Shakespeare’s Macbeth: When considering the balance of moral responsibility for the death of Duncan, how do dramatic techniques help to shape and direct the audience’s response?
In the play, Macbeth is clearly guilty of the act of murdering King Duncan. Yet in order to fully understand his motives, reasons and influences towards doing this we must consider to what degree Macbeth is solely responsible for the murder, and also to consider the dramatic techniques Shakespeare uses in order to persuade the reader into feeling certain emotions and bias. The two main influences on Macbeth’s actions would have been Lady Macbeth and the three witches. Other influences too would have been greatly influential including the hallucinations of MacBeth and also his masculine desire for success.
Before considering the separate characters, it is important to consider the social background of the play. This can help us to understand how many ideas of the play would have been seen by the Shakespearean audience. Witches were seen as superstitious creatures, associated with evil and wrongdoing. The use of witches in the early scenes of the play would immediately show the audience that some form of witchcraft or extraordinary actions were to take place in the course of the play. During the 17th century there was very strong religious observation. Yet this play clearly shows the influence of the supernatural. Religion shunned these forms of life and the widespread belief of the reality of evil and so these characters in the play would have been seen by the audience to be greatly controversial thus making the role of the witches one of great importance.
The opening scene underlines the importance of the witches and the theme of darkness to the audience, as the first thing that the crowd see on stage will often be the most memorable. The importance of this scene is exaggerated through the heavy use of dramatic impacts such as thunder and lightning. These natural phenomenon also suggest to the audience the power and control that the witches possess. This presentation of a disgraced idea would immediately create an atmosphere of moral confusion, terror and suspicion. This scene is set in a remote setting, surrounded by a terrible storm and there is an air of confusion and questioning in both the speech of Banquo and Macbeth. This adds to the atmosphere of terror and moral confusion and further causes the audience to be suspicious about the actions of the witches. Referred to as the “weird sisters” by Macbeth his meeting with them seems to lurk like dark thoughts and temptations to evil.
In theory it is really the witches who plant that idea of murder into Macbeth’s conscience. Without his meeting with them, he would be in the dark about his becoming thane after the prophecies thus meaning that without his third prophecy he would be unaware of any idea to become king, as he would have no reasoning to believe the precognition of the witches to be true. They create the opportunity for Macbeth yet they do not give it to him. However, the witches only say that he will become king and not in any way do they suggest that he would act in a way to allow him to be made king. It is solely Macbeth’s ambition to be king that has directed him towards this plan. Some of their prophecies too seem self-fulfilling. For example, it is doubtful that Macbeth would have murdered his king without the push given by the witches’ predictions. In other cases, though, their prophesies are remarkably accurate readings of the future – it is hard to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsisnane as being self-fulfilling in anyway. Yet it must be considered whether these witches are either influential subconsciously, physically influential or both in the murder of Duncan.
The speech patterns of the witches also seems to be a signal of the influence that they hold in the actions of Macbeth. They seem to speak in perhaps malevolent rhymes while the rest of the characters speak in blank verse. The witches are heard to chant “Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through fog and filthy air.” This type of verse is quite unusual in Shakespearean speech, yet only a short time after his meeting with the witches Macbeth says “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” This is clearly a near identical paradoxical phrase, which echoes the words of the witches and so signifies perhaps the influence the witches hold on Macbeth and also how he is beginning to think like them. The audience could easily see these words as a connection between Macbeth and the witches.
Yet there is not affirmation of these presumptions other that the given words, and it is also possible that his words could be entirely innocent and coincidental. An immediate dramatic technique that is apparent in this first scene of the play is the weather. It is described to be “thunder and lightning”. This form of weather in conjunction with the meeting of the witches. It suggests to us the turmoil in the world of man as in the skies and the general confusion that both Banquo and Macbeth must have been feeling. The witches are deliberately tempting Macbeth. The order in which they hail him simply shows us that they are using a building-up technique in order to capture his ambition. We are shown in the very first scene the powers that the witches claim to hold and so have some reason to support thoughts that they are empowering Macbeth.
