The murder of King Duncan in the play Macbeth is an important part of the play. It shows the point at which Lady Macbeth and Macbeth begin their downfall, which ultimately ends in their deaths at the end of the play. The first and second scenes in Act Two are important because they are immediately before and just after the murder, so they are where the play is at it’s climax, and most tense. Shakespeare dramatises the murder by not only building up the tension before Macbeth commits the murder, but also keeping the pressure up through the next scene during Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s conversation.
This idea is explored in detail throughout this essay.
Our very first impression of Macbeth in Act One is that he is a character to be wary of, because the witches are the first people to mention him, and witches are associated with evil, so Macbeth is linked in the audience’s mind with wickedness.
However this idea is pushed to one side as we hear glowing reports on the ‘brave’, ‘worthy’ and ‘valiant’ Macbeth, (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 16, 24) from King Duncan and the Captain of the Army. It seems Banquo and Macbeth are both very honest and good people before we ever meet them personally. Then when we do see the two for the first time, they meet the witches, who tell them the prophecies which the whole play is based around: ‘All hail Macbeth that shalt be King hereafter’. (Act 1, Scene 3, Line 48)
We are shown Macbeth’s latent desires come to the forefront of his mind; although he is already successful and has more than most could want, hidden ambition and greed becomes apparent as the witches promise his greatest dreams.
He seems to be solely focused on the biggest prize – though the first of the witches’ prophecies comes true immediately, he is more happy that the prophecy of him becoming King now seems a plausible idea, than the present promotion: ‘The greatest is behind’ (Act 1 Scene 3 Line 116). All in all, the character of Macbeth is introduced to the audience as a worthy and noble person (from the reports by the Captain in Scene Two) but one with a less virtuous side, to do with his ambition and never being satisfied with what he has, – which turn out to be his biggest weaknesses and ends up bringing about his downfall.
Also in Act One we see the highly influential role Lady Macbeth plays in persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan so they can become King and Queen. As Macbeth is her husband she knows him best and knows he is ‘not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it’ (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 18-19) so she knows exactly how to manipulate him to do things he otherwise would not do. She does this by playing on his weaknesses – by questioning his manliness and asking him to do the deed to prove his love for her. Lady Macbeth appears to be driven by her own ambitions and her ruthlessness and determination are established effectively in the opening Act.
She shows her willingness to do evil things when she calls for dark spirits to ‘fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty, make thick my blood, stop up the th’access and passage to remorse’ (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 41-3) She also shows her strength of will when she tells Macbeth what to do: ‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.’ (Act 1, Scene 6, Line 64-5) and when she manages to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan. At the beginning of Act 1 Scene 7 he is decidedly against the act: ‘We shall proceed no further in this business’ (Line 31) but by the end of the scene she has made him change his mind: ‘If we should fail?’ (Line 59).
Shakespeare sets the scene for the murder in Act II Scene I by creating a tense and mysterious atmosphere with Banquo and his son Fleance’s conversation, and then their encounter with Macbeth as he is setting out to kill Duncan. The scene opens with Banquo talking to Fleance and describing the dark setting. He says that ‘the moon is down’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 2) and ‘the candles are all out’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 5), meaning the night is pitch black with no moon or stars – perfect for a concealed murder. Fleance tells us that ’tis later’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 4) than midnight, which was considered in those times to be the scariest hour of the night, the ‘witching hour’ – the audience in the original performance of the play would pick up on this timing as a sign to be wary of what is coming next.
Banquo refers to the theme of sleeplessness, saying ‘I would not sleep…[for] the cursed thoughts that nature gives way to in repose’. (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 7-9) We see this idea again in Act Two Scene Two after the murder, when Macbeth is very traumatised by what he has done, and he says he ‘hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more’ (Lines 45-6) Because Banquo used the word ‘cursed’ he reminds us of the witches and plants the idea that their prophecies could in fact be curses, which is foreshadowing what actually happens. Then, Banquo hears a noise and calls immediately for his son to ‘Give me my sword’, before warily calling out ‘Who’s there?’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 9-10)
This builds up the tension in the atmosphere very well because it is odd for him to be so alert and tense in his best friend’s castle, where he should feel safe. Banquo has already been established as a calm, good and perceptive character, (from his association with nature) so because he is on edge and tense the audience knows the next scene cannot be good. The tense atmosphere is heightened during Macbeth and Banquo’s conversation, because they talk in relatively short lines to one another. The audience is also shown how tense and nervous Macbeth is, and how he is slowly ‘falling from grace’ because he lies to his best friend, by saying ‘I think not of them [the witches]’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 21) when it’s all he has been thinking about since they met them.
