Macbeth, Act 5


Act 5 is unlike the previous acts in that much is taken up with the battle. And it has nine short scenes, none longer than the first (76 lines). So it picks up the pace, cross-cutting from Macbeth to his enemies. The most powerful parts of this act are devoted to the sharply contrasting reactions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to what they have done. 5.1 is presumably a spectacular scene (or at least opera librettists, who wrote “mad scenes,” perhaps thought so). She is racked with guilt. A bit odd, when you think of it, because so far as I can tell she never literally had blood on her hands. Macbeth was the sole killer of Duncan, and the hired murderers took care of the rest. By contrast, Macbeth is hardened in his evil, and comes to think that life is not worth living — first “My way of life is fallen into the sere . . .” and then in 5.5 the greatest speech in the play, in which he concludes that life “signifies nothing.” He may be a hardened killer, but we are engaged with him in part because of his great poetry. “Last syllable” is striking. I suppose it refers back to “such a word” — i.e. “dead.”

In 5.3 is it not odd that Macbeth trusts the prophecies of the weird sisters over all else, including his experience of war and the reports from his officers? He relies repeatedly on the assurance that he will not have any problem until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. And then in 5.4, as if on cue, the Birnam boughs are cut.

5.5 is in a way the high point, and turning point, of the play, both peripeteia and anagnorisis. It’s all downhill from here. I like Middleton Murry’s explanation of “She should have died hereafter” — i.e., in some imagined world other than this tediously time-bound one. It’s important, I think, that although Macbeth has spilled more blood than any other Shakespearean “tragic hero,” he has not lost the capacity to feel, and to express his feeling. (The rhymed couplets at the end of Macbeth’s speech seem too pat, and flat. (Does not Shakespeare take some risk that Macbeth will take the audience with him?)

The rest of the act is devoted to the battle. In fact, we have been cutting back and forth between Macbeth and his enemies throughout the act: we are with his enemies in 5.2, 5.4, and 5.6. (Those scenes don’t seem to have much power to them, even though they present Macduff and the Scottish patriots preparing to take their country back.) I find it odd that when Young Siward is killed in 5.7, his father gets over it pretty quickly in 5.8. Do we see/hear any grief? We are told that “like a man he died,” which recalls the death of the Thane of Cawdor back in Act 1, and the preoccupation with what it means to be a “man” that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth show. The ending is swift and blunt: Macbeth’s head is brought in — did the Jacobean audience have a taste for that? — and we don’t hear about the killing or surrender of any other supporters. (It’s interesting that at the end Seyton is the only named supporter — contrast the Henry 4 plays.

 And Malcolm sums it all up, though I still wonder about Malcolm and his relationship with his father. And where is Donalbain?


I don’t think Macbeth is let off by the existence of the witches, who are indeed analogous to Satan’s introduction of temptation into Eve’s dream, but in 1.3 Banquo notes that Macbeth reacts strangely to the witches’ initial prophecy– “start, and seem to fear” — that suggests the witches evoke some sort of recognition in him and are an objectification of something already in his mind. And after they have vanished, he wishes they had stayed. And he speaks favorably both to Banquo and Lady M of the witches and what they’ve told him. This suggests, and would require some sort of response/prompt by the actor playing the role, that he is responding positively to what is thus far only temptation, maybe self-generated temptation, by the witches. I suppose what’s different from Eve’s dream is that she’s still radically innocent, without the taint of original sin, which is different from Macbeth’s world and self. He has that spot or blame that may dispose him favorably to ambition and what ambition may require, but is still capable of turning from it. And when he doesn’t turn away, he actively seeks the witches out in Act 4 and demands response, by which point he is fully involved in the evil. In this sense the origin of evil isn’t a turn from absolute innocence but a gradual approach from some self-generated curiosity and temptation to acceptance and embrace of what it entails.

By comparison Lady Macbeth seems already steeped in evil; her claim that she would rip her nipple from the mouth of her newborn babe and dash its brains out, even though she knows what it is to nurse a baby, seems hard to top for pure evil. It’s almost as if helplessness becomes the stimulus for this.

What you say about contrasting reactions of the two them seems exactly right. Lady M seems in a sense to change places with Macbeth. His “She should have died hereafter . . . Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” seems to denote him as entirely deadened by what he has done. She appears awakened to some inward consciousness that emerges in her sleepwalking, her trying to rub out the imagined blood on her hands, the memory of Duncan’s blood, Macduff’s wife. It’s not remorse certainly, but a suggestion that she at least cannot contain what has been done.

Malcolm is something of a puzzle. The testing of Macduff is strange; was there a more economical way to make the point of Malcolm’s virtue? And the grief for Duncan just seems like a hole that was never filled. I think the two fled because of their fear for their lives, Malcolm just having been proclaimed heir. But some indication of sorrow at Duncan’s death would have seemed appropriate.

 In Act 5 I’ve always felt we’re a bit cheated by the equivocation in the two tricks that are played on Macbeth, the man not born of woman and Birnam Wood marching to Dunsinane. Of course they’re good tricks, but something almost comedic.

I wonder if we’re expected to find another odd joke in the name of Macbeth’s servant, Seyton. This must sound like Satan when spoken. Even if it’s said SEEton, it’s going to suggest the prince of darkness, isn’t it?

We do feel a certain relief with Macbeth’s fate at the end of the play. I think we could wish young Siward might have found a bit more grief in his father; even Malcolm seems more willing to express sorrow.

 But the oddest bit of topicality is Malcolm’s decree that the Scottish thanes and peers should henceforth be earls. I picture them standing around looking at each other and wondering if they’ll also get a raise.

Yes, Act 5 does seem a bit rushed and maybe something of a letdown. After all the horrors that Macbeth falls into, or rather accomplishes, there isn’t as much to do beyond his death.


Yes, Eve is tempted from without and Macbeth is not. So the play’s answer to your question — where does evil come from?  — is that it can come from within. I suppose one could still ask how Macbeth found it. It would seem that ambition itself isn’t evil, but that it can lead to evil thoughts and then to evil deeds. So we then assume that Lady Macbeth was ambitious for her  husband, and then hatched her evil thoughts?

 I think you are right about Seyton/Satan.

For equivocators, the witches are pretty literal-minded when they say “Born of woman.” I would have thought that a child born by Caesarean section is still “born of woman.”


I don’t think the Jesuit equivocators would have much to say to those witches. Rather low-grade equivocation.

I do think Macbeth is culpable, even apart from Lady M. After all, he’s the one who’s been thinking ambitiously, maybe murderously, even before the witches. And he seems to have spoken to her even before the witches. Moreover, he married her. Can he be surprised at her encouragement?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell