Before I could ask students about their observations of the three films, they began talking. Among their comments, I heard the following:
"The first one left out a lot that I think is necessary to understanding the play."
"The second and third ones both had bells."
"I heard a heart beating in the third one."
I asked, "What effect on us as viewers does the heart beat have?"
One student commented, "It emphasizes life that ends. It makes you think about living."
To the student that said the Patrick Stewart version is creepy, I asked, "What makes it creepy?"
"It's dark," said one student in reference to Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.
"What did you think about the corridor?" I asked.
"That makes it eerie and adds to the creepiness."
"What did you think about the decision to show a dagger in the Hollywood version, which is the first one, and not to show the dagger in the other two? How do these decisions change our perception of Macbeth."
Several students noted that Macbeth seems to be hallucinating and seems a bit "crazy" at this point.
The conversation continued along these lines with students noting that the bell is in two of the clips. I told students that for a Jacobean audience they would recognize the bell as a symbol of death as whenever someone died the bell would toll.
Finally, I told students that these film versions of Macbeth can help them think about their performances in class as we move forward with the play.
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Commentary: Macbeth, Act II, Scene I “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” Macbeth is one of the most famous plays written by William Shakespeare. The play tells the story of Macbeth, Thane of Glamis whose dark ambition will lead him to murder the king and take his crown. This passage is Macbeth’s first soliloquy extracted from the Scene I of Act II, also known as the “dagger scene”. This is the scene that precedes Duncan’s murder. Many themes are recurring throughout the play and this passage.
First, we will deal with illusions and reality and their consequences on Macbeth’s state of mind, then we will move on to order and disorder and finally to the murder Macbeth is about to commit. In this passage, the theme of illusion and reality is clearly shown. Macbeth is the victim of his illusions. The ultimate questions would be to know if we can rely on our senses and if what we see is real. Those questions are at stake in this passage. Macbeth asks a lot of rhetorical questions in his soliloquy, the first being “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? ” (l. 2-33). He doesn’t know what to think about the dagger as shown l. 35 “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. ” Is the dagger real? He doesn’t understand hence why he starts questioning his senses (l. 36-37) “Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? ”. He knows that he can see it but he wonders if he can touch it. The word “vision” is used which emphasises the fact that it is an illusion, an image created by his brain. He then thinks that something might be wrong with him to see such a thing “A dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (l. 38-39). In other words, he is starting to doubt himself and wonders if he is becoming crazy and if it could only be his mind tricking him and making him see the dagger. An allusion to the witches is made (l. 51-52) with the word “witchcraft” and the reference to Hecate, a Greek goddess depicted in the triple form hence the three weird sisters. Witchcraft can be seen as an illusion. Throughout the play, Macbeth doesn’t know whether he really sees the witches or if they are an illusion because of their tendency to disappear after announcing what is going to happen to him.
As far as reality is concerned in this extract, the dagger Macbeth sees is an illusion which becomes then a stage reality when he draws out his own dagger: “I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which I now draw” (l. 40-41). Reality joins illusion. They become closely related and confuse Macbeth even more. Why does the dagger he sees seem as real as the one he has in his hand? Given these points, we can interpret the vision of the dagger as the product of Macbeth’s guilty mind. He is uncertain about what he has to do.
The dagger represents his conscience which will finally lead him to the murder of Duncan. The second predominant theme in Macbeth and particularly in this passage is order and disorder and how Macbeth’s figure dramatically changes from one to the other. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is seen as an order figure. He is a soldier and defends the king. His dark ambition and his greed for power, being his worst enemies, made him turn into a disorder figure. The struggle takes place in his mind.
Even before committing the murder, he has troubles sleeping: “Now o’er the one halfworld nature seems dead and wicked dreams abuse the curtain’d sleep […]. ” Darkness is already mentioned, it echoes to the natural disorder Duncan’s murder will cause. His sleep is haunted by nightmares. His guilty mind is trying to make him foresee the consequences his acts will have on him. The importance of the “dagger scene” is that it introduces the murder of Duncan, which leads to the real beginning of the story and therefore the start of Macbeth’s descent into hell.
The murder and the vision of blood are key elements to this scene. First of all, a dagger is a weapon and second of all it is the weapon Macbeth will use to kill Duncan. The dagger is leading him: “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going; and such an instrument I was to use” (l. 42-43). Blood is mentioned a few times. There is however a difference between military blood drawn during the battles and the blood of murders. Macbeth sees blood on the dagger: “And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood which was not so before” (l. 6-47). Blood is dripping off the illusionary dagger to show Macbeth what his conscience wants him to do. Blood is the symbol of murder and it will be drawn. We can see that he still doesn’t know if he can kill Duncan: “Whiles I threat, he lives: words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives” (l. 60-61). Talking makes him realise what he is about to do. He is torn between fulfilling his dark ambitions of becoming king and being a good man with an honourable conscience. The more he talks, the less he is willing to commit the murder.
Then hearing his wife ring the bell triggers something within him and all of a sudden he becomes determined to carry it out: “I go, and it is done” (l. 62). He thinks that he might as well do it now because there won’t be any other opportunities. The last verse of the soliloquy shows that Macbeth has made his mind up “That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (l. 64). He announces that Duncan is going to die. All things considered, this analysis shows the importance of the “dagger scene” in the play. It can be seen as an open door through Macbeth’s mind and thoughts.
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All of his questions are rhetorical but they help us understand the way he thinks and how he struggles. This scene can be understood as a preview of Macbeth’s upcoming madness and the vision of the dagger as the first of many others to come. Macbeth still has a bit of sanity left since he questions his senses and doesn’t believe what he sees at first: “Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses, or else worth all the rest” (l. 44-45). This scene is not only the beginning of what Macbeth is going to become after the murder of Duncan and but also stands as a warning.
Author: Michelle Kivett
Macbeth, the dagger scene
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