Literature

A Short Analysis of Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ Soliloquy

‘Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?’ So begins one of the most famous soliloquies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – indeed, perhaps in all of Shakespeare. Before we offer an analysis of this scene – and summarise the meaning of the soliloquy – here is a reminder of the famous speech. (If you would like an overview of the whole of Macbeth, we have analysed the play here.)

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?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
[a bell rings]
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Note: the soliloquy beginning ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ appears in Act II Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ is often staged, and filmed, with the dagger suspended in mid-air. But this makes the implied boundary between the real and the hallucinatory too clear-cut: as numerous critics have pointed out, the point is that Macbeth believes that the dagger is real at first, rather than knowing it to be an illusion from the outset. For this reason, perhaps we’re better off picturing a dagger resting on a nearby table, lying flat; this also makes it easier to understand how the ‘handle’ of the dagger is ‘towards’ Macbeth’s hand, as if inviting him to pick it up.

After Macbeth has ‘seen’ the dagger before him, the handle towards his hand, he then begins to doubt himself.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

This line indicates that Shakespeare intended the actor playing Macbeth to attempt to pick up the dagger, only to find that it’s made of air. There’s an implied stage direction here for Macbeth to reach to grab the dagger, only to find there’s no dagger there.

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?

In other words, if this is a ‘fatal vision’ or hallucination, it appears to be one that is assailing his sense of sight only. In other words, ‘sensible’ here means pertaining to the senses, rather than the modern meaning of the word. Macbeth is a play obsessed with touch and the tangible, with what can be grasped and touched: it is a play full of hands, a most hand-y play. But here, we are seeing the first of many hallucinatory (or are they merely hallucinatory, or perhaps supernatural?) experiences Macbeth will have. The question is whether this dagger is a result of his ‘heat-oppressed’ (the second word should be pronounced with three syllables, for the metre of the line) or fevered brain.

I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.

Another piece of implied stage direction: the actor playing Macbeth goes to his belt (or similar) to draw a real dagger he has in his possession (the one he will use to murder Duncan shortly after this scene).

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;

More implied stage direction – the dagger seems to point in the direction of the room where Duncan lies asleep. But which dagger? Still the imagined one, presumably. Though this isn’t certain: it could be that Shakespeare is now referring to the real dagger that Macbeth has just drawn, and which audiences in the theatre can see with their own eyes. The very soliloquy seems to blur the boundaries between real and imaginary, as if we ourselves are meant to lose track of the real dagger and the imagined one.

And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest;

In other words, either his sight is in conflict with all his other senses (such as touch), or else his eyes are worth more than the rest of his other senses put together, and he should trust what he sees. Indeed:

I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

As so often with a Shakespeare soliloquy, here we find Macbeth arguing with himself, changing his mind mid-line. The detail of the dagger intensifies: he now sees (or thinks he can see) drops of blood on the blade and ‘dudgeon’ (the handle of the dagger). But he immediately says there isn’t any blood on the dagger (whether or not a dagger is there, he seems to know the blood is imagined), and merely a result of his thoughts being so turned towards bloody deeds (i.e. the planned murder of Duncan).

Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep;

It’s night time, and across the whole northern hemisphere or ‘half-world’, things seem to have come to a halt. Dreams of witchcraft and evil disrupt Macbeth’s sleep: he’s up and about, but the boundary between dreaming and waking seems to have been disturbed.

witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.

Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft in classical mythology, performs ‘offerings’ or rituals – we’re back to Macbeth’s encounter with the three Witches or Weird Sisters. The word ‘murder’ should perhaps be capitalised (it is in some editions) to make it clear that Macbeth is personifying it as Murder: Murder has been roused awake by his watchdog, the wolf, and like Tarquin – the man who raped Lucrece in a story Shakespeare had earlier written about in his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, hence ‘ravishing’ – moves towards his prey, silently and stealthily like a ghost.

Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.

Macbeth calls upon the earth to render his steps similarly silent, so that nobody will be alerted to his plans as he enters Duncan’s chamber and murders him. It’s become clear by this point that the dagger appearing to him has made Macbeth’s mind up: he plans to go through with the deed. The phrase ‘take the present horror from the time’ is a little more difficult to interpret: the most likely meaning is that Macbeth thinks that if he moves silently that will remove the horror from this moment, since the sound of his footsteps will fill him with fear over what he is going to do. As things stand, though, horror and this moment are perfectly ‘suited’ or matched, i.e. ‘Which now suits with it.’

Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

Although it’s ungrammatical (it was common in Shakespeare’s time to have a plural paired with a singular verb, so ‘Words … gives’), the second line means that it’s no good talking about all this: he just needs to go ahead and commit the deed itself. The deed is ‘hot’ but his words are ‘cold’, i.e. the more he talks about doing it, the weaker (or cooler) his resolve grows.

[a bell rings]
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Macbeth now takes the sound of the bell as a sign that he should go and kill Duncan. And this is where the scene ends, a scene that had begun with that unsettling vision of a dagger that wasn’t really there. Macbeth will next murder Duncan, an act that will cause him to ‘see’ more visions, ghosts, and hallucinations later in the play. Macbeth is, of all of Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps the most attuned to the various senses: sight, sound, and touch are all vividly felt here. But the most powerful sense of all is that imaginary sense of something being there when it isn’t.

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