Act 3, Scene 4: the banquet

Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's Macbeth is often referred to as “the banquet scene”, and here the consequences of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan really start to show. Macbeth and his wife throw a banquet - a feast - for their loyal thanes to celebrate Macbeth’s reign as king. One of the murderers that Macbeth has secretly hired to kill his rival Banquo appears to inform Macbeth that Banquo is dead - but his son Fleance has escaped.

This is bad news since the witches’ prophecy said that Banquo’s sons would become kings. Macbeth then thinks he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair at the table, and he has a mental breakdown in front of his guests. Lady Macbeth desperately tries to cover for him, but the banquet ends with the thanes having to leave.

Dramatically, this scene has the function of being the climax in the play. Macbeth is at the peak of his power, but morally and psychologically he is in a bad place, and from now on things start going downhill. You can read more about climax in our Structure section.

Although this scene is mostly about people sitting at a table, it is actually highly dramatic because of the ghost and Macbeth’s reaction to it. We may interpret the appearance of Banquo’s ghost in two ways: either as real or as a figment of Macbeth’s imagination. In any case, it is bad for Macbeth. If the ghost is real - as most Elizabethans would think - it is a sign that God is punishing him for his killings. If the ghost is imaginary - as most modern readers would think - it is a sign that Macbeth is falling apart psychologically because he is riddled with guilt and fear.

Macbeth is so agitated that he comes close to revealing to his thanes that he is the one behind the murders of Duncan and Banquo. He almost screams at the ghost: “Thou canst not say I did it: never shake/ Thy gory locks at me.” (3.4.60-61). Apparently the ghost he ...

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