man, she points out that his guests need him to come back to the banquet. Hearing this, he returns to his guests, telling them that they shouldn't wonder at what they've just seen. (They've haven't seen the Ghost, only Macbeth making faces and talking to the stool.) Not to worry, Macbeth says. He happens to have a "strange infirmity, which is nothing / To those that know me" (3.4.85-86). Now he returns to his role as genial host. He calls for wine and proposes a toast to "the general joy o' the whole table, / And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss" (3.4.88-89). But as Macbeth reaches this height of hypocrisy, the Ghost returns.

This time Macbeth shows he's a real man. This time his wife won't be able to accuse him of being a fearful girl. As soon as the Ghost appears, Macbeth tries to drive it away with words: "Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee! / Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; / Thou hast no speculation in those eyes" (3.4.92-95). "Speculation" is the ability to see. Macbeth is making sure that the Ghost knows that it belongs in the grave because it is very, very dead. Lady Macbeth tries to tell the guests that her husband does this all the time. It doesn't mean anything; it just spoils the banquet.

But Macbeth doesn't care about the guests or the banquet. He is determined to face down the Ghost. He tells it that he dares to do anything a man can do. He would not tremble if the Ghost should take the shape of a terrible beast. "Or be alive again, / And dare me to the desert with thy sword; / If trembling I inhabit then, protest me / The baby of a girl" (3.4.102-105). A "desert" doesn't have to have sand in it; it's just any deserted place where they could be alone and fight man to man. "Protest" means "proclaim," and "if trembling I inhabit" means "if I live inside a trembling body." Macbeth is daring the Ghost to come alive and fight. If it does, and Macbeth shows fear, then it can tell the world that Macbeth is a little doll-baby.

Finally, Macbeth's defiance works. Again he tells the Ghost to go away, and it goes. Using the word "so" as we do when we say "so much for that," Macbeth expresses his satisfaction and asks his guests to stay seated: "Why, so: being gone, / I am a man again. Pray you, sit still" (3.4.106-107). But it's too late. His wife tells him that he has "displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting, / With most admired disorder" (3.4.108-109). "Admired" does not mean "admirable," but "amazing" or "obvious." She means that after all they have seen, his guests are not going to be in any mood to go on with the banquet.

Macbeth tries to justify himself. He asks his wife (and perhaps his guests) "Can such things be, / And overcome us like a summer's cloud, / Without our special wonder?" (3.4.109-111). "Overcome" means "come over," and a "summer's cloud" is something that can come over us very quickly. The phrase "special wonder" is meant to be stronger than it looks now. If Shakespeare saw us staring up into the blinding lights of a spaceship that was about to vaporize us, he might say that we were in a state of "special wonder." As for the word "us," Macbeth is entitled to use it because he is king, but it seems that he also means that anyone — all of us — would react as he did. He goes on to say that he's starting to question himself because "you can behold such sights, / And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks, / When mine is blanched with fear" (3.4.113-115).

Macbeth thinks that the others have seen the Ghost, too. They have not, but when Ross asks Macbeth what he's seen, that's one question too many for Lady Macbeth. She doesn't know what her husband thought he was seeing, but whatever it was, she doesn't want him talking about it. She quickly gets rid of the guests, telling them that if they question Macbeth, it will only make him worse.

Exeunt all but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth:
As Lady Macbeth says a hasty goodbye to the guests, Macbeth seems not to notice or care about anything except his own thoughts. He mutters to himself that "they say, blood will have blood" (3.4.121). The saying means that the blood of a murder victim will seek out the blood of his killer, and so a murder will always be discovered. Macbeth knows that stones have moved, trees have spoken, birds have told secrets. All of these things have "brought forth / The secret'st man of blood" (3.4.124-125).

Macbeth himself is a secret man of blood, and the bloody Ghost confronted him. His guilt was almost "brought forth" in front of his guests. None of this makes him feel remorse, or anything but a determination to see things through to the bitter end. He immediately starts thinking of what must be done next, and asks his wife what she thinks of the fact that Macduff has refused to come to their banquet. She asks if he has sent for Macduff, to get an explanation. He answers that he will send for him, and besides, "There's not a one of them but in his house / I keep a servant fee'd" (3.4130-131). A "servant fee'd" is a spy, and "them" almost certainly refers to his banquet guests and all the other noblemen who are supposed to be his loyal subjects. He trusts no one.

In addition to dealing with Macduff, Macbeth will speak again with the witches:
More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.   (3.4.133-139)
He knows that the witches are "the worst means," and he expects they will tell him "the worst" that can happen to him, but he's going to speak to them anyway, because his "own good" is the only thing he cares about. He is in the middle of a river of blood, and he might as well go over to the other side. That means that he will have to do "strange" (and bloody) things right away, before he has "scanned" them. This implies that if he did scan them, look at them, think about them, he might not do them. All in all, he doesn't seem to have much hope of happiness from doing the evil he feels he must do.

Now, at the very end of the scene, Lady Macbeth seems to be in a gentler mood. She tells her husband that he needs to sleep. He replies, "Come, we'll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use: / We are yet but young in deed" (3.4.141-143). Without changing his mind about what he's going to do, he's trying to put the best face on things. His "strange and self-abuse" is his reaction to the Ghost of Banquo, but now he sees that it was only the result of beginner's nerves, "initiate fear." That fear can be cured by "hard use," by doing more, by wading more deeply into the river of blood.

[There's an unconscious irony in Macbeth's final statement. He has killed King Duncan, his grooms, and Banquo, so he is hardly "young in deed," but he believes that more such deeds will solve his problems.]