Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: a drama of crime and punishment, of temptation, guilt, remorse and ambition. What makes Macbeth stand out from numerous other plays is the fact that witches played a main role in the storyline. King James was monarch at the time, and believed that witches were in existence – any suspected witches under the reign of James were put to death. Writing popular plays for the king was vital for Shakespeare’s reputation, and hence his career. It is thought therefore, that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth primarily for the king. In addition to this, Macbeth was written in a time of fear, ignorance and religious intolerance. All of these mentioned are relevant to the matter of who is responsible for King Duncan’s death.
At first glance it seems quite evident to some that Macbeth was most responsible for King Duncan’s death due to the fact that he actually killed the king. However, there were many other people involved with the murder including the three witches, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, and even the king himself. I shall begin by showing you what made Macbeth so responsible.
Macbeth’s greatest weakness is ambition. But it all started when the witches made several prophecies in front of Macbeth and Banquo:
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee thane of Glamis! All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee thane of Cawdor! All hail Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter.”
Macbeth and Banquo seemed hesitant to believe these prophecies at first, but when two noblemen arrived, (Ross and Angus) declaring that Macbeth would become thane of Cawdor, it all started to change:
“What, can the devil speak true?”
This is a crucial part of the play, as from that moment onwards there was a definite feeling of uncertainty hovering in the air – Macbeth was unsure what exactly the future may have held.
Having a witch’s prophecy actually come true would immediately grab the audience’s attention in Shakespeare’s time – Shakespeare used his ingenuity well.
Being third in line to the throne, Macbeth knew that it would take a miracle for him to become king without having to commit murder. Over the next few scenes in the play, he held much consideration on what he could – and should, do.
When King Duncan is staying at their castle, (a perfect opportunity to murder the him) Lady Macbeth asked him why he had left the chamber. It was clear that he had been in deep thought:
“We will proceed no further in this business: he hath honoured me of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people…”
– He may appear content here, but then allows Lady Macbeth to persuade him otherwise! This then resulted in him changing his mind:
“I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat. Away, and mock the time with fairest show: false face must heart doth know.”
Had Macbeth not allowed Lady Macbeth to speak for any longer, Macbeth wouldn’t have changed his mind – Duncan may well have lived.
We also have to consider Macbeth’s hallucination involving the dagger not long before the murder. Although he could not control what he actually saw, he knew after reaching out for it that it wasn’t real. Perhaps Macbeth should have caught hold of the situation at this point.
To a majority of people, Lady Macbeth is most responsible for the king’s death. Although she did not kill the king, she played a vital role in persuading Macbeth to commit the regicide.
Lady Macbeth understands from the witch’s prophecy in Macbeth’s letter that they will become king and queen of Scotland. However, she thinks that Macbeth is too humane to murder, as well as striving to be noble, courageous, and to do the right thing:
“What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way…”
Lady Macbeth is obviously pleased with the prospect of becoming queen, but then acts very peculiarly for a woman, and asks for all evil to surround her in the following soliloquy:
“The raven himself is hoarse – that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements. Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, stop up th’access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between th’effect and it! Come to my women’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers, wherever in your sightless substances you wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, to cry, ‘hold, hold!'”
Lady Macbeth went beyond human nature in order to bring herself to ‘murder’ the king. Although she didn’t physically murder the king, in effect she did because she had to convince Macbeth, and drug the guards so that they would not wake up.
When Macbeth says that the person who dares to do more than is appropriate to a man is not really a man, Lady Macbeth replies with the following, questioning his manhood:
“When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man.”
The language that Shakespeare chooses to use for Lady Macbeth is very articulate and persuasive – when Macbeth asks her what would happen if they fail, she speaks defiantly:
“We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail.”
Although they managed to kill the king, they by no means got away with it. It seems amazing that Lady Macbeth went mad before Macbeth himself, and even killed herself. This shows that she was affected by what she did, even though after the murder scene when they were washing the blood away she remarked:
“A little water clears us of this deed…”
Although they didn’t force any specific action, to some, the witches are most responsible for the death of King Duncan. This is because without the prophecies that they made, Macbeth would never have thought seriously about killing Duncan – and would never have done it. While the witches are not wholly responsible for Macbeth’s actions, they are responsible for introducing the ideas to him – which in turn fired up his ambition, which of course lead to a catastrophic chain of events. They clearly knew that Macbeth was ambitious and that he would take the shortest route. Again, here the are the witches making the prophecies:
“All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis! All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee thane of Cawdor! All hail Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter.”
Banquo, although a very fine man, should also share some of the responsibility for King Duncan’s death. He was there with Macbeth when the witches prophesised, and although was somewhat suspicious of him, did not speak out his thoughts and warn the king. Macbeth killed the king’s guards – the only two witnesses to the Murder. Banquo knows who had the motive to kill Duncan, for know Macbeth will become king. He also should’ve picked up exactly what Macbeth was doing the night of the murder when they met. – They even spoke about the three witches during this confrontation:
“I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters – to you they have shown some truth.”
Of course it would have been difficult, but for the king’s sake – he should have overcome all this uncertainty and issued a warning.
Although I think it only part of being a good king, Duncan could also be held partly responsible for his own death. He had trusted the former thane of Cawdor, who turned out to be a traitor:
“He was a gentlemen on whom I built an absolute trust.”
You would’ve thought he would have learned from this mistake, and be a little more careful. However, he only had two guards outside his room in Macbeth’s Castle, (of which were merry) which shows that he put a great deal of trust in Macbeth as well. – But why shouldn’t he trust him? After all, Macbeth had just fought incredibly bravely in a battle for him!
In my opinion, Lady Macbeth is most responsible for the death of King Duncan primarily because of the fact that she persuaded Macbeth to commit the murder. Without her, Macbeth wouldn’t have been able to bring himself to do it, and the witches’ prophecy would have proved to be untrue.
The murder scene in Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth was very well done. It is important that you start to build up tension from early on, and Polanski achieved this by having a raging thunderstorm going on when the king was within the castle bounds. The audience knows that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are speaking with each other about the murder, but at that same moment, Duncan was having an enjoyable time with his guards – who were dancing. The chamber that they were in was well lit, but outside where Lady Macbeth and Macbeth were was cold and pitch black.
Despite it being much easier to perform the murder scenes for a film than on stage, if I were to stage the king’s demise, it would be similar to that of Polanski’s, based on the fact that his worked so very well. In order to be successful, you need to be able to create an uncertain and mysterious atmosphere.
The lighting should be dark where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are, but well lit where the king is enjoying himself.
Macbeth’s hallucinations should make it clear to the audience what exactly is going on, and there should be added sound effects to make the overall situation even more unusual. The dagger could be hung down from the ceiling on some very fine wire to make it even more realistic.
The costumes that the characters wear should suit both the time that Macbeth was written in, and what classes the people belong to. For example, the noblemen should wear expensive clothes, whereas the porter should wear the less-expensive clothes.
Macbeth should come back from the murder scene with blood all over his front, sweating, and with untidy hair. He should also be in a great deal of distress.
All of this would add to the tension, thus making the murder scene even more upsetting and perhaps more difficult to take.