Shakespeare Support Group: Macbeth

Macbeth: It’s a classic story of jealousy, betrayal, and just desserts. Sure, it’s an iconic work, but it can be difficult for beginners to appreciate.

If Lady Macbeth’s insults go right over your head and Macbeth’s musings just don’t make sense, rest easy: eNotes is here to help!

Join us for our brand-new “Shakespeare Support Group” to get the inside scoop on the bard’s most confusing passages. But, before you dig into this first edition of the Shakespeare Support Group, check out our resources on tackling a Shakespearean play and understanding its language.

Foreshadowing Macbeth’s Betrayal

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 13-14

There’s no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face

King Duncan says this when he learns of the Thane of Cawdor’s betrayal and his subsequent execution. Duncan continues, “He was a gentleman upon whom I built / an absolute trust.” In short: Duncan had trusted this man implicitly and would never have thought him capable of treason. 

In this line, the definition of “art” differs from the one we usually use. Here, it refers to a craft, skill, or methodology. Duncan—as all people—cannot divine or interpret the truth of another person’s thoughts. Therefore, he could not have known that the Thane of Cawdor was planning to betray him.

The second part of this passage (“The mind’s construction in the face”) describes what Duncan wishes for: That one’s thoughts might appear on their face and, therefore, be easy to read and understand. Yet, as he acknowledges, this is impossible. Duncan’s musings in this scene will prove equally tragic and ironic, as Macbeth, the new Thane of Cawdor, will prove just as duplicitous as his predecessor. 

Macbeth’s Journey Begins

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 57-58

Stars, hide your fires / Let not light see my black and deep desires

The Weird Sisters’ prophesied that Macbeth would ascend to the throne following Duncan’s death. As such, Macbeth is surprised and then enraged upon learning that Duncan has made his son, Malcolm, heir to the throne instead. 

His dreams in tatters, Macbeth calls to the stars to “hide [their] fires” and thus enshroud the world in darkness. In this physical darkness, he implies, his moral “black[ness]” might be hidden from view.

Macbeth acknowledges that his ambitions are “black”—meaning evil and immoral—and should be hidden from all “light” and goodness. He knows his desires are shameful, yet he still allows them to influence (and eventually control) his thoughts and actions. 

This line comes after Duncan admits his inability to see “the mind’s construction in the face.” As such, Macbeth’s request to the stars is two-fold: He wishes them to shroud him in darkness so their light may not betray him and, in doing so, allow him to keep his “mind” from revealing itself in his “face.” (See? It’s all coming together!)

Lady Macbeth’s Most Manipulative Moments

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 75-77

Bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t.

Spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, these lines depict her efforts to coerce her hesitant husband into murdering King Duncan and instruct him on how best to do so. 

To avoid revealing his insidious intent, Macbeth must approach Duncan with “welcome” in every aspect of his demeanor, from the look in his eye and the position of his hands to the words rolling from his tongue. He must lie with his body as much as his words, displaying no sense of his true feelings and curating an appearance that resembles in spirit an “innocent flower.” 

But, beneath this deceptively harmless appearance lingers the truth. Macbeth will be coiled and ready to strike, as unexpectedly ruthless as a serpent hidden beneath the petals of a beautiful flower. Check out this video for more context and a discussion of the broader passage. 

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 

I have given suck, and know / How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me. / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you / Have done to this

As we saw in act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth is convinced that murdering Duncan is the only option, so much so that she instructs her husband about how to commit the act. Yet, by act 7, Macbeth is less certain. His wife’s arguments ring false, so he unilaterally decides: “We will proceed no further in this business.”

Lady Macbeth feels that her husband has proved himself a coward by going back on his word. She speaks these venomous lines to him, explaining that she would rather rip her child from her breast and kill him than act as he has. 

These comments are intentionally insulting and emasculating, accusing Macbeth of being weaker-minded and less capable than a woman. Lady Macbeth’s words are cruel and shocking, but they are effective. Ultimately, her attempt to humiliate and embarrass her husband works, and he again agrees to her plan to murder Duncan. 

And that’s a wrap on a few of the trickiest lines from Macbeth’s first act! If you’re still not feeling confident, we’ve got scene-by-scene summaries that break things down even further for you.

Check back soon for the second edition of Shakespeare Support Group.