Macbeth: Key Quotes Explained

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

If, as the old quip has it, Hamlet is a great play but it has too many quotations in it, a similar charge might be laid against Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. So many lines in the play have become proverbial and are often quoted outside of the context of the play itself.

But what are the most famous quotations from Macbeth, and what do they mean? Let’s look at some of the most important quotations found in this short tragedy.

‘When shall we three meet again?’

This opening scene of the play, according to the stage directions, takes place in ‘an open place’. Immediately, Shakespeare establishes an atmosphere of foreboding: the storm which begins Macbeth heralds the turbulent events which are going to follow, all of which the Witches have prophesied. The opening lines of the play run:

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair’.

This line is spoken by the three Witches or Weird Sisters towards the end of the play’s opening scene:

‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’

The line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is almost proverbial, and was already so when Shakespeare wrote this line. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene from the 1590s, for instance, we find the line, ‘Then faire grew foule, and foule grew faire in sight’.

Once again, here, we have the natural order being overturned and inverted, with the pair of opposites dissolving into one: fair has been rendered foul, and foul has become fair. Good and evil appear to have swapped places.

‘By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.’

This line is spoken by one of the Weird Sisters as Macbeth approaches them with Banquo, and suggests that the Witches have a kind of ‘sixth sense’ (the strange tingling they experience in their thumbs) about Macbeth being a bad egg.

‘I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition …’

Macbeth’s own description of his ‘vaulting ambition’ has become familiar to many a student of Shakespeare’s play: it neatly encapsulates the strong sense of ambition he feels, an ambition over which he does not have full control.

He is like a rider on a horse that got out of control, and whether or not the horse runs is not within his power (hence the reference to the ‘spur’, used by a rider to kick the horse into a run).

‘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. We have analysed it in detail here. It begins:

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.

‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’ is often staged, and filmed, with the dagger suspended in mid-air.

‘Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness’.

Spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, these lines reveal Lady Macbeth to be the more brutal and unfeeling of the pair, with no misgivings about murdering the king in order to achieve their aims.

In speaking these words, Lady Macbeth gave us a now ubiquitous phrase (‘milk of human kindness’, although Shakespeare may also have intended ‘milk of humankindness’, i.e. those qualities which make us part of humankind), drawing on early modern notions of milk-drinking as leading to softness and soppiness of temperament.

‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly’.

So begins one of the most famous and revealing soliloquies spoken by Macbeth. The words appear in act I scene VII of the play and see Macbeth, in a room in his castle, meditating on whether to go through with his (and his wife’s) plan to murder Duncan, the king, and seize the throne of Scotland for himself.

This speech also features the earliest known use of the word ‘assassination’.

‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?’

Spoken by Macbeth shortly after he has murdered Duncan in his bed, and his hands are still covered in the late king’s blood, this question is followed by an admission that nothing can wash the stain of this crime from his hand:

No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

‘I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’

As you may have gathered by now, many of the most memorable quotations from Macbeth involve blood. In this quotation from Act 3, Macbeth acknowledges that he has already committed so many vile deeds that he may as well continue: he is beyond redemption, and there’s no way back now.

‘Double, double toil and trouble:
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’

Spoken by the Witches in Act 4, these incantations are among the most memorable lines in the whole play, with the air of magic and witchcraft contained within them (they are spoken by the Weird Sisters as they put various disgusting ingredients into their bubbling cauldron) embodying the general mood of the play.

‘Out, damned spot! out, I say!’

Like Macbeth’s earlier complaint that all of Neptune’s oceans could not wash his bloody hand clean, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking mutterings betray her guilt: the blood on her hands may be metaphorical (or hallucinatory), but the guilt she feels is the same. Her conscience has been well and truly pricked, and she will die (offstage) shortly after this. We have analysed this scene here.

‘What’s done cannot be undone.’

Also spoken by Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks around the castle grounds, this line points up another aspect of the play’s linguistic fingerprint: the word ‘done’ and its homophones, present in Duncan, Dunsinane, and all the various uses of the word ‘done’ in the play (‘If it were done’, etc.).

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’.

Spoken upon hearing of the death of his wife, Macbeth’s speech from towards the end of this play has become famous for this line as well as the phrases ‘full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing’ and ‘Out, out, brief candle!’ The speech begins:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
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.

Macbeth’s speech is about the futility and illusoriness of all life and everything we do: we are all bound for the grave, and life doesn’t seem to mean anything, ultimately. He is responding to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead here; it’s the beginning of the end for him.

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