The second, and most probably more influential character to consider, is that of Lady Macbeth. We first meet Lady Macbeth while she is reading a letter from her husband. The letter includes full detail of his meeting with the witches with no lack of description of his own feelings or thoughts. This immediately shows that the couple have a very close relationship with a base of trust and mutual understanding. Yet although it is at this point the Macbeth admits to a total thought that the witches hold supernatural powers, they have in fact not been proven, yet Macbeth is still shown to be very excited about his prophecies.
As he has not yet been illustrated as untrustworthy character the audience would also feel this belief of Macbeth. It is at the point of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy that we truly see the understanding between wife and husband, and also the power and control the Lady Macbeth has over her partner. Macbeth did mention consistently in previous scenes his imagination of a “horrid image” of a “murder yet is but fantastical”, signs of his own desire for kingship via foul ways. Yet it is also clear that at the end of this speech Macbeth’s intent is not to toil with fate and instead to act “without my stir” thus showing Macbeth’s true desire not to act against the king. This allows us to deeply consider that it is Lady Macbeth who finally persuades Macbeth into performing the deed of killing Duncan.
As explained Lady Macbeth obviously has a most powerful relationship over Macbeth. She understands both his weaknesses and his strengths as well as knowing exactly how to manipulate him with both emotive and critical language. She primarily illustrates in her soliloquy her deep knowledge of Macbeth and her desires to manipulate his thoughts. It is also at this same point that the audience may begin to feel an inhuman character in Lady Macbeth. She calls upon spirits to perform impossible stunts on her own body – to dehumanise her. She is not only asking for the impossible but her thought that she has the ability to connect with spirits shows us that she too may be influenced by the supernatural.
This calling would turn the audience immediately against her as in Shakespearean times any form of contact with inhumane spirits were considered to be against religion and therefor wrong. She asks for her “spirits” to “unsex” her and to “take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers” showing clearly to the audience a connection with the witches and thus an influence on the actions of Macbeth. This connection can not only be seen due to the addressing of spirits, but also due to the ambiguous sexuality. The witches are addressed at the beginning of the play as bearded women thus showing their own mixed sexuality. This link would allow the audience to connect Lady Macbeth with the witches thus making them very fearful and critical of her and allowing them to be ready to place blame on her.
We are also shown Lady Macbeth’s shallow conscience. She feels little guilt when she addresses Macbeth’s unmanly characteristics and in her idea flaws of character. But even more importantly she does not seem concerned with completely turning around Macbeth’s own opinions and morals. She aims to make him deeply ashamed of everything within him that prevents him from having the desire to murder the King for his own personal goal. She has no problems with ridding Macbeth of his human morality and conscience in a bid to gain position for the couple. She makes him feel guilty for his thoughts by asking him “art though afeard?” and telling him images of living “a coward in thine own esteem” which would make Macbeth feel deeply ashamed and guilty himself. By attacking Macbeth’s reputation of being brave and strong against enemies, we are shown how great Lady Macbeth’s control over him really is. She shows him how she, as a woman, would sacrifice her own child for him whereas he, as a man, s too cowardly to perform a simple task. This is a major turning point in his decision to do the deed and murder Duncan. The audience too would feel disgusted by Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness and unquenchable aspirations due to the fact that no considerate human would kill their own offspring for selfish aspirations.
At this point of the play Shakespeare is also aiming to play on the audiences feelings to both the positions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This will allow for further blame to be added onto Lady Macbeth. At this single point in the play she is shown to be at the height of her tyrannical command of Macbeth. She takes a far greater proportion of speech than Macbeth thus showing her command and she also speaks down to him as though he were a younger, lower being to her “spirited” self. The audience also feels for Macbeth greatly at this point, as it is here that we are truly shown the innocence of his character. He is fearful of failure and sensitive, being doubtful to committing an act of such great double crime: both murder and treason against the state. Due to the grasp by Lady Macbeth of his innocence and morality and the immediate change in his character the audience can feel even more concerned for Macbeth, placing the greatest disdain onto Lady Macbeth.
