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Who is most responsible for the murder of King Duncan in Shakespeare's play Macbeth? Free essay! Download now

Home > GCSE > English literature > Who is most responsible for the murder of King Duncan in Shakespeare's play Macbeth?

Who is most responsible for the murder of King Duncan in Shakespeare's play Macbeth?

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This essay focuses on the roles played by a whole range of characters in the play "Macbeth" in the murder of Duncan in an attempt to analyse who was ultimately the most repsonsible. This essay deals with the psychology and the impact of the characters' actions on the murder. Furthermore, it also describes how Shakespearse employs literary techniques and stage-craft in the context of the question.


To begin, Macbeth plays a vital role in King Duncan’s murder in many respects, as is shown by certain aspects of his personality and his actions. Firstly, it is essential to note that it is Macbeth who ultimately commits the murder itself out of his own free will, which would make him the most responsible for the King’s murder in ethical terms; this is clearly shown in Act 2 Scene 2 when he says “I have done the deed”, whilst carrying two bloodstained daggers. Furthermore, there is clear evidence throughout the first act which conveys that he has a dark side to his personality, which subsequently plays an irrevocable part in him murdering Duncan. He is portrayed as a dubious and fickle character whose personality is not what it appears to be; this is shown, for example, by phrases such as “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” in Act 1 Scene 1, which is purposefully equivocal to convey the idea that appearances can be deceptive. He is also conveyed, by Shakespeare, as bloodthirsty and vicious through the use of vivid language in phrases such as, “Till he unseamed him…upon our battlements” which is spoken by the captain in Act 1 Scene 2, when describing Macbeth’s triumph over the rebel Macdonwald. Furthermore, Macbeth speaks in rhyming couplets occasionally, which immediately causes the audience to associate him with the Witches (who also speak in rhyming couplets, most evidently in the first scene of the play), such as “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day” in Act 1 Scene 3. These ‘evil’ and supernatural connotations result in Macbeth being perceived as a merciless man through the negative tone induced, therefore placing more blame on him for Duncan’s murder.

His ambition for power (which pushes him towards killing Duncan to seize the crown) is also clearly shown by the fact that he is held in high regard by many. For example, Duncan chooses to award Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor (“with his former title greet Macbeth“) in Act 1 Scene 2, which conveys to the audience that his position in the contemporary social hierarchy in Scotland was very high. Similarly, when Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the witches and hear the prophecies concerning his rise to power in the third scene of the play, Banquo notes his thirst for power and his curiosity, as shown by the phrase, “Look how my partner’s rapt”. Macbeth himself demonstrates his own ambition by the language he uses in the soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7, saying “Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Moreover, Macbeth’s physical ‘lust’ for murder and imperialism is demonstrated in the soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 1 by using physical and warlike imagery, such as “With Tarquin’s ravishing strides”, which further suggests that Macbeth was most responsible for Duncan’s murder.

On the other hand, however, there are a few significant arguments against labelling Macbeth as the most responsible for the King’s murder. He appears to possess a moral conscience which often forces him to feel guilty about his actions and plans. The use of soliloquies by Shakespeare is a very important and useful device on stage as it gives an opportunity for a character to clearly convey his or her feelings and thoughts to the audience in the form of speech, without being influenced by other characters or having to change his or her actions to achieve a particular effect. Shakespeare utilises several soliloquies in the first act of the play to bring across Macbeth’s true feelings, and the majority of these can provide vital evidence for proving that he does indeed have a conscience. For example, after meeting the Witches in Act 1 Scene 3, Macbeth is having a moral debate with himself concerning the ethical values of murdering Duncan for the sake of kingship, as shown by the phrase, “If good, why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair“; further evidence comes from Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7, in which he seeks justification for murdering the King and also feels guilty for planning to do so, which is shown by phrases like, “And Pity, like a new-born babe”, where the use of similes inducing imagery of innocence indicates that Macbeth is unwilling to kill such a noble and innocent man. This ideology of Macbeth seeking justification for assassinating Duncan in his soliloquy in Scene 7 can be extended and further conveyed by the fact that he fears retribution from God and punishment in his after-life, as is shown by the phrase, “The deep damnation of his taking-off” and by the religious imagery utilised in the soliloquy to reflect this fear (“heaven’s cherubin”), which gives Macbeth another reason for not murdering King Duncan. Also, he feels that he should remain loyal to Duncan, which is shown by “He’s here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject…then, as his host”, and it is this loyalty Macbeth has towards the King as a result of being both his subject and his host that prevents him from killing Duncan, which clearly shows that he possesses a moral conscience.

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