'Macbeth' Quotes Explained

Macbeth, William Shakespeare's bloodiest play, is one of the most quoted dramatic works in the English language. Memorable lines from the tragedy explore themes like reality and illusion, ambition and power, and guilt and remorse. Famous quotations from Macbeth are still recited (and sometimes spoofed) today in movies, TV shows, commercials, and even the daily news.

Quotes About Reality and Illusion

"Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air."
(Act I, Scene 1)

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens with an eerie, supernatural scene. Amidst thunder and lightening, three witches moan into the wind. They tell us that nothing is as it seems. What's good ("fair") is evil ("foul"). What's evil is good. Everything is strangely reversed.

The witches—also called "weird sisters"—are odd and unnatural. They speak in sing-song rhymes, but describe filth and evil. There's an unexpected rhythm to their words. Most of Shakespeare's characters speak in iambs, with the emphasis falling on the second syllable: da-dum, da-dum. Shakespeare's witches, however, chant in trochees. The emphasis falls on the first syllable: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

This particular quote is also a paradox. By pairing opposites, the witches disrupt the natural order. Macbeth aligns himself with their twisted thinking when he echoes their words in Act I, Scene 3: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen[.]"

Shakespeare's witches are fascinating because they force us to question the natural order of things, as well as our notions about fate and free will. Appearing at key moments in Macbeth, they chant prophesies, spark Macbeth's lust for the throne, and manipulate his thinking.

"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?"
(Act II, Scene 1)

The witches also set the tone for moral confusion and hallucinatory scenes like Macbeth's encounter with a floating dagger. Here, Macbeth is preparing to murder the king when delivers this haunting soliloquy. His tortured imagination ("heat-oppressed brain") conjures the illusion of the murder weapon. His soliloquy becomes a chilling apostrophe in which he speaks directly to the dagger: "Come, let me clutch thee."

The dagger, of course, cannot respond. Like many things in Macbeth's distorted vision, it's not even real.

Quotes About Ambition and Power

"Stars, hide your fires;

Let not light see my black and deep desires."

(Act I, Scene 4)

Macbeth is a complex and conflicted character. His comrades call him "brave" and "worthy," but the witches' prophecy has awakened a secret longing for power. These lines, spoken by Macbeth as an aside, reveal the "black and deep desires" he struggles to hide. Lusting for the crown, Macbeth plots to kill the king. But, on reflection, he questions the practicality of such an action.

"I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

And falls on the other."

(Act I, Scene 7)

Here, Macbeth acknowledges that ambition is his only motivation ("spur") to commit murder. Like a horse spurred to leap too high, this much ambition can only result in downfall.

Ambition is Macbeth's tragic flaw, and it's possible that nothing could have saved him from his fate. However, much of the blame can be placed on his wife. Power-hungry and manipulative, Lady Macbeth vows to do whatever it takes to advance her husband's murderous plan.

"…Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature's mischief!"

(Act I, Scene 5)

In this soliloquy, Lady Macbeth braces herself for murder. She rejects Elizabethan notions of womanhood ("unsex me"), and begs to be rid of soft emotions and female "visitings of nature" (menstruation). She asks the spirits to fill her breasts with poison ("gall").

Women's milk is a recurring motif in Shakespeare's play, representing the soft, nurturing qualities Lady Macbeth renounces. She believes that her husband is "too full o' the milk of human kindness" (Act I, Scene 5) to kill the king. When he waffles, she tells him that she would rather murder her own infant than abandon their murderous plan.

"…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 pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this."

(Act I, Scene 7)

In this shocking rebuke, Lady Macbeth attacks her husband's manhood. She implies that he must be weak—weaker than his wife, weaker than a nursing mother—if he cannot keep his vow to take the throne.

Elizabethan audiences would have been repulsed by Lady Macbeth's raw ambition and reversal of traditional sex roles. Just as her husband crossed moral boundaries, Lady Macbeth defied her place in society. In the 1600s, she may have appeared as weird and unnatural as the witches with their eerie incantations.

Today's attitudes are very different, yet ambitious and powerful women still arouse suspicion. Critics and conspiracy theorists have used the name "Lady Macbeth" to deride public figures like Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard.

Quotes About Guilt and Remorse

"Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep.'

What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,

Making the green one red."

(Act II, Scene 2)

Macbeth speaks these lines immediately after murdering the king. To "murder sleep" has a double meaning. Macbeth has killed a sleeping man, and he's also killed his own serenity. Macbeth knows that because of this action, he will never be able to rest peacefully. 

