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The Murder of Duncan in “Macbeth”

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Paying particular attention to Shakespeare’s use of dramatic devices, compare the murder scenes of Duncan, Banquo and the Macduff family.

‘Macbeth’ is a classical tragedy, which follows the rise and fall of a once great man. Shakespeare’s tragedy is about Macbeth’s bloody rise to power, including the murder of the king, Duncan, and the guilt-ridden chain of evil deeds leading to more evil deeds. Macbeth commits three murders in this play.

The murder of Duncan is a very terrible murder as it is regicide, and the audience watching would feel great shock towards Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. During the Jacobean times people believed in the Divine Right of Kings. This meant that God put the king on the throne. The murder does not take place on the stage. To show it on stage in Shakespearian times would have been very difficult and therefore it is left to the audience’s imagination. Instead, we sense the murder happening because it is placed between many intense happenings. In act two scene one we see Macbeth’s vision of a dagger leading him to Duncan. ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me, /The handle toward my hand?’. Macbeth thinks his eyes are playing tricks due to his worry and has doubts about killing the king. He fears that ‘Thy very stones prate of my whereabout’. This shows how nervous he is. However he still proceeds and kills Duncan.

After the murder, there is a quick exchange of words between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth: ‘When?’

Lady Macbeth: ‘Now.’

Macbeth: ‘As I descended?’

These short sentences speed up the pace and promote more tension in the scene. There is also a sinister feel when Lady Macbeth talks about hearing ‘the owl scream and the crickets cry.’ All these things give the scene a great sense of tension and sinisterness, which would leave the audience feeling quite scared. These intense sensory experiences make the audience feel as if they have seen the murder on the stage.

Macbeth feels so guilty. ‘I could not say ‘Amen’.’ This shows how bad the deed that Macbeth has done is. Murdering Duncan severs the link between him and God. Also the fact that ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’- a killer of men- feels such guilt, indicates how evil the murder is. ‘Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand?’ He says that he will be stained with Duncan’s blood all his life and that not even the oceans will wash the blood away. He is in a state of total damnation. Here we doubt Macbeth’s masculinity and so does Lady Macbeth. ‘Why worthy/ Thane.’ She constantly reassures him and reminds him of who he is, and his title of Thane of Cawdor.

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth thinks that ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ This is the complete opposite to how Macbeth feels. Lady Macbeth thinks that the water will purify her sins. During the Jacobean times, women had very little power. For a woman to be planning a murder is very unusual. The most surprising thing for the audience would be to hear her say ‘Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t.’ This shows her complete lack of femininity.

The murder takes place during the night, which gives it an eerieness with all the animal noises. The knocking at the end of the scene adds more tension to make the audience wonder what happens in the next scene. Macbeth’s final words show his total regret of the murder, although it is his ambition that leads to Duncan’s murder. ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst.’

The second murder that takes place is that of Banquo, a good friend of Macbeth. I think that this is what makes this murder so brutal. We know Banquo’s character well and this makes it very cold blooded. Compared to Duncan’s murder it is not as bad because it is not regicide, but it shows the further descent of Macbeth. We see the further downfall of Macbeth because he does not commit the murder himself- he hires murderers. ‘ We shall, my lord,/ Perform what you command us.’ He hires an extra murderer, which is Shakespeare’s dramatic device for exposing Macbeth’s insecure world. He trusts no- one. ‘Have you considered of my speeches?’ This quote tells us that Macbeth has already spoken to the murderers beforehand. This is his first scene as king and the audience do not get a good first impression.

There is a similarity in that there is a reason for this murder like Duncan’s. Macbeth kills Duncan so that he can become king. He orders for Banquo to be killed because he thinks that his throne is ‘Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand.’ This quote shows that Macbeth fears Fleance, Banquo’s son, will steal the throne because Macbeth has no heirs. However this could be Macbeth’s insecurity because Malcolm and Donalbain want to get revenge for their father’s murder. Another similarity to Duncan’s murder is that Banquo’s murder takes place in the night- time. It seems that the loss of light foreshadows the loss of life.

