“Fair is foul, and foul is fair:” Literal Meaning:Goodness is bad and badness is good. Significance:This paradoxical statement by the witches refers to a theme that recurs throughout the play: the moral ambiguity of humanity. What seems to be the natural order becomes reversed as the mischief sown by the witches’ actions is exacerbated by man’s folly and ambition.
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Literal Meaning:I haven’t experienced such good and bad weather in one day ever before. Significance:Echoing the witches’ “fair is foul, and foul is fair”, Macbeth remarks upon the strange weather. A major motif, the disturbed weather reflects the disruption of the moral and political order that is about to tear Scotland apart.
“If you can look into the seeds of time,And say which grain will grow and which will not,Speak then to me” Literal MeaningIf you can predict the future and say who will prosper and who won’t, then tell me what lies in store for me. SignificanceBanquo confronts the witches and bluntly demands that they tell him his future. The witches prophesy glory for both Macbeth and Banquo, but it is Macbeth who will abandon moral and social norms to fulfil his destiny. Banquo, while not without ambitions of his own, is wary of the witches’ motivations.
“. . . unsex me here,And fill me from the crown to the toe top-fullOf direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,Stop up the access and passage to remorse,That no compunctious visitings of natureShake my fell purpose.” Literal MeaningTake away my femininity now and fill me with ruthless cruelty. Increase the strength of my blood, and rid me of any tendency towards remorse for my actions, so that my determination will not be weakened. SignificanceLady Macbeth resolves to do whatever is required to propel Macbeth on to the throne. Aware that this will involve murder, she asks the spirits to destroy in her any ‘feminine’ qualities such as empathy or compassion that may cause her any hesitation.
“Look like the innocent flower,But be the serpent under ‘t.” Literal MeaningPut on the appearance of an innocent person to hide the reality of your poisonous intentions. SignificanceLady Macbeth evokes the key theme of deception in this piece of advice to her husband. The success of their plan lies in their ability to deceive others. However, this becomes more difficult as time goes on.
“If it were done when ‘t is done, then ‘t were wellIt were done quickly” Literal MeaningIf I could be sure that this action would take care of things for once and for all, then it would be best to get it over with. SignificanceMacbeth is ambivalent about murdering Duncan in order to fulfil his ambition. Here, he wishes that the murder of Duncan would by itself propel him to the throne, without any other repercussions. We sense that, deep down, he realises the futility of this wish.
“I dare do all that may become a man;Who dares do more is none.” Literal MeaningIn doing as much as I dare to do, I am showing manliness; if I did more, I would be less the man. SignificanceMacbeth responds defensively to Lady Macbeth’s suggestion that in refusing to kill Duncan he is being cowardly and unmanly. The theme of gender is a significant one in the play, and here the qualities of ‘manliness’ are portrayed as decisiveness and single-mindedness—characteristics Lady Macbeth displays to a far greater extent than her husband.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,The handle toward my hand?Come, let me clutch thee.” Literal MeaningDo I really see this dagger in front of me, with its handle pointing towards me? Let me try to hold it. SignificanceOn his way to murder Duncan, Macbeth sees an apparition of a dagger, which seems to direct him towards Duncan’s chamber. Macbeth’s response to the apparition is to swing back and forth between awareness that it is not real and horror at what he believes he is seeing. The dagger symbolises the path of violence upon which Macbeth is about to embark.
“Whiles I threat, he lives;Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” Literal MeaningWhile I am dithering, Duncan is still alive. If you talk too much about doing something, you will lose the impetus to do it. SignificanceMacbeth resolves to stop agonising over whether he can bring himself to kill Duncan. He realises that he must do the deed without thinking any more about it.
“The wine of life is drawn, and the mere leesIs left this vault to brag of.” Literal MeaningAll that is good in life has been drained out of it, and all that’s left is the dregs. SignificanceIn Macbeth’s flowery but hypocritical eulogy to the murdered Duncan, he says that Duncan’s death makes life worthless. Ironically, this prefigures his hopeless reflections on life in Act 5, Scene 5 where he realises that killing Duncan really has destroyed his own life.
“To show an unfelt sorrow is an officeWhich the false man does easy.” Literal MeaningA deceitful person who is hiding something will have no problem pretending to be sorrowful. SignificanceMalcolm suspects that one of Duncan’s supposedly loyal subjects has killed him, so he is wary of the professions of sorrow being expressed around him. This suspicion prompts him to flee to England for his own safety.