The guilt Macbeth feels stirs hallucinations and gruesome visions of blood. He's shocked by the sight of his murderous hands. ("They pluck out mine eyes.") In his tormented mind, his hands are soaked with so much blood, they would turn the ocean red. 

Lady Macbeth shares Macbeth's crime, but does not immediately show guilt. She coldly returns the daggers to the crime scene and smears blood on the king's sleeping grooms so that they will be blamed. Seemly unruffled, she tells her husband, "A little water clears us of this deed" (Act II, Scene 2).

"Out, damned spot! out, I say! — One: two: why,

then, 'tis time to do't. — Hell is murky! — Fie, my

lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we

fear who knows it, when none can call our power to

account? — Yet who would have thought the old man

to have had so much blood in him.

….

The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now? —

What, will these hands ne'er be clean? — No more o'

that, my lord, no more o' that: you mar all with

this starting.

Here's the smell of the blood still: all the

perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little

hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so

pale. — I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he

cannot come out on's grave.

To bed, to bed! there's knocking at the gate:

come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's

done cannot be undone. — To bed, to bed, to bed! "

(Act V, Scene 1)

The king is only one of many killings during Macbeth's bloody reign. To hold onto his ill-gotten crown, he orders the slaughter of his friend Banquo and the entire household of Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife. Macbeth suffers fits of hysteria and hallucinates Banquo's ghost with blood-clotted hair. But it's the hard-hearted Lady Macbeth who eventually collapses under the weight of guilt, and she is the one who gives this monologue.

Sleepwalking, she wrings her hands and babbles about the stain of so much spilled blood. 

The phrase "Out, damned spot!" can seem comical to modern readers. Lady Macbeth's distraught words have been used in advertisements for products ranging from household cleaners to acne medicines. But this is the raving of a woman who teeters on the brink of madness. 

Parts of Lady Macbeth's monologue, like the incantation of the witches, depart from the traditional iambic pentameter. In a metrical pattern called a spondee, she strings together syllables that have equal weight: Out-damned-spot-out. Since each one-syllable word is equally stressed, the emotional tension is heightened. Readers (or listeners) are more likely to feel the impact of each word.

The words themselves seem nonsensical. They are non sequiturs, jumping from thought to thought. Lady Macbeth is reliving all the crimes, remembering sounds, smells, and images. One after the other, she names murder victims: the king ("the old man"), Macduff's wife, and Banquo.

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

(Act V, Scene 5)

Unable to recover from her guilt, Lady Macbeth kills herself. When this news reaches Macbeth, he's already in deep despair. Abandoned by his noblemen and knowing his own days are numbered, he delivers one of the most desolate soliloquies in the English language.

In this extended metaphor, Macbeth compares life to a theatrical performance. Days on earth are as short-lived as the candles that illuminate the Elizabethan stage. Each person is nothing more than a shadow cast by that flickering light, a silly actor who struts about and then vanishes when the candle is snuffed. In this metaphor, nothing is real and nothing matters. Life is "a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing."

American author William Faulkner titled his novel The Sound and the Fury after a line from Macbeth's soliloquy. Poet Robert Frost borrowed a phrase for his poem, "Out, Out —." Even the cartoon Simpson family embraced the metaphor with a melodramatic rendition by Homer Simpson.

Ironically, Shakespeare's tragedy ends soon after this somber speech. It's easy to imagine audiences blinking from the theater, wondering, What's real? What's illusion? Are we part of the play?

Sources

  • Garber, Marjorie. “Shakespeare and Modern Culture, Chapter One.” 10 Dec. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/12/11/books/chapters/chapter-shakespeare.html. Excerpted from the book, Pantheon Publishers.
  • Liner, Elaine. “Out, Damned Spot!: The Best Pop Culture References That Came from Macbeth.” 26 Sept. 2012, www.dallasobserver.com/arts/out-damned-spot-the-best-pop-culture-references-that-came-from-macbeth-7097037.
  • Macbeth. Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu/macbeth.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. Arden. Read online at shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/index.html
  • Themes in Macbeth. Royal Shakespeare Company, cdn2.rsc.org.uk/sitefinity/education-pdfs/themes-resources/edu-macbeth-themes.pdf?sfvrsn=4.
  • Wojczuk, Tana. The Good Wife – Hillary Clinton as Lady Macbeth. Guernica, 19 Jan. 2016. www.guernicamag.com/tana-wojczuk-the-good-wife-hillary-clinton-as-lady-macbeth/.