Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7 is a moment of extreme uncertainty. The audience witnesses the great war hero pacing the stage, equivocating about the potential murder of his king, his kinsman, and his guest in a way that seems surprisingly indecisive for someone capable of “unseam[ing]” an opponent “from the nave to the chops”. Yet Shakespeare uses this equivocation to signal the enormous difference between these two killings. The mutilation of Macdonwald is presented as the justified elimination of a traitor and demonstrates Macbeth’s loyalty to his king and country*, whilst the act of regicide will overturn the Divine Right of Kings and condemn the murderer to “deep damnation”.
One fascinating aspect of this scene is the way in which Shakespeare portrays Macbeth’s knowledge that the murder of Duncan will lead to this damnation – whilst in the subsequent scene we see him stealthily approaching his victim’s bedchamber, dagger in hand, despite having full knowledge of the consequences of his actions. In Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth considers “the life to come”, the “judgement” he may face on earth (after all, we have seen what happens to traitors in the killing of Macdonwald and execution of the previous Thane of Cawdor), and the burden of guilt that will “plague the inventor”. Macbeth recognises that this tripartite punishment – in the afterlife, on earth, and in one’s own mind – is a “poisoned chalice” from which he is choosing to drink. Clearly, the ambition which drives him onwards is more powerful than these very tangible fears.
Just as much of this scene is steeped in religious imagery, so too is the phrase “poisoned chalice”. It alludes to a New Testament passage about Jesus’ preparation for the crucifixion. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, Jesus begs God to “let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). In this prayer, drinking from the cup is a metaphor for the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and although this is an action that Jesus fears, he is willing to proceed as God commands. In this context, drinking from the cup is the ultimate act of faith and self-sacrifice. Through the use of this symbolism in Macbeth, Shakespeare shows the protagonist’s reluctant decision to drink from the cup that is offered to him – yet unlike in the Bible, this is a cup offered by the witches, who are agents of the devil rather than of God. This inversion of the Biblical narrative emphasises Macbeth’s rejection of morality – no wonder he cannot say “Amen” after the murder takes place.
The image of the “poisoned chalice” also links to the theme of appearance and reality. From the play’s opening lines (“fair is foul and foul is fair”), Shakespeare draws our attention to how appearances can be deceiving, and how people can mask their “deep and black desires” behind a facade of loyalty. Inside the beautiful and attractive chalice, Macbeth finds destruction and suffering – just as the witches’ “fair” sounding prophecies lead him to his downfall. Perhaps Shakespeare is warning his audience to be aware of the possible Machiavellian intentions of those around them, or is it that the play reveals to us the true darkness that lurks in every human heart? Of course, poison is the true weapon of the Machiavellian villain, as demonstrated by Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet.
Zooming out a little, it is curious that Macbeth uses the pronoun “our” to describe the chalice. Ostensibly, this plural pronoun might include Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they are both agents in this crime. However, the level of intense introspection and the growing rift in the relationship with his wife indicates that perhaps the word “our” signifies someone (or something) else. Could it be that Shakespeare incorporates the witches in this word, or does it refer to Macbeth and his conscience? Either way, Lady Macbeth’s interruption at the end of this soliloquy brings an end to Macbeth’s equivocation and, after a little more persuasion, he proceeds to drink from the cup and let its poison take hold.
*Or does it indicate that Macbeth is easily overwhelmed by bloodlust and will destroy anyone who stands in his way, whatever his aim?