In the second part of Act Two Scene One Macbeth hallucinates a floating dagger, covered in ‘gouts of blood’ (Line 46) with ‘the handle toward my [his] hand’ (Line 34) leading him towards Duncan’s room to commit the murder – ‘thou marshall’st me the way that I was going’ (Line 42). In the original play Shakespeare chose not to show the audience the dagger Macbeth is imagining, because this way focus is shifted from the dagger onto Macbeth himself, which means the audience is more dramatically engaged by the character, rather than special effects. Another reason Shakespeare decided not to show the dagger is that it is a figment of Macbeth’s imagination, a ‘false creation, proceeding from the heat oppressed brain’ (Line 39) representing his confusion and indecisiveness being controlled by external and sinister forces, which therefore makes the murder seem more inevitable, because Macbeth is not in control of it.
If the dagger were shown the representation would be lost, because it would become a real thing. This shows great psychological understanding from Shakespeare. Even though the audience is shown a real dagger when Macbeth pulls out his own to compare: ‘I see thee yet, in form as palpable as this which I now draw’ (Line 40-1) Shakespeare only did this to reinforce the idea that Macbeth sees it as clearly as a real dagger, but the audience can’t see it. Most other productions of Macbeth follow Shakespeare’s original intentions, with the only exception being Roman Polanski’s feature film version.
Polanski decided to show the floating dagger, but this was probably because the film was aimed at a wider, more ‘mainstream’ audience, and he thought subtle details like an imaginary dagger should be made more obvious, even though this loses some of meaning of the idea. Macbeth’s reactions to the dagger show he is in a very unstable and volatile state of mind, and shows his inner turmoil and confusion about what he should do and what he wants to do. The fact that he is hallucinating in the first place shows he must be slightly delirious with the pressure of what he is about to do.
At first he was alarmed by the dagger, however, as soon as he realises that the dagger is not real (‘Art thou a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat oppressed brain?’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 37-9)) he stops being alarmed by it, and as he follows it, he becomes fascinated with it, and more intense, so he describes it in great detail using plosives ‘And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 46) to make it more vivid for the audience. The dagger symbolises the murder, and makes the deed seem more inevitable, because the dagger that leads Macbeth to Duncan’s door is bloody, so it is as if it is a projection of what Macbeth’s real dagger is going to look like after the murder. It also symbolises how Macbeth is being controlled by other forces, how he is being led to do things he doesn’t really want to do because he isn’t controlling the dagger, the dagger is ‘in charge’ of him.
Shakespeare uses the last half of Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act Two Scene One to build atmosphere and tension as he prepares himself for the murder, by using lots of imagery to help create the dark mood. For instance Macbeth says that ‘Nature seems dead’ (Line 50) which is a very dark idea, foreshadowing how after this scene nature will be turned on its head because Macbeth upset he natural order. Macbeth also talks about a recurring theme in the play; the idea of two sides of everything, the good and the bad, or the fake faï¿½ade hiding a worse side underneath (‘Now o’er the one half world’ (Line 49)) To darken the mood further, he talks about ‘wicked dreams abus[ing] the curtain’d sleep’ (Lines 50-1) which is what he is about to do: as he is trying to kill Duncan in his sleep, so he is being wicked and abusing the safety one should feel when they are asleep.
