The first scene starts with Banquo voicing his suspicions about Macbeth killing Duncan in order to become the King. He is aware that the witches had prophesized that his sons would become Kings. But he doesn’t let this thought obsess him. He is capable of controlling his thoughts and checking his ambitions unlike Macbeth which sets the two apart.
Macbeth enters with the others here. He announces that Banquo is to be the chief guest of the royal banquet he’s hosting tonight. Banquo promises to come but not until later after he has returned from his ride with his son, Fleance.
Then Macbeth talks of how Malcolm and Donalbain haven’t yet confessed to their deed and are making up dumb tales to support their innocence. Macbeth needn’t have told this to Banquo; his doing so shows that he is still scared that Banquo suspects him and he wants to clear any such suspicion in Banquo’s mind by repeatedly reminding Banquo that Malcolm and Donalbain are the ones to blame.
Once everyone leaves and he’s alone, Macbeth speaks out his innermost thoughts and feelings. His tone is that of despair, insecurity and defiance towards the end of the soliloquy. “To be thus is nothing; / But to be safely thus,” he says. Macbeth realizes that being a King isn’t all that great if the kingship is insecure. Banquo stands as an obstacle, a potential threat to his kingship.
Then Macbeth goes on to admire Banquo and his qualities. He admires Banquo’s ‘nobility of character’, ‘loyalty’, ‘dauntless temper’, ‘daring’, and his ‘valour guided by his wisdom’. Here Macbeth compares himself to Mark Antony and Banquo to Julius Caesar. This is because Antony’s guiding spirit was made timid by Caesar’s just as Macbeth’s is by Banquo’s. Macbeth viewed himself as inferior to Banquo in terms of bravery and character. So he took Banquo to be the biggest potential threat to his crown.
Moreover, the three witches had prophesized that Banquo’s sons would be kings. Now that he is a King, Macbeth isn’t satisfied with it. Here we can see over-ambition or unchecked ambition because his desires always exceed the achievements and hence are unattainable. His descendants won’t get to be kings despite all that he did to gain the crown. He feels betrayed.
He says in a bitter tone that the witches merely placed ‘a fruitless crown’ on his head, ‘a barren sceptre’ in his gripe and took away the rightful kingship from his descendants. Macbeth uses imageries here. By ‘a fruitless crown’ and ‘a barren sceptre’, he means that this kind of kingship won’t give him the fruit that he desires – kingship for his descendants.
He hates to think that he tormented his mind, murdered the gracious Duncan and disturbed his otherwise peaceful life for the sake of Banquo’s children. “Only for them; and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man, / To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! / Rather than so, come fate into the list, / And champion me to th’ utterance!” Macbeth says.
He is fully aware that he has moved onto the side of evil and that all he has done was wrong. But he just can’t stand the prospect of Banquo’s sons being kings after all he’s done and is prepared to challenge fate to the death. So Macbeth, after all, knows that he’s fighting a losing battle but it’s too late to go back so the only option is to continue till the end.
After the speech, two murderers called for by Macbeth enter. Macbeth talks to them about their problems and tries to convince them that Banquo is the one to blame for all their complaints. He questions them if they have the patience to endure their pitiful state any longer if they can pray for Banquo and his descendants when he showed them to their graves and made their descendants but beggars.
“So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune, / That I would set my life on any chance, / To mend it or be rid on ‘t,” says one murderer. We can feel the desperation in his tone which suggests their pitiful state. They will do anything to alleviate their sufferings. Making Banquo seem the root of their problems, Macbeth gets the murderers against Banquo and orders them to kill Banquo and Fleance.
In the next scene, we see a despairing Lady Macbeth which is in stark contrast to her character portrayed in the previous acts. She says that they lost everything to gain nothing for they aren’t satisfied with what they got although it is what they desired. “‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy,” Lady Macbeth says, implying that it is better to be killed than kill only to be able to rejoice in insecure and unpleasant pleasure. As Macbeth enters, Lady Macbeth tells him to forget uncorrectable mistakes, what’s done is done.
“We have scorch’d the snake, not kill’d it,” Macbeth says. What’s done isn’t done yet. The snake is apparently a metaphor for righteousness which has been scorched during the killing of Duncan but is now healing and so his evilness is losing its influence. His evil can’t last much longer so he is unsure how much longer he can go on killing people to safeguard his crown.
He wishes he were among the dead whom he killed to gain peace but has lost it instead and has to live in restless ecstasy. He envies Duncan who he says is sleeping peacefully in his grave and nothing can possibly harm him. When Lady Macbeth tells him to wear a bright and jovial face for the banquet, Macbeth agrees, adding that while the crown is unsafe, they should keep their titles honorable and let their faces mask their evil hearts. The theme of ‘deceptive appearance’ is reinforced strongly here.
“O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife; / Thou know’st that Banquo and his Fleance lives,” Macbeth reveals to Lady Macbeth that the existence of Banquo and his son worries him. Lady Macbeth is unaware of Macbeth’s meeting with the murderers so she is confused when he says, “…there shall be done / A deed of dreadful note.” But Macbeth plans to leave his Lady out on this one. Macbeth personifies night as he calls for it to be ruthless aided by its dark agents of evil in order to kill Banquo.
In this scene, it seems like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have switched roles. Lady Macbeth seems to be disintegrating from her former strong and evil self. Macbeth seems to have newfound courage. Just as Lady Macbeth had convinced Macbeth to murder Duncan, Macbeth here convinces the murderers against Banquo. The last speech of Macbeth is in a way similar to the one of Lady Macbeth addressing the evil spirits. Lady Macbeth is receding into the background as Macbeth is beginning to take the front stage by acting on his own initiative without consulting his Lady.
In the third scene, the sun is setting and it is getting dark. There are now three murderers instead of the two that met Macbeth in the first scene. The third could have been sent by Macbeth because he couldn’t trust just the two to get the job done. To make sure that Banquo and Fleance are killed, he could have sent an extra murderer.
Banquo is killed in the murderers’ ambush but Fleance makes an escape. The murderers make their way back to report to the King. Here again, the atmosphere plays an important role as the murder takes place in the dark. Dark is the time of evil so evil deeds are done in the dark throughout this play.
In these scenes, the audience sympathizes with Macbeth because he knows what he is doing is wrong but there’s no turning back so all he can do is move on. And one could argue that the witches and Lady Macbeth are responsible for putting him in this fix. As we watch these scenes, we can feel that Macbeth is gradually moving towards his inevitable doom but there’s nothing we can do about it except perhaps sympathize and this can, at times, be frustrating.