Analysing 4 key quotations in Macbeth

As expected, a lot of you have requested more content on Macbeth. I’m pleased to hear that the posts on ambition and the supernatural have been helpful, so here’s another set of close reading analysis on 4 other important quotations from the play.

But before we continue – 

A quick, but serious, note on plagiarism:

I’ve noticed that some backlinks for this blog have come from plagiarism checker sites. The implication of this is clear, so without having to spell out the obvious, I hope that we would all use online resources (including this blog) with integrity and honesty. All my content is intended to help students as a source of reference, inspiration and guidance, but certainly not as an enabler of plagiaristic practice, nor a repository of copyable, uncredited passages. Ultimately, personal character trumps academic achievement any day, and I’m just going to leave it at that.

In this post, we’ll be looking at the following sets of quotations:

  1. “To beguile the time, look like the time” (Lady Macbeth. Act 1 Scene 5)
  2. “I dare do all that may become a man” (Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 6)
  3. “Double, double toil and trouble” (The Witches, Act 4 Scene 1)
  4. “Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits” (Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1) 

If you prefer to watch me explaining these passages, then check out my YouTube videos at the bottom of this post!

Quotation 1: “To beguile the time,/Look like the time” (Lady Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5)

Lady Macbeth act 1 scene 5 to beguile the time look like the time analysis

LADY MACBETH:

To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. […] 

(1.5) 

This quotation comes right after Lady Macbeth has read her husband’s letter about the Witches’ prophecy, when Macbeth arrives at the palace to meet her. By this point, she’s already made her mind up about what they should do to Duncan, but she knows her husband too well to also know that he’ll probably dilly-dally and pussy-foot when it comes to killing the king, despite his ambitions. 

When she counsels him “to beguile the time,/Look like the time”, the reference – “the time” – is a metonym for ‘men of their time’, so her point here is for Macbeth to blend in with the crowd and pretend that nothing is amiss, which is ironic because they truly believe themselves to be special and unique from the rest of the pack. 

The synecdoche of “your eye,/Your hand, your tongue”, while serving as a stand-in for Macbeth’s whole person, almost seems to pre-empt their violent act with the separated body parts connoting anatomical severance. 

There’s lots of visual imagery in this scene, with two references to “look like” in “look like the time” and “look like the innocent flower”, and “your eye”, which tells us that the thematic focus here is appearance versus reality – specifically, of fabricating an appearance to shroud reality. 

This notion is extended with the juxtaposition between “look like the innocent flower” and “be the serpent under’t”: the serpent is, of course, a biblical allusion to the serpentine devil in paradise, who tempts Eve into tasting the forbidden fruit, which leads to Adam tasting it as well and siring forth the ‘Original Sin’. This biblical context is echoed in what’s happening here, as Lady Macbeth prods Macbeth into committing an act of sin, in effect turning husband and wife into a pair of latter-day Shakespearean ‘Adam and Eve’. 

One final point that bears commenting is the presence of parallelism in this quotation. Notice that the phrases are syntactically consistent (“…the time,…the time”, “your eye, your hand, your tongue”, “look like… look like”), but this presents an interesting irony between form and content, because Lady Macbeth is encouraging inconsistency – specifically, between what Macbeth projects and what he actually does. 

Quotation 2: “I dare do all that may become a man” (Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 6)

macbeth act 1 scene 6 I dare do all that may become a man analysis

MACBETH: 

Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none. [..]

(1.6)

In response to his wife’s taunting of his indecisiveness, Macbeth at first tries to hold his ground by appealing to his manhood. To give him credit, his understanding of manhood is actually more than the masculine sense: when he says “I dare do all that may become a man”, he means that he will do whatever is appropriate for a decent person, which shows that his understanding of ‘man’ is all-encompassing, meaning ‘human’.

Of course, his wily wife turns this on his head by reinterpreting ‘man’ in the masculine, thereby successfully attacking Macbeth’s male ego.

Note, by the way, that he uses the modal verb of possibility – “may”, which suggests a wavering conviction in what he’s saying. So we see that he wishes to do what’s right, but is also open to what’s ‘right’ being a contingency, rather than a non-negotiable.

This shows us that what Macbeth perceives to be appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is in fact troublingly unclear, and his moral blurriness is reinforced by the internal rhyme of “all” and “more” in “dare do all” and “dares do more”. What is ‘all that may become a man’ isn’t that distinct from what’s ‘more’. 

Finally, in his daring claim that “who dares do more is none”, the immediate implication of “none” is a lack of worth, but the word also embodies the ideas of nothingness, absence and by extension, non-existence.