Macbeth also mentions witchcraft, which shows he is thinking about and maybe being controlled by the witches still, saying ‘Witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate’s off’rings’ (Lines 51-2). It seems Macbeth tries to justify the murder by reducing his involvement. He does this by showing he is merely an instrument doing the deed by personifying murder, so that it is more murder who is to blame for the crime, rather than Macbeth: ‘Wither’d murder, alarum’d by his sentinel…with Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design, moves like a ghost’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 52-6). Macbeth uses more and more intricate language, referring to Roman stories of the tyrant Tarquin who raped his friend’s wife to personify murder further, and long sentences as he expresses the strong external forces (e.g. ‘Murder’ and the witch-queen Hecate) that may be manipulating him to kill Duncan. However he starts to come back to himself and realise that he is still the one doing it after all, using shorter sentences as he comes to the end of his soliloquy.
He thinks of more practical ideas, asking the Earth to ‘Hear not my steps, for fear thy very stones may prate of my whereabout’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 57-8) but still using imagery that conjures up in our minds the idea that he is at least being helped by the Earth, or some other strong omnipotent being. Macbeth seems more resolute closer to the end of the soliloquy, saying ‘Whiles I threat he live; Words to the heat of deeds to cold breath gives’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 60-61) The fact that these two lines rhyme give it definition and finality, as Shakespeare often uses rhyming couplets to signify the end of an important scene. In these lines Macbeth also shows how unwavering he is, by almost scorning himself for fretting about it too long, by saying ‘whiles I threat he lives’. After this the bell rings, to further signify Macbeth’s resolved and determined state of mind, which is backed up again by his saying immediately after ‘I go, and it is done.’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 62).
The short sentence shows his feeling of inevitability. The very last two lines of the soliloquy are also a rhyming couplet, to end the scene neatly. They show Macbeth knows he will go through with the murder, because he says ‘The bell invites me’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 62) and then he says ‘Hear it not Duncan, for it is a knell, that summons thee to heaven or to hell.’ (Act 2, Scene 1, Line 63-4). The building up of tension and inevitability is shown very well in the Trevor Nunn version of Macbeth, where Ian McKellen portrays Macbeth preparing for the murder, making him seem absolutely resolute by rolling up a sleeve. This version also takes advantage of different lighting to increase tension; Macbeth is in darkness for most of the scene, stepping forward to the audience to engage them, and as he says ‘like a ghost’ he steps into an eerie bright light, which can be quite scary and unexpected, because it is as if he appeared out of nowhere.
Shakespeare decided not to script or perform the actual murder of Duncan, because that way the audience is left to imagine the murder scene on their own and therefore make it as horrible as they could imagine. Shakespeare also misses out the murder to put more emphasis on Lady Macbeth at the beginning of the next scene and to remind the audience how closely she is involved in the murder. There is no gap in the drama because Scene Two follows on from the last in quick succession and the fact that we see Lady Macbeth, sustains the anxiety and tension because she is already associated in our minds with evil and bad deeds. This is because she spoke to the evil spirits in Act One Scene Five, as well as being instrumental in manipulating Macbeth and persuading him to kill Duncan in the first place.
Before Macbeth returns, Lady Macbeth feels triumphant, powerful, and in control. She has done what she wanted, and got the better of men by manipulating them and making them do things for her benefit. She shows this by saying ‘that which hath made them drunk, hath made me bold; that which hath quenched them, hath given me fire’. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 1-2) This also alerts the audience again to her association with evil, and the witches (from when she called upon evil spirits to ‘…fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty’ (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 41,42) because she is talking about opposites, and this is what the witches talked about when they were first introduced at the beginning of the play: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 12)
She uses eloquent language filled with imagery personifying death and nature around the drugged guards: ‘Death and Nature do contend about them, whether they live, or die’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 7-8) This fits in well with what her husband was saying just moments ago about murder as a real being, rather than an action or abstract noun, and shows well how Shakespeare ensures there is no break in tension between scenes, because they flow on so well from each other. She seems very fired up and quite jumpy because of her excitement, so when she hears an owl screech in the night, she exclaims ‘Hark!’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 2) then ‘Peace,’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 2) to calm herself, but the fact that she is talking to herself is one of the early signs of her going mad. However she is still ‘on a high’ from her excitement of the murder of Duncan being carried out, that she confidently speaks about the owl straight after her fright: ‘It was the owl that shreik’d, the fatal bellman which gives the stern’st good-night.’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 3-4)
Here she is comparing the owl’s shriek to the night watchman who rings his bell outside the cells of prisoners condemned to death, in this case it is Duncan who is about to be killed. This comment about the owl is linked to her earlier speech before Duncan arrived at Macbeth’s castle, when she spoke of the raven, another bird linked with death: ‘The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan’ (Act 1, Scene 5, Line 37-8). As Macbeth arrives she gets very anxious, saying she is ‘afraid they have awak’d, and ’tis not done; the’attempt and not the deed confounds us.’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 9-11) In the Trevor Nunn stage version of Macbeth, Judi Dench, who plays Lady Macbeth, shows her excitement to an almost psychopathic degree, by talking very quickly and in a very high-pitched voice, which conveys the idea of drunkenness on power very well.
During Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s initial exchange, they convey their own nervousness and create even more of a tense atmosphere by talking in short questions and answer to each other. Line 16 in this scene is shared between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and cuts back and forth between them twice:
Lady Macbeth: ‘Did not you speak?’
Lady Macbeth: Now.
Macbeth: As I descended?’
This creates the tense atmosphere because the actors have no choice but to throw these short sharp words back and forth very quickly. The next line is unusual as there is only one syllable in it, said by Lady Macbeth in answer to Macbeth’s question ‘As I descended?’. She says ‘Ay.’ (Line 20) and the rest of the line is finished by either silence, or a noise coming from the night. This is the only time Shakespeare has scripted in a gap or a pause, and he did this because the lack of speech after such a quick exchange would make the silence almost ‘deafening’ to the audience, as they anticipate what is going to happen next. After the brief pause, Macbeth starts the conversation again, when he says ‘Hark!’ (Line 21) which shows his awareness of either the silence or the noise from the night, and his jumpy nature because he exclaims after it.
The next section of their exchange shows a sharp contrast between the two, as Macbeth starts to get almost hysterical, as he can’t process the horror of what he has just done, while Lady Macbeth gets frustrated with him as she struggles to keep control of the situation. Macbeth starts by looking at his bloody hands holding the daggers and saying ‘This is a sorry sight.’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 24) but straight away Lady Macbeth retorts ‘A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 25) which is almost scornful of him, as one might scold a child. However her efforts are soon to turn out futile, as Macbeth get so wrapped up in his own emotion that he barely seems to register she is there.
This is shown well in the Nicol Williamson staging of Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth is trying to push Macbeth off the stage, but because Nicol is a very tall person it is obvious that Lady Macbeth has no chance of moving him. Macbeth himself begins to get hysterical as Lady Macbeth loses control of him. He starts to think of himself as a hangman (‘with these hangman’s hands’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 30)) and thinks he maybe a damned man, when he thinks he cannot say ‘Amen’ after someone calls out ‘God bless us!’: ‘One cried ‘God bless us!’…I could not say ‘Amen” (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 29, 31) The original audience would pick up on the fact he could not say Amen, which would increase the tension and fear because it shows him to be possessed by evil spirits. Macbeth refers to ‘the innocent sleep’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 39) which is a recurring theme throughout the play, he refers to himself in the third person saying ‘Macbeth does murder sleep’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 39) and then talks about his different roles ‘Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 45-6)
This repetition of his different roles shows him slowly falling to pieces because of what he does, and also shows how much he is trying to find a way to make it not his fault and to dislocate himself from what he has just done, which brings him to be almost schizophrenic. However he also knows that his evil deed can leak into the reputation his other roles or identities and will ultimately destroy him. His talk about damnation and sleep is an example of foreshadowing, because after this time, neither Macbeth or Lady Macbeth will sleep properly again, and shall therefore be deprived of the ‘balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 42-3). In the Trevor Nunn production of Macbeth, Macbeth is shown starting to be almost atavistic, by talking in a child-like manner, which brings out his vulnerability and guilt for killing Duncan.
