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Who do you blame for king Duncan’s death? Consider the role of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the Witches.
When answering this question you need to consider the roles of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the Witches. From this we need to also consider when the play was written and in what context the audience saw the characters in the time when the plays were written.
Shakespeare was commissioned to write the play by James I of England who was also James IV of Scotland in the same period and was the new King of England. James I was obsessed and paranoid about witches, so much so that he wrote a book on the subject titled Demonology; at this time everyone believed in the existence of the supernatural, and when the Witches came on to the stage they would not be seen as funny or laughable but as sinister and scary. James I mother, Mary Queen of Scots had been executed on the charge of treason, his father Lord Darnley had been assassinated. James I had inherited a time of political turmoil and confusion through the church and the monarchy’s ideology; and a time where political murder and revenge murder were commonplace. James I himself had, had two assassination attempts made on his life. The second of these was in 1605 and is well known to this day it was the Gunpowder Plot; this may be why the murder of King Duncan isn’t in the play because it may insight ideas about murdering King James I, also showing the murder may make James I seem less divine. James I would be seen as less divine because if a King is seen to be murdered on stage while he is asleep with no struggle them he may be seen by the public as faulted and fallible.
In Shakespeare’s period people believed there was a greater power controlling life, and as long as this divine order was maintained chaos wouldn’t take control. The murder of the king would throw the system into chaos; the murder would not only be a crime against the state but more importantly a crime against god. At the top of the chain is god with ultimate power over everything, then King, Thanes, citizens, and finally animals.
Macbeth is thane of Glamis at the start and is then also Thane or Cawdor, this gives him a duty to the King and god that he must obey as they are his superiors.
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The Witches play an important role in the killing of King Duncan as they are the ones who plant the idea into Macbeth’s head. The witches appear amongst thunder and lightning. This dark weather creates a sign of things to come, and signals the arrival of evil to Scotland. It could be argued that the witches bring the dark weather and that they summon it as each entrance is met with thunder and lightning. Thunder and lightning are representative of unknown powers and are a destructive force much like the witches. Shakespeare wanted to give the effect of an unknown element and give the witches an air of chaos by uniting them with mystical elements, and adding to their unpredictable nature and so increasing the impact they have on the people watching the play. This is also represented through their controlled verse and rhyme indicating a cruel and organized manner and the events they claim to have caused: In act 1 scene 3 this is shown by one of the witches casting a storm to kill a sailor after his wife refuses to give the witch chestnuts. This shows the unreasonable destructiveness that the witches are able to create. While they command these powerful yet small events it is also shown that they could control a greater power. The ship described in the scene could easily represent the ship of state, controlling it with simple powers. If a ship was toppled by something as small like the wind then Macbeth could topple the state. This signifies how something small could topple a country, showing how unstable the kingdom of Scotland was.
The Witches play the most fundamental part in the play, as the main objectives of witchcraft are believed to be the want to turn good to evil and upset the natural order. The witches are believed not to be able to touch King Duncan with their supernatural powers, as he is too holy due to the divine right of kings. We also see in the first act echo’s within Macbeth’s language of the witches, at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 the audience sees the witches all chant ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’
Then within the space of 2 scenes and contained in the first line Macbeth says he echo’s the line by saying, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’
This gives the audience the idea that Macbeth has the ability for evil. This will prepare us for what is to come.
In Act 1 Scene 3 when Macbeth and Banquo are both given prophecies, we see how contained in them there is the catalyst for both Banquo and Macbeth murdering King Duncan. At the beginning of the prophecy scene we are shown the power that the witches have and how they all come together and create evil. In this first passage of 35 lines we see that in a short poetic and dramatic verse they can seed revenge through sleep deprivation. There is an uncertainty in the gender of the witches and the question of humanity. Macbeth is given his prophecies in relatively simple language, and soon after so is Banquo they are both three lines and are given in a very cryptic and confusing manner. The prophecies given to Macbeth are,
‘FIRST WITCH All Hail Macbeth, Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
SECOND WITCH All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
THIRD WITCH All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.’
Macbeth has been given three prophecies the first of which he knows to be true as he is Thane of Glamis, and then the second Thane of Cawdor he is not yet, and then finally he is told this he thinks about it more than Banquo thinks about his prophesy. Banquo is told,
FIRST WITCH Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
SECOND WITCH Not so happy, yet much happier.
THIRD WITCH Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
These are very mystifying and complex lines and can mean many things such as the first line could be interpreted in several ways one of which is that although he is ‘Lesser than Macbeth’ maybe in status or in confidence or in imagination, but Banquo is also ‘greater.’ This could mean in virtue, and that he is a better person. It could be interpreted that although Banquo is lesser than Macbeth in greatness he has a better domestic life with less problems. The one prophecy of Banquo’s that could be most easily interpreted was the last of the three, which means that Banquo’s children will be kings but he personally won’t. Unlike Macbeth’s prediction, Banquo’s is less personal and doesn’t really tell him much. The difference between these predictions is that Macbeth took his to heart and decided to act on it whereas Banquo did not.
Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches throws his mind into chaos. Their mysterious imagery, rhyme and clothes are representative of something he has not seen before, something beyond nature. He is a soldier and honorable thane of the king, performing orders given to him and vanquishing the enemies of the kingdom. This is seen in his campaign against the traitorous thane of Cawdor. When he sees the witches his eyes appear opened. Through listening to the three prophesies: Macbeth will be,
“Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis and King hereafter”
He is introduced to ideas of greatness, a concept which has not crossed his mind before, therefore making him query the witches for more information to quench his curiosity for this new idea. Another idea to this is that is that Macbeth has previously thought of the murder of Duncan but has never had the drive to commit it.
Lady Macbeth also plays an important role in the play as she is the character who eventually persuades Macbeth to kill the King. Soon after the witch scene Macbeth writes Lady Macbeth a letter describing the three prophecies and how he feels about them, he draws Lady Macbeth into the murder by calling her,
‘My dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. ’
This not only shows that they are truly affectionate with each other but Macbeth has now promised Lady Macbeth a Queenship. At this point Macbeth is planting the idea of murder into Lady Macbeth’s head and would also go through with it. Lady Macbeth portrays a weak stereotypical woman of the time, and her fainting in the murder scene proves this, but she is also the main instigator of King Duncan’s murder.
Throughout the play there is the constant theme of ‘fair is foul’. Lady Macbeth is the personification of this phrase. As underlying her beautiful and fragile exterior is ambition maybe greater then Macbeth’s and greed, as she wants also to be great. There is historical evidence that she was based on a real person and that this person was divorced from a previously powerful and rich man within Scotland.
With the arrival of Macbeth’s letter she is inspired as Macbeth is. She sees as Macbeth does what has to be done to secure the final prophesy. We know what Macbeth wants to do and how he is dealing with it. In Act 1 Scene 4 as Malcolm is named as the Prince of Cumberland, the audience see an aside with Macbeth dealing with this point
‘ The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,’
This is saying that although this may cause a problem in his occupation for king it is something he is willing to overcome, and also shows that he is wiling to kill more than once to gain the title of king. Women have always been considered as the gentler and fair sex. Lady Macbeth feels that to commit this crime, she must become as cruel as she believes men are. She calls for the spirits to unsex her, so she may act as a man so that she may commit these acts and think ambitiously, to become more calculating and give her clarity of mind to perform such an evil act and to give her the power to pursued her honourable husband into such an act. She wishes to be ‘posessed’ to avoid her emotions of guilt and regret to hamper her. Also the statement “unsex me here” could link to the witch’s ambiguous sex and how their strangeness confused her husband. It is obvious from the letter Macbeth sends to lady Macbeth that he is amazed and intrigued by these strange “women” with beards. If these people were to reduce Macbeth the strong general into a curious child in only a few words then she could surely pursued him to murder Duncan to achieve both their aims if she put her mind to it.
When Macbeth finally comes home soon after Lady Macbeth reads the letter, Lady Macbeth asks him to dispatch Duncan. While his answer is non-committal he has clearly been giving the subject a great deal of thought and seems preoccupied.
The following scene is clearly an demonstration of how deceitful lady Macbeth can be. It seemed that despite only moments before lady Macbeth had been plotting to kill Duncan, she is able to greet him as a gracious hostess. This is once again an example of “fair is foul” she is being fair to Duncan while her inner thoughts are foul, this is again confirmed in Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth is doubtful of Lady Macbeth's plot to murder the king. He doesn't think that he will be able to live with the guilt of regicide while the king is staying under his very roof, and then decides that he will not kill the king.
When Lady Macbeth notices that Macbeth has left the room, she goes to speak to him.
Macbeth firmly tells her that they will not take any part in the killing,
"we will precede no further in this business"
Lady Macbeth changes his view by turning from fair to foul to psychologically drain Macbeth, causing him to reluctantly agree to the murder. An example of this fair/foul imagery is when she uses the fair image of her baby to convey her foul feelings towards Macbeth’s refusal to murder Duncan. I think that she is only able to say these things because of her possession, which occurred when she called to the spirits in Act1 scene 3.
It is evident that Lady Macbeth plays a vital role in the play as she is the one who persuades Macbeth to go ahead with the murder of the king. On the other hand Macbeth aloud himself to be persuaded. Macbeth has been contemplating the murder and has had several changes of mind. In the play it is evident that Macbeth has many doubts about the murder of Duncan. If it were up to him and him alone I don’t think that he would have murdered Duncan, he may have contemplated it but without the order from Lady Macbeth which eventually Macbeth agrees to reluctantly. I think that Macbeth has a great sense of honour, and virtue is too great to just murder king Duncan without outside council from an impartial party. It is obvious that Macbeth is reluctant about the murder, and that the pressure that Lady Macbeth puts on him, and the want to prove himself as a man to Lady Macbeth drives him to murder his king in the end. Lady Macbeth is using emotional blackmail on Macbeth, as he is not focusing on the irreparable damage he does but the want to be a man in his wife’s eyes. Macbeth is concerned about his courage; he is a proud man so even if the act was wrong he would be perform it to prove his bravery. Macbeth’s ambition is also a prime factor, which cannot be ignored. After he has met the witches his ambition has been kindled and even before he meets lady Macbeth he has stated that he desperately wants the throne:” The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’er-leap, for in my way it lies.”
