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 5, Scene 3:

Enter Macbeth, Doctor, and Attendants:
In the previous scene we heard of Macbeth's desperation; in this scene we see it.

As the scene opens, Macbeth is saying, "Bring me no more reports; let them fly all" (5.3.1). We don't see just who has been bringing him reports, but we can understand why he doesn't like what he's been hearing. As king, Macbeth would have few soldiers of his own. To make up an army he would call upon his thanes to bring their soldiers to the support of Scotland, but none of his thanes are answering his call. They are either avoiding him or -- as we have seen from the previous scene -- joining the forces which are marching against him.

In a blustery speech, Macbeth tells everyone (and himself) that he has nothing to fear. Only when Birnam wood comes to the royal castle, Dunsinane, will he have the least reason to be afraid. As for Malcolm, he's a boy who was born of woman. Believing himself protected by the witches' prophecies, Macbeth declares, "The mind I sway by [rule myself by] and the heart I bear / Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear" (5.3.9-10).

Despite this declaration of his courage, we can see his desperation. When a servant enters with news about the English force, Macbeth shows his courage the way a bully does -- by picking on someone weaker. Even before the servant has a chance to speak, Macbeth shouts, "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! / Where got'st thou that goose look?" (5.3.11-12). The servant is only a boy, and he is pale with fear, which enrages Macbeth. Macbeth calls him names and mocks him, then says something revealing: "Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine / Are counsellors to fear" (5.3.16-17). A counsellor is someone who gives advice, so "counsellors to fear" would tell someone to be afraid. Macbeth feels that the boy's pale cheeks are telling him that he, too, should be afraid, and if he fears nothing else, Macbeth does fear fear itself. (For more examples of this characteristic, see the Macbeth Navigator page on Macbeth's Fear of Fear.)

As soon as the servant is able to deliver the news that an English army of ten thousand is approaching, Macbeth sends him away and calls for Seyton. Seyton is apparently a kind of butler, or perhaps an officer in Macbeth's non-existent army. In any case, it takes a while for him to appear. In the meantime, Macbeth has a moment of truth with himself. He reflects that "This push / Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now" (5.3.20-21). "Disseat" means "dethrone"; some editors substitute "disease" for "disseat," but that doesn't change the essential meaning. The "push" is the approaching battle, and Macbeth thinks that if he wins, he will be safe forever, but if he loses, he will no longer be king.

Having acknowledged the possibility that he could lose, Macbeth tries to find a way to accept defeat. In a famous passage, Macbeth tells himself that his life is not worth living:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.   (5.3.22-28)
From this we can see that Macbeth knows that it's not just his throne that is at stake, but his life. He also knows that he is utterly alone; he rules only by fear, which means that all those he rules hate him.

This moment of truth, however, soon passes. Seyton appears, and Macbeth asks him for news, but the only news is what has already been reported. Macbeth avows that he will "fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd" (5.3.32), and calls for his armor. Seyton tells him that there's no need for the armor just yet, but Macbeth insists. While Seyton is getting the armor, Macbeth asks the doctor about his patient, Lady Macbeth. The doctor tells him that she is "Not so sick, my lord, / As she is troubled with thick coming fancies" (5.3.37-38). Macbeth then asks the doctor if he can "minister to a mind diseased" (5.3.40), but the doctor replies, "Therein the patient / Must minister to himself" (5.3.45-46).

At this, Macbeth's anger grows hotter. "Throw physic [medicine] to the dogs; I'll none of it" (5.3.47), he says, and starts to put on his armor. Then he sarcastically asks the doctor if there are any medicines that will cure Scotland of its disease and cast out the English. "Hear'st thou of them?" (5.3.56), he demands. Cautiously, the doctor answers, "Ay, my good lord; your royal preparation / Makes us hear something" (5.3.57-58). The doctor means that Macbeth's preparations for battle are the medicine for Scotland, although -- as we will see in a moment -- he doesn't really believe it.

Now Macbeth has no more time for talk. He doesn't have all of his armor on, but he tells Seyton to send the rest of it after him, and rushes out, saying "I will not be afraid of death and bane, / Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane" (5.3.59-60). This is no comfort to the doctor, who ends the scene by saying, "Were I from Dunsinane away and clear, / Profit again should hardly draw me here" (5.3.61-62).

Despite Macbeth's bravado, he's facing a hopeless battle in which no one, not even the lowly doctor, will be at his side.