Tension is increased in the next part of the scene when Lady Macbeth shows her frustration with Macbeth because he is not listening to her. He is fraught with fear over what he has just done, and however much she tries to keep control over the situation he ignores her completely. She tries to take his mind off his rambling by trying one of her persuasion techniques, saying ‘Worthy thane, you do unbend your noble strength to think so brain-sickly of these things’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 47-9). Here she compliments him (‘worthy thane’) before telling him that he is losing his ‘noble strength’ by thinking about these ‘brain sickly’ things too much. She encourages to ‘Go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 49-50) even though later on in the play we will find out that she realises that ‘a little water’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 70) does not clear them ‘of this deed’. (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 70)
However she changes her mind when she sees that Macbeth is still clutching the daggers he used to kill Duncan, and is therefore ruining the plan. She gets very angry and accuses him of being ‘Infirm of purpose!’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 55) and tells him the daggers ‘must lie there’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 52) But Macbeth refuses because he does not want to go back (‘I’ll go no more’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 53)) which means she must ‘get her hands dirty’ by going back and smearing blood over Duncan’s guards so it looks like they did the murder. Because of this, she is very annoyed with Macbeth as because of his incompetence she had to be involved, but she retains her strength telling him ‘my hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 67-8).
As the scene comes to it’s dramatic climax, the contrasting attitudes and state of mind of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are shown and exaggerated further. Macbeth is very emotional and stressed, he seems to look at his hands as if they are someone else’s, saying ‘What hands are here? Ha: they pluck out mine eyes.’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 62) This shows how detached he is feeling from his own body, perhaps a instinctive result of the stress he has just gone through, his brain is trying to distance Macbeth from it. Macbeth uses very rich visual images to describe how he disagrees with Lady Macbeth’s notion that ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 70) asking if ‘All Neptune’s oceans wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red’. (Act 2 Scene 2 Lines 63-6)
This conjures up a very vivid image in the audience’s mind’s of vast oceans turning red with blood from his hand, with words such as ‘multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine’ adding to the image of excess, as they are almost onomatopoeic of the idea of vastness because the words themselves have many syllables. Then, this idea of enormous and excessive things is followed by a close-up image as Macbeth says ‘making the green one red’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 62) which focuses the image down into maybe a drop of blood making a small pool of green water red, because the words are monosyllabic and Macbeth uses the word ‘one’. The way Shakespeare has used short, simple words after the long, elaborate words increases the contrast from the big and the small.
In contrast to Macbeth’s figurative contemplation, Lady Macbeth is not so deep in thought; her mind is still on the task in hand (quite literally) and if she is feeling any remorse or panic for what they have just done, she does not show any emotion at all in fact, apart from frustration for Macbeth because he is not being brave or strong like a man should be: ‘My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 67-68).
The knocking that comes towards the end of the scene succeeds in further racking up the tension. It instils a sense of urgency in the situation, that while Macbeth stands around, waiting for ‘occasion [to] call us and show us to be watchers’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 73-4), for the longer they wait there with the ‘filthy witness’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 50) on their hands, the more likely it is they are going to get caught red-handed. It is a harsh loud and repetitive noise that should bring Macbeth out of his inward turning thoughts, but as it does not it further shows how hard he is taking the stress. It brings out a bit of anxiousness in Lady Macbeth though, as she gets more and more tense as the knocking continues: ‘Hark! More knocking’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 72)
Macbeth’s final words in this scene show his true emotion that he is feeling after the murder. He says ‘To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself’ (Act 2 Scene 2 Line 76) which seems as if he is asking for a kind of self-inflicted schizophrenia, so he doesn’t have to deal with the sorrow and regret he is feeling. But his very last line, ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking; I would thou couldst.’ (Act 2, Scene 2, Line 77) shows his deep sadness, regret and sorrow for what he has done.
In conclusion, the murder of King Duncan is dramatised by Shakespeare’s decision not to show the murder, instead shifting the focus onto the scenes preceding and following the offstage event, where suspense for the murder is built up in the audience’s minds using dark imagery, and emphasis is put on how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to come to terms with what they have done and what lays ahead for them now they have committed this heinous crime.