Act 2 is the murder, and one of the most dramatically potent scenes I can think of. Banquo’s giving his sword to Fleance seems emblematic of his desire to avoid violence, and he also renounces the sleep that brings dreams of “cursed thoughts.” But then he takes back the sword when he hears Macbeth. Banquo tells him the dark dreams are of the witches, but he wants to avoid much thought about them.
What to make of Macbeth’s air-borne dagger? He sees it as a guide that encourages him to the murder, but it might just as well seem a warning. It’s a dagger created by his own imagination, and I think those film versions that literally create the vision are wrong. The bell, Lady M’s entrance, then Macbeth’s, and the staccato dialogue create a wonderful tension that surround the offstage murder. And there’s the powerful contrast of Macbeth’s account of the murder and Lady M’s. She’s tied to a literal sense of Duncan’s death, and Macbeth exercises his mind and fantasy over it. He speaks of the implications of the guards’ prayers and his inability to respond, of what it means to murder someone who is asleep, of his mistakenly bringing the bloody daggers with him. The only hint of Lady M’s possible qualms was her mention that she would have done the deed herself if Duncan had not resembled her father in his sleep, which of course should have deterred the murder altogether. Macbeth’s lines about the healing properties of sleep are powerfully memorable. And he cannot return to the scene he created, but she can and does. His line about his bloody hands making “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” may well have been stolen from Othello, except that he glosses it in plain English. And his wish that Duncan could be waked with the knocking at the gate suggests regret at what they’ve done.
The porter of hell-gate is one of those wonderful turns in Shakespeare. It appears that it is another of those recollections of the mysteries. There’s a reference to an actor who played the porter of hell gate (at Coventry) in one of the early sixteenth-century interludes (I’m not recalling which at the moment). Coventry was certainly the mystery play that Shakespeare. knew; perhaps he saw it multiple times in his childhood and adolescence. So the porter introduces a sudden comic moment after all the dark tension of the previous scene. Since we don’t have most of the Coventry play, there’s no indication whether it was a comic scene there. It must have been a moment in the harrowing-of-hell play, and the porter was probably attempting to stop the almost risen Christ from entering hell and taking the souls of the just to heaven. Here it suggests, lightly, that Macbeth’s castle is not only cold but also hell. His reference to equivocation suggests that this is all in the shadow of the Gunpowder Plot; do you think this may add a certain frisson to the portrayal of a king’s assassination?
Just before the discovery of Duncan’s murder, Lenox describes a scene of natural chaos in the night that seems to underscore the horror of the assassination. Macduff’s ringing of the alarm bell recalls the earlier bell and increases the tension. What Macbeth speaks about his own response to the death is certainly an act, but in view of his regret may also be true. Of course his follow-up murder of the guards is part of his defense and enables him to seem Duncan’s avenger. Lady M’s faint seems part of the cover-up and may represent her attempt to shut Macbeth up.
Scene 4 continues the theme of nature’s apparent response to the royal murder, Ross and Old Man recounting the various prodigies that have occurred, including Duncan’s horses turning wild and even cannibalistic. It’s a wonderful image of what the human political world has become.
We learn at the end that Macduff will not go to Scone to see Macbeth invested as king. And we never learn why Macbeth succeeds. Malcolm and Donalbain have both fled for their safety, creating suspicion, but we may wonder if Macduff’s words to Ross may suggest suspicion.
Further on Acts 1 and 2.
As for the delicate air at Macbeth’s castle: since Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have already talked, and since Lady M has already had hellish thoughts, wouldn’t they have already darkened the air? If I’m right that this is another case of appearances deceiving, then Banquo is equally misled.
Act 2, with four short scenes, the longest only 146 lines, is again a short act. The action in this play moves right along. No subplot.
In 2.1 we meet Banquo and his son. There are many father/son pairs in this play: Duncan with Malcolm and Donalbain, Banquo with Fleance, and both Siward and Macduff have sons. But, significantly perhaps, Macbeth has no son. He will be king “hereafter” but Banquo will “get” a king.
What should we make of Banquo’s “cursed thoughts” and his sleeplessness? Does he, like Macbeth, have ambitions that involve the death of Duncan? [When I wrote this, I had not yet re-read 3.1.] Yes, the air-borne dagger is imagined, indicating how vividly Macbeth is aware of the “horror” he proposes. I too wonder about “incarnadine.” It does not sound like Macbeth at all. (I think that line is often misunderstood by readers or listeners who think it is an adjective modifying “seas.”)
In both 2.2 we get ominous knocking and in 2.3 the knocking persists, and is compared by the porter to knocking at hell’s gate, which both confirms our sense that we are in a kind of “hell” and turns it into comedy. Macbeth gets a good look at the sleeping Malcolm and Donalbain: why doesn’t he kill them, since he already knows that one of them stands between him and the throne? As it happens, we quickly discover that Duncan’s sons don’t feel any real “sorrow” for the death of their father — I don’t know why we are given that crucial information — and then flee, thinking that they might be killed next. (Why are the two sons so firmly allied, if Malcolm has already been declared successor? )But I guess they don’t realize that their flight will make them look guilty — and in 2.4 they are indeed suspected — so Macbeth’s path to the throne is cleared.
In 3.1 we learn both that Banquo suspects Macbeth and that he feels somewhat guilty himself for his ambitious thoughts. I had not remembered that in Holinshed, as my Arden footnote tells me, Banquo was Macbeth’s accomplice, but that Shakespeare, writing when Banquo’s descendant is king of England, cannot let that stand. But it would seem that by keeping silent about the greeting from the witches Banquo was a kind of accessory. We also learn both that Macbeth fears Banquo, because he observed Macbeth’s startled reaction to the witches, and because Banquo’s son will be a king. Somehow Macbeth did not get the memo about how succession to the throne of Scotland works. Duncan had earlier seemed to make it clear that it was not automatically passed from father to son, but Macbeth thinks it does, and that his son could not succeed him. Did we know that he has one, or is planning to have one? Then we get an exchange between Macbeth and his hired murderers. Why does it need to be so long? Could it not even be cut? Finally we get Macbeth’s “farewell” to Banquo, which recalls his “farewell” to Duncan at the end of 2.1.