We know that Duncan’s murder went to plan but Banquo’s murder is not as successful because Fleance escapes. ‘Fly good Fleance! Thou mayst revenge.’ Nobody feels guilt or fear of being found out after Banquo’s murder whereas Duncan’s murder causes Macbeth a great deal of guilt and regret. With Duncan, he is killed in his sleep and probably feels no pain, whereas with Banquo there is a struggle. Banquo speaks while he is dying and feels pain. Due to the escape of Fleance there is a witness for this murder whereas for Duncan there wasn’t. There is still a lot of tension in this murder scene like in Duncan’s. The animal noises scare the murderers. ‘Hark! I hear horses.’ There is also a quick exchange of words before the murder like between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Second murderer: ‘A light, a light!’

Third murderer: ”Tis he.’

First murderer: Stand to’t.’

The third murder in this play is that of the Macduff family. This is Macduff’s wife and son. The main difference between this murder and Duncan and Banquo’s murder is that these people have no reason to die. They are completely innocent. However, it is not a coincidence that Macbeth wants to eliminate all people that are in line of the throne. Shakespeare makes this scene tense like the other two by using dramatic irony from the very start of the scene. The audience know that the Macduffs are going to be killed before they are. ‘Give to the edge o’ th’ sword/ His wife, his babes and all unfortunate souls/That trace him in his line.’ I think that this quote from Macbeth is very savage and shows how far Macbeth will go to hide the secret of the murders.

Another difference between this murder and the other two is that it takes places during the daytime. Before I said that the loss of light foreshadows the loss of life. But now we see that Macbeth does not care when the murder takes place. Before Duncan’s murder, Macbeth begs the ‘Stars hide your fires,/ Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ He wants to make it dark so that heaven cannot see the evil that he is committing. Now, he doesn’t care if people see it happening. He just wants to kill people. This tells the audience how evil Macbeth has become.

There is a mixture of Duncan and Banquo’s murders in this scene because Macduff’s son is killed on stage like Banquo. However, Macduff’s wife is chased off stage whilst screaming ‘Murder!’ So, we do not see if she is murdered. This prolongs the sense of fear. It leaves the audience in uncertainty until we hear, in the next scene, that she is dead.

Unlike Duncan and Banquo, Lady Macduff feels vulnerable without her husband by her side. ‘For the poor wren,/ The most diminutive of birds, will fight,/ Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.’ She criticises her husband for leaving them ‘Fathered he is, and yet he’s fatherless’, even though her husband is doing a good deed for Scotland, whereas Lady Macbeth praises her husband for Duncan’s murder. The conversation between Lady Macduff and her son shows that they are two good people. The son has a real sense of justice and morals. ‘The liars and swearers are fools. ‘This shows us a total waste of life all for Macbeth’s ambition.

Before the murder takes place, a messenger enters the house and tells her there is a ‘doubt some danger does approach you nearly.’ As you can imagine, this creates a great deal of tension and panic for both the characters and the audience. It also shows Lady Macduff’s innocence when she doesn’t know whether to flee. This makes the murder very sad and unfortunate. A difference between this murder and the other two is how the people are made aware of the murders. Macduff finds the body of Duncan and announces that he is dead. ‘ Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope/ The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence/ The life o’ the building!’ This metaphor of the king’s body being a temple shows how upsetting Duncan’s murder is. It is like killing God. Macduff tries to tell the people in the most sympathetic way possible. On the other hand, there is Ross who tells Macduff very bluntly that his wife and children are ‘savagely slaughtered.’ This is one of the most moving scenes in the play.

Macduff, like Fleance, Malcolm and Donalbain proceeds with the intention of getting revenge. ‘Let grief/ Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.’ He has even more determination to find Macbeth because it has become personal now, with the murder of his family.

These three murders in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ have similarities and differences but they all show how far one man went for the sake of his ambition. They showed how Macbeth went from ‘Bellona’s bridegroom to ‘ this dead butcher.’

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