This symbolically foreshadows Macbeth’s fate at the end of the play: because by ‘daring to do more’ with his murders of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family, he ultimately dies, thereby losing his state as a ‘man’ and becomes, literally, no-one – ‘none’. 

Quotation 3: “Double, double toil and trouble” (The Witches, Act 4 Scene 1)

the witches act 4 scene 1 double double toil an trouble analysis

THE WITCHES: 

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

(4.1)

The first point to note about the “double, double” chant is the reference to “double”: why “double”? The word ‘double’, besides meaning ‘two or a pair’, also connotes the idea of deception, hence the terms ‘double-dealing’ and ‘two-faced’.

And deceptive is exactly what the Witches are, as they flatter Macbeth by stroking his ego buttons with hints of his impending kingship, all the while orchestrating diabolical developments in the background, ultimately pushing Macbeth towards his tragic fall with their misleading prophecies and “horrible sights”. 

The fact that “double” and “trouble” come together as a pair of internal rhyme also reinforces the idea that the Witches cause all sorts of trouble through their deceitful nature. It’s interesting, too, that the word which is sandwiched between “double” and “trouble” – “toil” – meant “a snare or trap” in Shakespeare’s time, which creates the visual imagery of someone trapped in a bind, which is very much Macbeth’s situation vis-a-vis the Witches’ manipulative antics. 

In the next line, “fire burn” carries clear hellish connotations, and foreshadows the intensification of Macbeth’s demonic tendencies, as reflected by his murderous pursuit of Macduff after hearing from the apparitions. 

What’s especially worth noting, though, is the rhyming couplet of “bubble” and “trouble”: the word “bubble” doesn’t just refer to the act of boiling – it also means a deceptive sham, or an empty show. Juxtaposing it with “trouble”, then, suggests that while the Witches are instigators of trouble, their wicked shenanigans are in fact more imaginary than real, which only those who are weak of mind and vulnerable to temptations, like Macbeth, would fall for. 

It also signifies the transience and hollowness of Macbeth’s desperate pursuit of power and ambition, which as we know, ultimately vanishes in a puff – like a bubble – with his defeat at the hands of Macduff. 

Two more points before we wrap up, which relate to the use of alliteration and trochaic metre in this quotation. Notice that most of the sounds here are plosives, such as the ‘d’ in “double, double”, ‘t’ in “toil and trouble”, and ‘b’ and ‘c’ in “burn”, and “cauldron bubble”. On their own, these abrupt, cacophonous sounds indicate a sort of native violence on the Witches’ part (which is more psychological than physical). 

There’s also the trochaic metre of alternate stress and unstresses in “DOU-ble, DOU-ble TOIL and TROU-ble”, which feels stilted and contrived. Together, the plosives and trochees point to the Witches’ unnaturalness.

Indeed, as supernatural creatures rather than human beings, these Witches stick out among all the other characters in the play as ontological anomalies, and as such, are representations of disorder and its attendant chaos in an otherwise orderly and human world. 

Quotation 4: “Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits” (Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1)

macbeth act 4 scene 1 time thou anticipatest my dread exploits analysis

MACBETH:

Time, thou anticipatest my dread exploits:
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it; from this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done: […]

(4.1)

This quotation comes after Macbeth meets the apparitions conjured up by the Witches, whom he seeks out in a frenzy after hallucinating Banquo’s ghost. 

He’s told to “beware Macduff” but not to fear any man “of woman born”, and that he will not be harmed as long as Birnam Wood doesn’t come near Dunsinane Hill. Despite these so-called reassurances (which we’ll go on to know are misleading cues), Macbeth grows ever more paranoid and decides to ambush Macduff’s castle. 

Despite having already committed so many murders, he’s still not completely emboldened by this point, and we see here that he continues to be pulled back by his natural hesitancy. 

With an apostrophe, Macbeth personifies “Time” – the period between thought and action – and blames it for his lack of resoluteness. He is frustrated by his tendency to overthink, and throughout this quotation we see a clear strain of antithesis between thinking and doing, namely in “purpose/deed”, “heart/hand”, “thoughts/acts”, and “thought/done”. 

The biggest irony here is that contrary to Macbeth’s self-evaluation as someone who thinks too much before acting, the entire play presents him as a man who acts against his better judgment, as someone who doesn’t actually think enough about the consequences of his actions before doing anything.

He’s got the order reversed, and this is perhaps reflected in the polyptoton of “thoughts” and “thought” in the final line “To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done”: the noun precedes the verb, which suggests that he allows his ‘thought’ to manifest before he’s even done the ‘thinking’.

For more of my analysis on Shakespeare’s works, check out the posts below:

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