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Who is Responsible for the Death of King Duncan?

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1889
  • Category: Death

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In many cases, murders have only one sole guilty party onto whom the responsibility for their crimes must be placed. Quite often, this is bestowed upon the character who administers the fatal blow. However in the case of plays, such as Macbeth written by William Shakespeare, the actions leading up to the death, are often more complex with many characters involved. One character would not have been able to carry out the deed alone, and in many cases even with two. However with all actions combined, murder is committed via a series of smaller acts, therefore sharing the responsibility between the characters according to the significance of their relevant part. In the story of Macbeth, it is clear that there are 5 parties, whose actions led to the death of King Duncan. They are Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the Three Witches with Duncan’s guards also playing a part. Therefore in order to come to a substantiated conclusion as to who is the ultimate guilty party, we must assess to what degree their actions had effect to cause the death of King Duncan.

Firstly, though they play only a small part, the responsibility of the guards must be questioned, as it is they who were responsible for the well fare of Duncan on the night which he was murdered. Failing to do their jobs, becoming so drunk they were forced into slumber, Macbeth was able to easily enter the Kings chamber. If it were not for the guards failing their duties in this way, it would be likely that they would have been able to raise the alarm and prevent Macbeth from murdering Duncan. However, though these actions do render the guards slightly responsible, the bulk of the responsibility cannot be placed on them as though they failed their duties; they were not to view Lady Macbeth as a treat to Duncan. As it is she who offered them excessive amounts of alcohol it is Lady Macbeth, the supposed trustworthy hostess, who must carry the responsibility for the guards failing their duties.

Secondly, the three witches, as it is they who planted the idea of becoming king into the head of Macbeth. Therefore they are responsible to a degree; as without their prophecy, deliberately given to Macbeth of his future (Act.1, Scene 3); he would have no reason to even contemplate becoming the Thane of Cawdor, or King. This would therefore have rendered Lady Macbeth and Macbeth oblivious to becoming royals, and both therefore would not have taken part in the plot leading to Duncan’s death. Though we cannot know for certain whether their true intent was only to reveal the prophecy to Macbeth, we can assume that they had some foul intent as those associated with witches as they are evil. This is clearly visible from act 3, scene 5 where Hecate (the sisters queen) scolds the three witches for speaking to Macbeth as the “Glory of their art” has been used to awake “Mortal chiefest enemy” of which they are aware will lead “unto a dismal and a fatal end” (Act.3, scene:5, line 15-21). They are therefore largely responsible for the murder of Duncan as they clearly know how Macbeth will respond to the knowledge which he has been given..

Although the Witches initiated the thought of becoming King to Macbeth, they did not however suggest that in order to realise this, Macbeth had to act in the way which he did. The witches cannot be held responsible for Macbeth’s belief that in order to become King he must murder Duncan, nor for Lady Macbeths planning to do so. Banquo also heard of his family coming into royalty, and yet still disregarded it. This is clear from Act 2 scene 1 when Banquo explains to Macbeth “I loose none/ In seeking no augment it, but still keep/ My bosom franchis’d and allegiance clear/ I shall be counsell’d.” Also, unlike Macbeth, Banquo prays for Gods help, “merciful powers” against whatever “cursed thoughts” he has.

We can therefore deduce that the prophecy of the Witches needed Macbeths own interpretation in order to lead to the death of Duncan. Macbeth’s greed and sheer desire for power to become King which led him to believe and place his faith in the Witches prophecy. This therefore places a greater portion of blame onto Macbeth.

Macbeth must bear further blame for the death of King Duncan as he did indeed deeply contemplate murdering King Duncan at several intervals within Act I. Most of this takes part in scene 7 when Macbeth is alone in his castle, with nought but his thoughts to keep him company. In lines 0-28, he contemplates the act of murdering Duncan, but ending in “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself/ And falls on the other”. This shows that he had strong intent and had planned this act. Although Macbeth has realised the extremity of the crime which he would be committing, he still decides to go ahead with the murder. This shown by his knowledge that he will be severely punished in the next life “the deep damnation of his taking off” and also by clearly avoiding the word murder, making use of phrases such as “bloody instructions, th’assassination, blow” and “the deed”. In addition to this, he also realise the moral wrongs of his thinking, being Duncan’s Kinsman, subject and host, he still commits the evil act nevertheless. His weakness and desire for the crown led him to be persuaded to kill Duncan on the pretence of proving his manhood. This clear self orientation and selfishness and also the fact that Macbeth is the direct beneficiary from Duncan’s death suggest that Macbeth may be the guiltiest party.

