To What Extent Can Macbeth Be Defended For The Murder Of Duncan?
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The play Macbeth was written by English playwright William Shakespeare around 1605. It is about the supernatural, internal conflicts and the much used “killing of the King” plot. It is centred on the struggle within Macbeth’s mind between good and evil. The play aroused considerable interest at the time when it was written because of the public’s belief in witchcraft and strong religious feelings, and because killing a king was considered the worst crime possible as the belief was he was appointed by God to rule divinely.
Macbeth is a Scottish nobleman who is a great warrior, and, at the beginning of the play has just won a battle. He has the trust of the Scottish king, Duncan, but after hearing a prophecy he becomes convinced that he will be king and decides that the only solution is murder. Although Macbeth is clearly guilty of Duncan’s murder, to what extent can he be defended for his actions? There are other factors present in the play around Macbeth that influence and incite him to commit the murder, the witches, his colleagues, even his own wife who puts a lot of pressure on him, there is also the continuous struggle in Macbeth’s mind between good and evil and right and wrong. These factors and their impact and whether or not Macbeth can be defended for being affected by them are discussed below.
The first factor to be considered is the witches as it was they, who first put the idea into his head,
“All hail Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter.”(Line 50, scene 3, act 1).
Their prophecy, that Macbeth would get the crown helped drive Macbeth to go through with the murder as he believed it was what he was meant to do. However, it was Macbeth and not the witches who decided the way to fulfil the prophecy was to kill Duncan and gain the crown by force, rather than wait for the Duncan to appoint him.
” My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,”(line 139, scene 3, act 1).
This line is Macbeth’s response to the witch’s prophecy, his mind has already decided that to become king he must murder Duncan, but he dismisses the idea as pure fantasy, however murder remains in his thoughts. This is shown again by his words after Duncan appoints Malcolm as his successor, he says,
“Let not light see my black and deep desires;” (Line 51, scene 4, act 1).
Macbeth wants the lightness and goodness in his mind to turn a blind eye to the thoughts of murder he is developing. Macbeth could have chosen to dismiss the witches’ prophecies as nonsense but instead he decided to act on them, showing how easily influenced he was. The witches are the very first characters to speak of Macbeth and this links him with evil and the supernatural in the audience’s mind for the rest of the play, so we are not surprised that someone associated with witches would commit a murder and believe he is very evil.
By looking at the other characters’ descriptions and comments about Macbeth at the beginning of the play more defences and counter-examples arise. In the second scene the characters’ words defend Macbeth to some extent, the Sergeant says of Macbeth,
“Like valour’s minion carv’d out his passage”(Line 19, scene 2, act 1).
He is describing Macbeth as brave and also violent in cutting through the enemy soldiers,
“Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,”(Line 22, scene 2, act 1).
The Sergeant is describing Macbeth’s bloody killing of the Thane of Cawdor. These descriptions of Macbeth as a warrior and a successful killer defend him because they show that murdering Duncan is not an abnormal event in Macbeth’s life, he is used to killing people and is therefore not a totally good or innocent character to start with. It is not surprising that a high ranking, successful soldier such as Macbeth should one day try and overthrow his lord because he feels he could do a better job. However Duncan as describes Macbeth,
” O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!”(Line 24, scene 2, act 1).
The sergeant also praises Macbeth as brave and honourable and because of this it seems very wrong that Macbeth should kill someone he was related to, loyal to and who had so much trust and faith in him. Just because he is a good soldier, this does not wholly justify Macbeth in killing his trusting lord in cold blood. All these things in the first to scenes are just opinions and comments and it seems unfair of the audience to judge Macbeth so soon as the theme of the play is revealed to be that things are not always what they seem. Such examples of this are Lady Macbeth, who appears sweet on the outside but is evil underneath, the witches’ prophecies, which could be either good or bad, and Macbeth’s changes throughout the play from good to bad.
The next important event occurs in act one, scene seven when Macbeth considers the implications of the murder and what its effects would be in a soliloquy. Macbeth concludes himself that he shouldn’t do it, in line twenty-seven:
“Vaulting ambition, which o’er -leaps itself
And falls on the other.”
This means that he aims to high, following his ambition he will no doubt falter and fall. His own personal reasons against the murder are described in lines 1-28,
“He’s here in double trust:
First as I am his kinsman and subject,
Strong both against the deed; then as his host,
Who should against the murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.”
