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How to Use Quotes When Analysing Macbeth

Tuesday 30th, August 2022

Jess Laven

Jess Laven graduated in 2020 with an ATAR of 96.60. In this article, Jess runs through some tips on how to use quotes when analysing Macbeth, based on Jess' own study experiences. Check out ATAR Notes' Text Guide for Macbeth here. 📚


One of the challenges of Macbeth English exams is knowing what quotes to memorise and how to use them to analyse the play. In an earlier article, I gave 10 things you need to know when studying Macbeth. This article focuses on quotes, offering the tips and examples you need to ace your exam.

What Macbeth Quotes Should I Memorise?

Choose quotes:

  • That can be used for a range of essay questions. Doing this will mean you won’t need to remember as many quotes because you’ll be able to spin your quotes to suit different essay prompts.

  • From throughout the play. Don’t limit yourself to one Act in the play. This would make it harder to answer essay questions that focus on a different section of the play. It may also give markers the impression that you haven’t put in the effort to read and understand the full play.

  • That are well-known and less well-known. It is best to have a combination. Using less well-known quotes will showcase the depth of your knowledge. Meanwhile, using well-known quotes is helpful because they tend to suit many essay questions.

  • That cover a majority of the play’s themes. Macbeth has many themes. Essay questions tend to revolve around one or more of these themes either directly or indirectly. Knowing quotes that relate to most of these themes will set you up for success.

How Do I Use My Quotes to Analyse Macbeth?

Macbeth quotes often relate to more than one of the play’s themes. You might find it helpful to note down what these themes are for each quote. I have pulled quotes from the list I memorised for my Year 12 external English exam and categorised them under one of their dominant themes. Hopefully, this will demonstrate the role and significance of these themes, and give you some ideas about good quotes and how to analyse them.

Macbeth quotes often relate to more than one of the play’s themes.

Power and Ambition

There are several types of power in Macbeth, including unearned power, corruption of power, women in power and supernatural power. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s desire for power is driven by their unchecked ambition, which is a closely interrelated theme.

Macbeth displays his ambition to become King after Duncan names his eldest son, Malcolm, as his heir to the Scottish throne. He pleads, “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4). Lady Macbeth recognises this ambition, though she doesn’t believe he possesses the manliness to act on it by killing Duncan. In reference to Macbeth and his nature, she says:

“It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it” (1.5).

She says this after reading the letter from Macbeth about the witches’ prophecies. It is at this point that she begins to devise her plan to coerce Macbeth to commit regicide. 

Macbeth supports Lady Macbeth’s suspicions when he admits, “I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition” (1.7). Here, he indicates that ambition is his only motivation for killing Duncan.

After Macbeth becomes King, he reveals that he is still restless and insecure, fearing he may lose his position. He is also bothered that he has no heir and therefore no guarantee that his lineage will continue after his passing. He claims, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” (3.1).

This quote also explains why killing King Duncan triggered Macbeth to commit a series of future violent deeds in an attempt to secure his power. Macbeth refers to this chain reaction when he says, “I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4).

Guilt and Remorse

Macbeth expresses his uneasiness over his plan to kill Duncan, stating, “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man” (1.3).

Once the deed is done, he immediately expresses his guilt and remorse. For example, Macbeth claims that all of the oceans in the world would not be able to wash the blood from his hands. Instead, he suggests that the blood would stain the ocean red, indicating that his guilt will never waver and his crime could be uncovered:

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red” (2.2).

Once the deed is done, he immediately expresses his guilt and remorse.

Macbeth clearly expresses his remorse over killing Duncan when he says, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst” (2.2). Macduff is knocking on Duncan’s door, and Macbeth is saying that he wishes Macduff could wake Duncan. In other words, he wishes he could take back his actions.

Macbeth also feels guilt over orchestrating Banquo’s murder. Macbeth says, “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake Thy gory locks at me” (3.4). He is trying to convince himself that he was not guilty because it was not him who killed Banquo. Rather, it was the assassins he hired. 

Lady Macbeth’s guilt and remorse appear later than Macbeth’s. An example of this is when she demands, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” (5.1), believing that there is blood on her hands. This is a symbol of her involvement in Duncan’s death and her inability to undo it or rid herself of her guilt.

Appearance and Reality

Hallucinations, manipulation and deception are important in Macbeth. Banquo foreshadows the unfortunate events of the play when he says, “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s In deepest consequence” (1.3). Banquo is warning Macbeth that the witches may be telling the truth about unimportant things, only to lie later when the consequences are worse.

Hallucinations, manipulation and deception are important in Macbeth.

The original Thane of Cawdor was a traitor, leading Duncan to conclude that, “There’s no art To find the mind’s construction in the face” (1.4). In other words, it is impossible to look at someone’s face and know their thoughts and plans. This is ironic because Macbeth, the subsequent Thane of Cawdor, asks the stars to hide his desires at the end of this scene and later goes on to kill Duncan.

One of Lady Macbeth’s most renowned quotes is, “Look like th’ innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t” (1.5). Here, she is encouraging Macbeth to act normally so as to deceive everyone and avoid arousing suspicion about their plan to kill Duncan.

Macbeth’s hallucinations emerge before he kills Duncan. He asks, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand” (2.1)? This is symbolic of his impending crime. Macbeth may have been trying to rationalise his decision to kill Duncan by imagining a dagger, the killing weapon, and perceiving it as a sign that he is destined to commit regicide.   

Malcom and Donalbain, Duncan’s sons, recognise that they are in danger and decide to escape. Donalbain says, “There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The near in blood, The nearer bloody” (2.3). Here, he suggests that there are enemies among them who are hiding their evil intentions behind smiles. He suspects that the people who are close to them, and therefore close to the throne, are most likely to kill them.

Macbeth continues to hallucinate after killing Duncan. After he arranges the murder of Banquo, he hallucinates the ghost of his former friend at the banquet. Lady Macbeth scolds him, saying, “This is the very painting of your fear. This is the air-drawn dagger…” (3.4), emphasising the disjunction between appearance and reality for Macbeth.

 

There are many more themes and many more significant quotes in Macbeth. Keep an eye out for future articles in which I explore these.

In the meantime, happy reading and Googling!

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