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Macbeth – Why does Macbeth Kill Duncan When He Knows He Should Not?

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Macbeth was a controversial play written during the Jacobean period. This play, written by William Shakespeare, involves the act of killing the king, or regicide. Having been set in Jacobean times this play would have invoked much horror and disbelief among audiences as they were intrigued though amazed at the bravery of Shakespeare for including regicide during the reign of the very powerful king, James I. In comparison, people in modern times watching this would not be affected whatsoever because the times have changed and people are no longer as influenced by the monarchy and there are obvious differences in severity – for example: mocking King James I would incur a death penalty, whereas now the Royal family is mocked daily. However, recently the gunpowder plot had been attempted, and at the time, regicide was becoming an ever increasing topic of plays.

The tragic play begins by introducing the main character, Macbeth, who throughout the duration of the play gradually becomes more evil and eventually is killed. This makes the play so tragic as brave Macbeth begins the play as a hero, however, he is tragically converted to an evil man, committing many terrible crimes leading to his eventual death!

The audience is initially introduced to Macbeth through other characters with whom he had undertaken a tremendous battle against the Norwegians. Macbeth is first mentioned in the play after the captain remarked, “For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name – Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel, Which smoked with bloody execution.” (1.2.16) The imagery held within this line takes the form of a metaphor, effectively describing the immense skills of brave Macbeth shown on the battlefield. This illustrates how the sword travels through so many bodies of the Norwegian soldiers, releasing the hot blood to the cool air and the friction condenses producing steam, in this case being referred to as smoke.

In the play however, Macbeth is portrayed as a character with an insecure mind. His words echo those of the witches, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.” (1.3.36) This remark made by Macbeth shows how his mind is insecure and this may hinder his progress later on if he is to commit the treason, the insecure mind of Macbeth would mentally overcome him and he would be able to cope no more!

Macbeth reacts to what the three witches have had to say, speaking the words: “Stay you imperfect speakers. Tell me more.” (1.3.68) This is the reaction of Macbeth to the prophecies, after he has heard their predictions, showing how he is intrigued by the witches’ musings and has been tempted by evil.

Macbeth now discovers the idea of murder, “whose horrid image doth unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs Against the use of nature?” (1.3.134) These lines vividly describe the horrified reaction of Macbeth towards the thought of murdering Duncan. Strangely, Macbeth is a soldier, hardened to the emotions of taking someone’s life, however when in concerns Duncan he is struck with emotion and feels massive guilt!

Macbeth now says he will let fate take its course; “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me Without my stir.” (1.3.143) This expresses how Macbeth is now hoping fortune will have its way and he wishes that he may just become king through circumstance. This way he will not have to draw blood himself and commit the terrible murder! He would not suffer guilt or mental problems and he would be a very powerful king having had to do nothing.

Following this, Duncan declares: “Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter The Prince of Cumberland…” (1.4.38) This demonstrates how Macbeth knows he is not the heir to the throne so should he kill Duncan he would not become king anyway. This presents a further problem for Macbeth as he knows he must plan to remove Malcolm from power also.

And so Macbeth is presented with the chance to kill Duncan in order to become king as it is proclaimed: “It is a banquet to me…” (1.4.56) Duncan announces he shall be visiting the castle of Macbeth, thus presenting Macbeth with the perfect chance to murder him. Macbeth knows he should not carry out the murder because Duncan is king! Never the less this would be his chance.

However, Lady Macbeth has an opinion in controversy to that of Macbeth’s as she now believes he is not man enough to undertake the deed: “Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness attend it.” (1.5.16) This demonstrates how Lady Macbeth does not believe Macbeth is capable of murder, as he is not evil enough. She recognizes his ambition, but knows that it will not be enough to murder a king. She would of course have committed the murder herself, however, the appearance of Duncan is similar to that of her father, thus meaning she cannot carry out the terrible murder.

Lady Macbeth believes that Macbeth needs to become more evil, however she also knows that at the same time he must maintain his innocent looks – she gives him this advice: “look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t.” (1.5.63) This illustrates the advice from Lady Macbeth, in the form of both a metaphor and a simile, as she instructs him to appear innocent as if he would not have committed the murder. However, he should be guilty like an aggressive serpent that kills without thinking. He would have to adopt this strategy if he was to successfully murder Duncan and not be caught!

Macbeth, having committed the murder now suffers with his conscience as these four reasons are brought up; “First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against deed; then, as his host, Who should against his murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan Hath born his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against The deep damnation of his taking off.” (1.7.13) This shows many things, Macbeth is giving himself reasons not to kill Duncan – he is his friend and servant. He should be entertaining and protecting Duncan NOT planning his murder. Also there is no reason to murder Duncan as he has been a very good king throughout his reign and finally, should Macbeth murder King Duncan, he would be damned in Hell…forever!!

Macbeth only has one single motive for the murder of Duncan: “I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself And falls on th’other-” (1.7.25) This takes the form of an extended metaphor of a horse being ‘spurred’ on, overleaping with enthusiasm. This extended metaphor illustrates the fact that Macbeth is full of enthusiasm for murdering Duncan, but he does not wish to “fall” through over enthusiasm.

Lady Macbeth devises a clever plan to change the mind of Macbeth – “Know you not, he has?” (1.7.30) This shows how Macbeth changes his mind thus making Lady Macbeth accuse him of cowardice saying he is not a man!

Lady Macbeth now attempts to win over the support of Macbeth using emotional blackmail: “I have given suck and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn As you have done to this.” (1.7.54) This describes how Lady Macbeth would rather brutally murder her own child than break a promise to Macbeth – surely what has been said makes Macbeth feel guilty. This would also of shocked a Jacobean audience because women were thought of as the gentle sex. And so, he needs to carry out the task because he gave his word!

At this point in the play, Macbeth actually begins to hallucinate, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” (2.1.33) This illustrates to the audience the madness that Macbeth had began to suffer from. He feels so guilty for what he is doing to Duncan and begins to have hallucinations about the dagger that he plans to kill Duncan with. He is now very insecure and cannot handle what he is to do from the sheer guilt! However, despite the warning of the dagger, Macbeth interprets it as a sign that he should go ahead with the murder.

Macbeth’s attitude to the murder suddenly changes: “With Tarquin’s ravishing steps…”(2.1.55) This expresses how Macbeth’s attitude has changed from being somewhat horrified to that of excitement as he compares himself to a Roman prince (Tarquin) who raped Lucrece. Macbeth marches with the ravishing strides that Tarquin himself did, thereby highlighting the grotesque fact that Macbeth has become sexually excited at the thought of murder. At this point in the play, Macbeth is truly evil.

All in all, though the witches and Lady Macbeth may have influenced Macbeth himself, at the end of the day it was Macbeth alone who committed treason! However, would Macbeth still have murdered Duncan if the witches had not told him that he would become king? Had Lady Macbeth not been so forceful, would Macbeth actually have murdered Duncan? In the end, Macbeth managed to overcome his conscience. With his conscience being the main factor preventing him from murdering Duncan in the first place, that when he had overcome his conscience it was just a matter of time and ambition. In the end – it was this ambition that made him actually commit regicide – he wanted to be king!!! He was desperate, greedy and selfish and clearly he would have done anything to become king, whether it meant killing Duncan or not.

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