In these lines twelve to sixteen Macbeth is saying that it would be wrong to kill Duncan because they are related, he is his subject and because a host’s duty is to provide a safe bed and protection. Macbeth has realised these reasons that we have already observed.
“Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne 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;”
“Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.”
Macbeth thinks, in lines twenty to twenty-five, that because Duncan has been such a good and divine king killing him will be such a terrible deed that all throughout the natural and human world grief will be felt.
He also realises that he must be judged on Earth and made to pay for his crimes and even if all goes well, the murder could come back to haunt him, line ten,
“To plague the inventors.”
This summing up of the murder by Macbeth can defend him to some extent because it shows that he does have free will and a conscience. But then it makes the murder worse because Macbeth went ahead with it even though he knew all of the reasons against it and realised it was very wrong.
The strongest influence on Macbeth is his wife, Lady Macbeth, who, throughout the opening act persuades Macbeth to go through with the murder. Macbeth can be defended for caving in to his wife’s demands because she is a very strong willed and assertive character. He loved his wife a lot and believed he was doing the murder for her to make her happy and fulfil her ambitions. It is shown in act one, scene five what an evil person she is when, in lines thirty-nine to forty-two, she says,
“Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to toe top-full
Of direst cruelty;”
Lady Macbeth wants her conscience blocked and all her love, care and remorse removed. As soon as Macbeth returns in act one, scene five, Lady Macbeth begins persuading him to kill Duncan, saying, in lines sixty-four to sixty-five,
“Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower.
But be the serpent under’t”
At the end of this scene Lady Macbeth is telling her husband to disguise his appearance so that Duncan will not be suspicious and that it will all be worth it in the end because he will become king. The two next speak in scene seven just after Macbeth has decided not to kill Duncan because he will lose all his newfound honour. This angers Lady Macbeth who then persuades her husband to do it again. However at this point Macbeth should have firmly told his wife that he was not going to do it, but instead he was swayed by her words. This imparts more guilt to Macbeth because it shows that his mind is easily changed and that he is also weak and indecisive.
The climax of everything is the actual murder, which is probably one of the factors that defend Macbeth the most. After it was done he did have feelings of remorse and regret. These do not remove his guilt but they do make it a bit better because they show Macbeth is only human. Lady Macbeth’s reactions, however are to make sure everything went smoothly and to tell her husband not to think about it too much,
“Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!”
Macbeth feels he will never be at peace with himself now and recognises that the murder has at least brought him out of the nightmare he has been living in.
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No,” (Macbeth, act two, scene two, lines sixty to sixty-one).
“A little water clears us of this deed;” (Lady Macbeth, line sixty-seven).
Macbeth feels nothing, however big, will clear him or forgive him of what he has done whilst Lady Macbeth picks up his image and plays it down, believing it is only a minor sin that they will quickly be forgiven for committing. “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!” (Macbeth, line seventy-four).
Macbeth feels that if he had the opportunity he would bring Duncan back and wishes he hadn’t murdered him. However it was Macbeth who committed the murder in the end, with no assistance, so he obviously did not have enough of a conscience not to murder Duncan in the first place, and his mind wasn’t strong enough to stop himself.
Finally, in Macbeth’s time the crown was never safe and ambitious warriors were always trying to overthrow the king. It could be argued that Macbeth was just doing something that was common in his time, however it was his duty to protect Duncan and he had sworn allegiance to him, so killing him would be an act of treason and betrayal that he could not be defended for.
Although Macbeth was acting on what he believed were instructions and he was under a lot of pressure from his wife and fate, he can only be defended a small way for killing a good, virtuous and trusting king in cold blood to fulfil his ambitions. Macbeth knew what he was doing was wrong but went ahead anyway, he also seemed to be aware of the consequences of the murder would be. He had several chances to drop the whole thing, for example, when Duncan appointed Malcolm as the Prince of Cumberland in act one, scene four Macbeth should have realised that the witches’ prophecies should be left to chance, and after he had taken time to think about it in scene seven he could have proceeded no further on the business. But when Macbeth tried to reconsider the dark ambitions inside of him made him continue with their feelings of jealousy and pride. His evil side created the dagger in front of him in act two, scene one that led him to Duncan’s room and made him cast aside his doubts and do as his wife said. Pity can only be given to Macbeth for going against what was right, being caught up in a nightmare of emotions and killing the person who trusted him the most and who he was supposed to protect and be loyal to.