The main action of Macbeth also cannot be disregarded. The fact that it was Macbeth who did brutally, almost insanely stabbed Duncan, several times with two blades (Act.2 scene 2). In our society, as with most countries all over the world, people are made to take responsibility and held accountable for their own actions, no matter how great or small. In courts, magistrates and judges would always sentence the main guilty person more severely than any accomplices. As such the Witches and Lady Macbeth would receive a lighter punishment commensurate with their involvement in this crime. Murder, the taking of a life, with intent carries the most severe consequences. It is therefore imperative that the murderer is identified and that the parts of accomplices are also correctly established. Macbeth must carry the responsibility for his actions, killing Duncan in cold blood and therefore be charged for Duncan’s death.

However, although Macbeth did kill Duncan, there are mitigating circumstances. It cannot be overlooked that Macbeth had in fact previously made up his mind not to kill Duncan, before Lady Macbeth intervened. Lady Macbeth knew the good nature of her husband, as she reveals in her speech and chose to call on his manhood. I believe this was a very important factor at the time to every man, even more so than today, Macbeth was provocated and was forced to prove her wrong for fear of being completely shamed. It is likely that Lady Macbeth knew this as she uses it as her main motive by which to persuade him.

She knew that by his good nature, after fighting and killing for the King so many times before, he would find it hard to kill Duncan himself. This is also show when she says “You are to full of the milk of human kindness”. So she had to find some other factor to overcome his feelings of loyalty. Attacking Macbeth’s pride proved successful. “At wakes it now, to look so green and pale/ at what it did so freely… And live a coward in thine own esteem/ Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would'”. To these words Macbeth cannot argue. Consequently it may be fair to say that if it had not been for Lady Macbeth’s unmistakable desire and need for the queen ship and deadly persuasion, Macbeth would not have murdered King Duncan at that stage. We cannot tell whether his desire to become King would have eventually consumed him, however in this case of events, Lady Macbeth must take immense responsibility for the murder of King Duncan.

Lady Macbeth must also take further responsibility for this evil act as when she attacked Macbeth with her cunning persuasion, it could also be argued that he was in a poor state of mind to reason or argue with her. Macbeth was in a state of mental exhaustion from contemplating whether to murder Duncan, an inner war inside his head and heart between his desire and his conscience. This is clearly visible from scene 7 where she destroys his motives for argument with her. She knows that her husband will not carry out the murder for fear of getting caught. She therefore cuts him off, not allowing him to argue with her: “we fail” (scene.7, act.1, line.61). This also demonstrates the clear power which she has over him. If in fact this is the case, Macbeth may therefore have diminished responsibility for this murder. This would therefore displace some blame onto Lady Macbeth for coercing him to carry out the evil act. Without Lady Macbeth’s participation it is extremely likely that Macbeth would have not had the will and courage to murder Duncan.

In addition to this, Lady Macbeth must accept further responsibility for Duncan’s murder as it is she who initiates the murder plan arranging for Duncan to be a guest in their home. We are lead to believe that Lady Macbeth is responsible for the death of Duncan as she makes up the details, remaining calm while Macbeth is unwilling to carry out the deed. She plays the perfect hostess and plans every detail getting Duncan’s guards to become drunk. She also teaches Macbeth how to behave to hide his true emotions and thoughts, planning out both their parts in the murderous plot. “Act like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it”. It can be argued that the murder would not have been possible without her careful planning and cunning. In Macbeth’s ambitious, and also moral bound state of mind it is very likely that if he had acted on his own to murder Duncan it would have resulted in him getting caught before even getting to close Duncan.

In conclusion, although the three witches did initiate the thought, they did not act directly in any threatening way to give them significant responsibility in the murder of Duncan. However, both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth must take equal responsibility for the death of King Duncan. Although Macbeth would not have murdered Duncan without the persuasion of Lady Macbeth, the act of murder is too great to be overlooked. Macbeth did agree to go along with Lady Macbeth’s plan, although it required some persuasion. I believe that it is fair to say that it was Lady Macbeths and Macbeths, greed, and desire for the crown that led them to their final act of murder for which they are both responsible. Without either character, the other would have been unable to achieve the task alone, Macbeth needing a boost of his confidence, and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s strength to carry out the deed.

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