“Where we are,There’s daggers in men’s smiles, the near in blood,The nearer bloody.” Literal MeaningIn our position, we cannot trust the goodwill of those around us. The fact that we are Duncan’s heirs only makes things more dangerous for us. SignificanceDonalbain realises that, as Duncan’s heirs, he and Malcolm are in danger, no matter how loyal everyone around them appears to be. His words echo the theme of deception that runs through the play—of not trusting outward appearances.
“Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,No son of mine succeeding.” Literal MeaningThe witches’ prophecies ordained that I will be king but will not pass the title on to my own heirs. Instead, the crown will fall to someone outside my bloodline. SignificanceMacbeth ruefully remarks that his achievement of the kingship is hollow, since, according to the witches’ prophecy, it will ultimately pass to Banquo’s heirs. His belief that he can influence fate to his own ends leads Macbeth to murder Banquo to prevent this happening.
“Things without all remedyShould be without regard; what’s done is done.” Literal MeaningThere’s no point thinking about things we’ve done that cannot be reversed. SignificanceLady Macbeth attempts to ease Macbeth’s disturbed conscience following Duncan’s murder. Interestingly, as the play progresses their roles are reversed and it is she who descends into madness as a result of her guilty conscience. Macbeth, meanwhile, becomes less and less concerned with his moral decline as he engages in more heinous crimes.
“We have scotched the snake, not killed it.” Literal MeaningWe have wounded the snake but it still lives. SignificanceThe image of a poisonous snake is used by Macbeth to symbolise threats to his kingship. As long as Banquo and Fleance live, he cannot feel secure. We sense, of course, that the snake will in fact never be killed, and that Macbeth will never feel secure on his throne.
“Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Literal MeaningEvil deeds beget more such deeds in order to strengthen them. SignificanceThis quote marks a turning point for Macbeth—here he makes a conscious decision to embrace evil, despite being aware of the consequences. It is almost as if he sees his actions as beyond good or evil and simply a matter of expediency.
“I am in bloodStepped in so far that, should I wade no more,Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Literal MeaningI have already done so many bloody deeds that, even if I were to stop now, I would be just as damned as if I were to carry on. SignificanceMacbeth uses bloody imagery to summarise his position as king. Having murdered Duncan and Banquo, he realises that the killing will not stop there if he is to retain the throne. The theme of man’s agency and the struggle against fate is strong here, as Macbeth realises that it’s too late to turn back from the bloody path he has chosen.
“Nay, had I power, I shouldPour the sweet milk of concord into hell,Uproar the universal peace, confoundAll unity on earth.” Literal MeaningIf I could, I would destroy peace and harmony in the world and disrupt all the things that unite mankind. SignificanceAs part of his pretence that he is unworthy of the kingship, Malcolm insists that he has none of the necessary kingly virtues. He claims that he would, in fact, sow discord and conflict if he were to become king. This deception is a ploy to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland.
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Literal MeaningCome out of my hand, cursed bloodstain! SignificanceA troubled, sleepwalking Lady Macbeth imagines that she sees a spot of blood on her hand that, despite her best efforts, will not be washed away. This symbolises the guilt she feels over Duncan’s murder.
“What’s done cannot be undone.” Literal MeaningWe cannot undo what has been done. SignificanceIn contrast to her earlier pragmatism after the murder of Duncan—’what’s done is done’—Lady Macbeth shows her despair at how events have turned out and wishes that things could be reversed. Such disjointed utterances and her sleepwalking are manifestations of her tortured conscience.
“Those he commands move only in command,Nothing in love: now does he feel his titleHang loose about him, like a giant’s robeUpon a dwarfish thief.” Literal MeaningMacbeth’s forces are only obeying him out of fear, not loyalty. Now he is feeling intimidated by his title—it is too big for him, as a giant’s coat is too big for a dwarf who has stolen it. SignificanceAs Malcolm’s army closes in on Macbeth at Dunsinane, Angus remarks that he must be feeling the heat by now. A true king inspires love and loyalty, but Macbeth has stolen the throne and, without kingly legitimacy, can rule only by force. This makes his hold on power very precarious.
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrowCreeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time;And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.” Literal MeaningTime marches ever forward and will continue to do so until the end, and we foolish mortals continue to be born and die. Life is as brief as a candle’s flame, as insubstantial as a shadow and as absurd as a histrionic actor who is forgotten as soon as he leaves the stage. Life is like a story that is full of incident but ultimately has no real meaning or significance. SignificanceIn Macbeth’s most famous speech, he gloomily ponders life from a perspective that today might be regarded as existentialist. Upon hearing of the death of his wife, (who had sunk into madness as a result of their wrongdoing), he displays an eloquent despair at the hollowness of his great destiny and the futility of life. His achievements, he realises, are insignificant and will be forgotten after his death.