Macbeth has achieved his earlier ambition to become king, and fulfilled the witches’ prophecies, and yet he has been brooding and melancholy since the murder of Duncan. A banquet at the palace has been arranged for the Lords to celebrate his crowning, an occasion that will hopefully show what a powerful and successful leader Macbeth will be, and cement loyalties between him and his thanes. However, Macbeth is awaiting not just his guests, but also the news of Banquo and Fleance’s deaths.
The night starts in a very formal and proper way, with Macbeth greeting his guests according to their ‘degrees’ – their social importance – and himself planning to play the host and mingle amongst them, with Lady Macbeth remaining seated on her throne until later. These traditional and ceremonial touches give no hint at the night’s other occurrences and will be predictable and familiar to all present. The feast starts well, with dignity and order, and a cup of wine offered round, which symbolises unity and friendship in many cultures. The Macbeths seem to be enjoying their regal status in the accepted way, with a promising future reign ahead of them.
Lady Macbeth welcomes the guests on cue, and Macbeth instructs the guests to enjoy themselves, before leaving to speak to the murderer who has appeared at the door. This is a huge risk for Macbeth, for to be seen talking to the assassin would certainly raise suspicions. He is obviously much more anxious about the murder than he has let on, and this may explain his curt greeting of “There’s blood upon thy face” though courtesy to a hired murderer is unlikely to be a priority for a king. Macbeth praises the murderer, however, when Banquo’s death is confirmed. Banquo was the only person apart from Macbeth who knew of the witches’ predictions, and was a liability – Banquo suspected Macbeth had played foully for his kinghood, and his death removes one chance of discovery. Macbeth is reassured of his safety and his praise is effusive “Thou art the best o’ the cut throats.”
The murderer then admits that Fleance escaped. This is bad news for Macbeth on two counts: Fleance is a witness to murder and will have reason to take revenge, and the witches prophesised that it would be Banquo’s sons, not Macbeth’s who would be future kings. The escape of Fleance means this could still occur. Macbeth’s short-found security is shattered, he again fears the future and feels locked in by his doubts, whereas the moment before he had felt as free and ‘general as the casing air’. His agitation is not fitting for the stately occasion, so he pulls himself together, reminding himself that at least one problem, Banquo, has been removed “with twenty gashes on his head,” and concludes that Fleance is not a cause for concern yet, “The grown serpent lies: the worm that’s fled/Hath nature that in time will venom breed, No teeth for the present.” He arranges to meet the murderer again, and returns to the hall.
Lady Macbeth gently upbraids him for ‘not giving the cheer’ and entertaining their guests properly, for without the host’s presence, the guests may as well be at home, or buying the meal she points out. She is not really angry though, for she jokes that “the sauce to meat is ceremony” a pun on ‘meat’ and ‘meet’. Macbeth fondly calls her “sweet remembrancer” and their relationship seems very equal, open and loving, with none of the tension or control issues seen on the night of Duncan’s murder. Macbeth invites the guests to eat, and thanks them for coming. He reproaches the absence of Banquo, a seemingly unnecessary comment to the assembled lords, but it is Macbeth reassuring himself that he can do whatever he sets himself to, and he is showing off a little, though it is a private boast. He is also challenging the limits of morality – he is blaming a man he had killed for being absent. Banquo is present though; his ghost is sitting in Macbeth’s place, in a premonition of his descendents pushing Macbeth from his throne.
The lords invite Macbeth to sit, and Macbeth replies that the table is full. The lords think he has overlooked his seat, and point out his place. Macbeth is the only person who can see Banquo’s spectre, although he doesn’t realise this. He asks, “Which of you have done this?” to the puzzled lords, and unaware of their confusion openly instructs the ghost to “never shake/Thy gory locks at me”, giving an unpleasant and disconcerting image to all those listening. The lords rise anxious for their king and Lady Macbeth has to quickly reassure them, playing Macbeth’s behaviour down “my lord is often thus, And hath been from his youth” she restarts the feast, and warns them to ignore Macbeth, as if they pay too much attention they “shall offend him”, and prolong the ‘fit’. Although she acts calmly to them, to Macbeth she is cold, demanding of him “Are you a man?”
He replies that he is brave to “dare look on that/Which might appal the devil” which does not impress his wife, as she is tired of the way he lets his fears manifest themselves, in visions “flaws and starts” like on the night of the first murder – “this is the very painting of your fear. This is the air-drawn dagger which you said/Led you to Duncan”. Macbeth ignores her, and instructs the ghost to speak, at which the ghoul disappears. Lady Macbeth again chastises his foolishness, but Macbeth insists that there was something, exasperating her further. The previously happy couple are showing the cracks in their marriage, and in a very public way, demonstrating Macbeth’s obliviousness to the whole situation, his total preoccupation with his vision. He talks of murders “too terrible for the ear”, and Lady Macbeth has to point out the Lords’ continued presence.
