William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 1

CHAPTER 3: Evil and More Evil

— 3.1 —

Banquo stood alone at King Duncan’s castle, now occupied by the Macbeths, in Forres.

Banquo thought, Macbeth, you have it all now. You are King of Scotland and now use the royal plural. You are also Thane of Cawdor and Thane of Glamis. You have everything that the Weird Sisters promised to you, and I fear that you have acted most foully to get everything that they promised to you. However, the Weird Sisters did not say that your descendants would be Kings. Instead, they said that I would be the root and ancestor of many Kings. Since the Weird Sisters have spoken the truth to you, Macbeth, why may not they have spoken the truth to me? But I had better be quiet and not talk about this.

A trumpet call sounded to announce the King, and King Macbeth, Queen Macbeth, Lennox, Ross, and various lords and attendants entered the room in which Banquo stood.

Macbeth said, “Here is our chief guest for tonight’s banquet.”

“If Banquo were not at our feast,” Lady Macbeth said, “then it would be incomplete and unfitting.”

“Tonight we will hold a ceremonious feast, and I request that you attend,” Macbeth said to Banquo.

“It is my duty to do whatever you command,” Banquo replied.

“Will you ride on horseback this afternoon?” Macbeth asked Banquo.

“Yes, my good lord.”

“We would otherwise have sought your advice, which has always been serious and profitable, in today’s council; however, we will hear your advice tomorrow. Will you be riding far?”

“I will ride long enough to fill the time between now and the feast. Unless my horse is faster than I expect, it will be dark for an hour or two before I return.”

Macbeth ordered, “Fail not to attend our feast.”

“My lord, I will not,” Banquo promised.

“We hear that our blood-covered cousins — Malcolm and Donalbain — are in England and in Ireland. They deny that they cruelly murdered their father, King Duncan. Instead, they are telling their hosts strange lies. But we will talk of this tomorrow, as well as of other matters that concern us both. Go and mount your horse. Farewell, until you return. Is Fleance, your son, riding with you?”

“Yes, my good lord,” Banquo replied. “And we ought to be going now.”

“I hope that your horses are swift and sure of foot, and now I entrust you to their backs. Farewell.”

Banquo departed, and Macbeth said to the others present, “Let everyone entertain himself until seven this evening, the time of the feast. To make company more enjoyable, we will stay by ourselves until the time of the banquet. Until then, God be with you.”

All departed except for Macbeth and an attendant.

Macbeth said to the attendant, “Are the men I am expecting waiting for me?”

The attendant replied, “Yes, they are, my lord. They are outside the castle gate.”

“Bring them to me.”

The attendant departed, and Macbeth thought, To be King is nothing unless I can be King without worrying about being deposed. I am deeply afraid of Banquo. His royal nature must be feared because of his many good qualities. He is courageous, and he is wise enough to tip the odds in his favor and then take action. I am afraid of no one but him. Even my guardian spirit is afraid of him, just as Mark Antony’s guardian spirit was afraid of Octavian Caesar, who eventually defeated him in Rome’s civil wars. Banquo rebuked the Weird Sisters when they said that I would be King, and he asked them to tell his future. They said that he would beget many Kings. To me they gave a fruitless crown and a barren scepter — according to the Weird Sisters, no son of mine will become King after me. I have defiled my mind. Why? For Banquo’s descendants! I have murdered the gracious King Duncan. Why? For Banquo’s descendants! I have put poisonous drugs into the cup — my conscience — from which I formerly drank only peace. Why? For Banquo’s descendants! I have given my immortal soul to Satan. Why? For Banquo’s descendants! I have done all these things so that Banquo’s descendants may become Kings. I don’t want that to happen, so I will challenge fate itself and fight it to the death.

Hearing a noise, Macbeth asked, “Who’s there?”

The attendant came again into the room, bringing with him two murderers.

“Leave us alone until I call for you,” Macbeth said to the attendant.

He said to the two murderers, “Was it not yesterday we spoke together?”

The First Murderer replied, “It was, so please your Highness.”

“Have you thought about what I said to you then?” Macbeth asked. “I explained to you two that Banquo was your enemy and had plotted against you. Previously, you two had thought that it was I who was your enemy. I showed to both of you clear proof of these things the last time we met. I proved who deceived you, who thwarted you, who plotted against you, and other things that would convince even a half-wit and an insane person to believe ‘Banquo is my enemy.’”

The First Murderer replied, “You made these things known to us.”

“I did all that, and more,” Macbeth said. “And now let us get to the point of this, our second meeting. Is your nature such that you can let this man’s bad treatment of you two pass without your getting revenge? Are you made so meek by the Christian gospel that you will pray for this good man and for his children — this man whose heavy hand has brought you close to your grave and made beggars of your families?”

“We are men, my liege,” the First Murderer said, “and as we are men, we will seek revenge.”

“Yes, you are part of the many who are called men. Similarly, hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shaggy dogs, longhaired water dogs, and dog-wolf mixes are all called dogs. However, dogs are classified by their traits. Some dogs are swift, some are slow, some guard the household, some are used in hunting, and so on. Each kind of dog has its gift that nature has given it, and so it can be distinguished from the other kinds of dog. This kind of list is more informative than a list that simply contains the names of various kinds of dogs. Similarly, men are classified by their traits. Where in the list of men appear you two? Are you in the worst rank of Mankind, or above the worst rank? Should I entrust you two with a plan that will get rid of Banquo? Should I entrust you two with a plan that will make you my friends? As long as Banquo lives, I am ill at ease, but after Banquo dies, I shall be perfectly happy.”

The Second Murderer said, “I am a man who has been so badly treated by the world that in my anger I don’t much care what I do as long as I get some revenge for how I have been treated.”

The First Murderer said, “I am another such man. I am tired of the disasters I have suffered and I am tired of being the plaything of fate, and so I am willing to risk my life on the chance of improving my fortune. If I fail, I can but die.”

“Both of you know that Banquo is your enemy?” Macbeth asked.

“Yes, we do,” said the two murderers.

“Banquo is also my enemy,” Macbeth said. “Every moment that he is alive creates a pain in my heart. As King, I could easily and openly have him killed and be able to justify the killing, yet I must not, because he and I have certain friends in common whom I must keep as friends but who would mourn his death even if the King himself had ordered it. That is why I need you two. I must keep my part in Banquo’s death secret for various important reasons.”

“We shall, my lord, perform what you command us,” the Second Murderer said.

The First Murderer said, “Though our lives —”

Macbeth interrupted, “I can see that you are capable of doing what you promise to do. Within the next hour, I will tell you where you will hide in waiting for Banquo. I will give you the best information possible, including the best time to do what you have promised to do. This information comes from a man who well knows how to get information. This deed must be done tonight, and it must be done at some distance from the castle. Always remember that I must not be suspected of planning Banquo’s death. In addition, so that this deed is accomplished perfectly, you must kill Fleance, Banquo’s son. Fleance’s death is as desired by me as is Banquo’s death. Leave now, and make sure that you are resolved to carry out this plan. I will come to you soon.”

Both murderers replied, “We are resolved to do what we have promised.”

The two murderers left, and Macbeth said, “The plan is complete. Banquo, if your soul is going to go to Heaven, it must find its way there tonight.”

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