Although this is the case I think that the murder was performed against his will.
Shakespeare's graphic and vulgar use of language for lady Macbeth would have made the audience appalled and sickened.
'I would, while it was a smiling face,
Have pluck'd my nipple out, from his boneless gums
And dash'd the brains out, had I sworn
As you have done to this.'
This clearly indicates Lady Macbeth's motive for the crime. She would rather kill her own child than break a promise to Macbeth. She would wish for Macbeth to get to the throne so that he might achieve his highest ambition. Her greed for the throne and power has made her become so deeply involved in this murder that some of the blame is reduced on Macbeth's part.
Like Macbeth, lady Macbeth shows moments of humanity. She would have carried out the murder herself had Duncan not looked like her father.
'Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had don't.'
This shows the audience that she is not as evil as was once thought. She may still posses a conscience. It makes her more feminine so her downfall is even more pitiful. The audiences perception of this would have been that she was going to become isolated and that Macbeth was inevitably going to become independent.
The plot to kill Duncan is started and lady Macbeth has got the guards so drunk that they have passed out and as promised Macbeth murders Duncan. Macbeth comes down from Duncan’s chamber with the two daggers. Then he meets lady Macbeth and he expresses his regret to Lady Macbeth and wishes that he hadn’t gone ahead with the murder. Lady Macbeth realizes that Macbeth is still holding the daggers and she reacts in anger and frustration and tells him to take the daggers back but he is too upset to go back,
‘I’ll go no more. I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on’t again, I dare not.’
This tells the audience that Macbeth is scared of what he has done and wishes not to realize the horror of the reality. This also shows that Macbeth is not purely evil and that he has a conscience.
What follows illustrates Macbeth feeling guilty. He cannot sleep, he feels that he has murdered sleep. In Shakespearean times sleep represented innocence. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that if he washes his hands there will be no reminder of the murder.
'A little water clears us of this deed:'
This is an ironic comment on what Macbeth continues to say.
'Will all great Neptune's Ocean wash this blood.'
Macbeth then states that water will not get rid of his guilt. Blood symbolises evil and for Macbeth it is suspicion as he has become paranoid. Macbeth is not a cold-blooded killer otherwise he would not be feeling these emotions.
Dispite his emotion shown in the murder scene, Macbeth is, for the most part, responsible for the evil deeds. In Shakespearean times it may have been said that he was the victim of the powers of darkness such as when Lady Macbeth conjured up the powers of evil and prayed to the powers of darkness. Macbeth always had free will from his first encounter with the witches. He independently decides to believe the supernatural powers of the witches will help him; and it is him and Lady Macbeth that make the witches prophecy come true. There is no evidence to suggest that the witches made the future even though Macbeth could have waited for natural order to proceed; but he couldn't wait.
With the minority of people today believing in the powers of the supernatural, it would be quite ludicrous to say that it was the witches that controlled the plot. Shakespeare writes his plays for the audience to not know what is going to be the final outcome before finishing the performance. If we knew this then consequently the action would become dull and predictable.
I believe that the witch’s role in the murder is that they start the ball rolling. While they do not partake in any physical act they play on Macbeth’s inner desires, starting him off on a train of thought that will end in the murder of King Duncan. I feel that while they add temptation and influence to Macbeth they cannot control his destiny.
Macbeth creates his own misery when he is driven by his own sense of guilt for not fulfilling “what makes a man” to lady Macbeth. This causes him to become insecure as to the reasons for his actions. As a result of this he becomes paranoid which in turn causes him to commit more murders in order to secure his already fragile position.
Therefore the three Witches are only responsible for the introduction of these ideas, Macbeth is responsible for further forming ideas in Macbeth’s head, but they are not responsible for his actions throughout the play. The witches offer great enticement, but it is in the end, each individual’s decision to fall for the temptation, or to be strong enough to resist their captivation. In the play the witches play a fundamental part.
They kindle Macbeth’s ambition for kingship and quell his reasoning making him vulnerable to intimidation and seduction in the form of lady Macbeth. Their entrance also brings into the play the idea of fate, the role that it has in the play and in essence they provide a catalyst for the events in the play.
I think that lady Macbeth is an important part of the play as she persuades Macbeth to the murder but Macbeth had to give into her scheming and blackmail type persuasion so ultimately I feel that Macbeth is most responsible for the Murder as it is him who endorses the prophecies of the witches and then passes those onto lady Macbeth. If he had not told Lady Macbeth I think that he would still have come to the same decision even if it did come further down the line. Macbeth has huge in lying ambition and with his creative imagination I think that he would have given in to the ideas in the end.