Macbeth tries to settle their minds by instructing them not to question the incident playing down his rant claiming it “is nothing/To those that know me” and resumes the toast, once again mentioning Banquo, although he is complimentary this time, from guilt and fear of offending the spirit, his earlier bravado gone, unsettled by the first appearance of the spectre and his wife’s reprimand. The ghost reappears despite this, for it seems time Macbeth mentions Banquo, he has a vision of him. The presence of a ghost is a continuance on the theme of supernaturalism seen throughout the play, especially with the witches. The witches however are more ‘real’ than this vision only Macbeth can see, which is more like a figment of the imagination, than an actual ghost. The spirit disrupts the party, mixing the supernatural with the real world, the way its presence in the scene mixes the world of ideas with the physical world is the same way as the dagger Macbeth ‘saw’ in act two mixed them. Just like the dagger, Banquo’s ghost is the realization of Macbeth’s guilt, a metaphor come to reality. These visions show that Macbeth is not completely in control of his innermost feelings.
This time Macbeth’s outcries are more gruesome and shocking than before, and he describes what he sees in a truly graphic way to the already alarmed thanes. He is petrified by the apparition, and his description is gruesome “Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold: Thou hast no speculation in those eyes.” Lady Macbeth quickly tries to calm the lords, telling them to think of his fits as minor inconveniences, but her husband’s continued rantings bring his guilt closer to revelation. When Macbeth finally regains his composure, she points out to him that he has “displac’d the mirth, broke the good meeting, with most admir’d disorder” and that the previous ordered and cheerful atmosphere have gone, and cannot be restored.
He too recognises the change in mood, and is angry at his inability to control his inner emotions and his part in wrecking the party, so he takes his frustration out on his wife. He still thinks that she also saw the ghost, and asks how she can “behold such sights, and keep the natural ruby of your cheeks,” which is grossly insensitive and ungrateful, as she had wanted a chance to revel in her new status as queen, but instead has had to spend the night covering for Macbeth. She killed for regality, and this night has been a mockery of what she wanted.
She is quick-witted enough to dismiss the lords quickly as they begin to question Macbeth, and the gathering breaks up unceremoniously, especially when compared to the beginning of the feast, with its demonstration of hierarchy and formality.
One thane, Lennox, wishes the couple “Goodnight; and better health/Attend his majesty” but it is an empty and sarcastic farewell. The night’s disturbances have raised mistrust among the thanes, and most have guessed that there is no ‘ill health’ but something deeper and darker behind Macbeth’s erratic behaviour.
When the lords have left, Macbeth is agitated still, babbling about that “blood will have blood” and the superstitions that murderers are always revealed “By maggot-pies, and choughs…” as he is obviously in an irrational and panicked state, still recovering from his terrifying visions. Macbeth plans to visit the witches the following day, for he is “bent to know” what will happen to him. The witches have a hold on him, for he is going to them voluntarily, not encountering them by chance as before, as he craves the security they provide with knowledge of the future, and the purpose their predictions bring to his life, which at the moment is disconcertingly unlike how he had imagined kingship to be. He is also worried about Macduff’s absence, and reveals that he has spies in the household of all his thanes. The trust, loyalty and friendship between King Duncan and his thanes has been replaced by paranoia, suspicion and dislike.
It may be these confusing emotions that cause him to resolve “For mine own good/All causes shall give way” which is him deciding that he will not try and be a fair and just king, but a tyrant who will do just what is good for him, not the country, and also demonstrates the rift between he and his wife (“For mine own good”).
He muses that he is “in blood stepp’d in so far, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – that any more bloodshed or killing will not affect him, as he has no chance of redemption or forgiveness, he is more than half way to evil. This is the point where he consciously resolves to become a monster, and not feel human emotions such as remorse or guilt, or think too deeply about his actions. He has taken Lady Macbeth’s jibes about his manhood to heart, and forgotten his comment “Who dares do more, is none” (Act1:7,46). His comment “Strange things I have in head that will to hand,” suggests future killings and violence, and this whole speech seems designed to dispel any sympathy the audience may have felt for him, as he has confirmed his hardened and evil status.
Lady Macbeth is discomfited by his new attitude, and suggests that he “lacks the season of all natures, sleep” an echo of Macbeth’s words in act 2, when he heard the voice cry “Macbeth shall sleep no more”. They both seem to have forgotten this and leave to bed, but Macbeth again hints of future murder, saying that it is his inexperience at murder that caused him to be so affected by it, and that with practice he will no longer be disturbed by visions or the guilt they signify.