A further character though who we are allowed insight into the feelings of Macbeth, by comparison, is Banquo. Banquo is shown to be a truthful character throughout the play. He has a son, Fleance to who he confides in truthfully as shown when he speaks to Macbeth of the meeting with the “weird sisters” in front of Fleance thus showing his honest and truthful nature. An example of this is after the first meeting with the witches where Banquo exclaims, “can the devil speak true” thus showing the audience the feeling that the position of the witches is one of evil input. His dialogue too with Macbeth gives a chance for comparison and thus consideration of Macbeth’s character. Upon first seeing the witches Macbeth is very sharp and critical in his opinion whereas Banquo is far more considered and inquisitive. Through Banquo’s questions we are given a deep description of the witches as well as seeing the differences in character and flaws in Macbeth’s character. Macbeth is very quick to conclude and very self-interested. He is also shown to be scared of the prophesies shown when Banquo asks “good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear” giving the reader reason to feel that within the next scenes there must be an opening made into his hidden feelings for the feelings of Macbeth to change so drastically.
The final character who must be considered is undoubtedly Macbeth. We know that Macbeth performed the deed of the murder of King Duncan yet we must consider how greatly he felt influenced by other sources.
Macbeth is shown by his counterparts to be a ruthless, brave and successful soldier. He does not seem to be discouraged by the act of killing in a battle scene as we are told of how Macbeth acts “with bloody execution” and that he “unseamed him from the knaves to the chops”. This shows us how inside Macbeth does have the capabilities to kill in battle, but contrary to this it would not be with such ease that he could murder. Lady Macbeth, who knew Macbeth’s deepest characteristics describes him as being “too full o’the milk of human-kindness” to perform such an act. This shows us how although Macbeth may been seen in the eyes of a soldier as being ruthless, when morality is being considered Macbeth is of far more innocent nature.
Finally we must consider how greatly the witches influence him into killing Duncan. Without the encounter with them and the prophecies given, the idea of becoming King and the means by which he would receive the throne would have most likely not have come to Macbeth considering that he knew that Duncan himself had two heirs to the throne and although he was of an old age, he was not in any near state to death. His dramatic soliloquy and apparent hallucinations hint to us the influence Macbeth is under. Macbeth’s sudden ambition and desire to become king could only have been primarily due to the witches’ prophecies and them planting this apparent opportunity. It is true to think that Macbeth’s ultimate desire in life, like any high ranked official, would have been kingship. Yet the means by which he has gone about gaining this position would be most unusual without any other influence for desire.
It is also important to consider Macbeth’s mental stability at the time. Although we are given truth to the idea that the meeting with the witches was an actual event due to there being two witnesses: Macbeth and Banquo, there is however reason to believe that mentally at the time of killing Duncan, Macbeth was not stable. There is a total conflict within Macbeth’s character. His willingness to reach his ambition is constantly changing and he is at no point shown to be totally confident in his own ideas without the push of Lady Macbeth. This mental confusion is backed up by Macbeth’s vision: the dagger by which he was to kill Duncan with.
This soliloquy of Macbeth’s is clearly aimed at showing the audience that Macbeth was not mentally healthy. The hallucination is graphic and out stretched suggesting that Macbeth did not only encounter a sudden suffering but that his ill being was a long-term problem. By using vivid language such as “thy bade and dudgeon, gouts of blood” and by extending the soliloquy for as long as possible as Macbeth “see thee still” saw the dagger time and again stresses this point of the depth in which this hallucination was. It makes one feel that he is a character of intellectual distance and the total condemning of the death of Duncan on Macbeth would be unjust due to the mental problems he faced. This idea that Macbeth’s loss of sanity was partially responsible for his actions would force the audience to consider further the other influences that Macbeth was feeling other than his sane mind. Yet one could also consider that having had a full battle with his conscience suggests that Macbeth is sane throughout but is just in torment about his decisions.
Having considered the influences that Macbeth would have been feeling in his decision to murder King Duncan, I have ultimately decided that Macbeth is only partially morally responsible for the deed. He felt immense pressure to perform from his wife and also was urged on by the witches’ prophesies. Mentally too Macbeth may not have been in the condition to make a rational decision either as well as feeling the stress of the pressure that was being added further by Lady Macbeth. If blame were to be placed, however, on one person I feel that Lady Macbeth was, morally, the most responsible for the death of Duncan.
She persuades Macbeth to swing from one side of reasoning to the other and states even that “I had done’t” thus showing her deep intent to kill the king. Through the dialogues between Lady Macbeth and her husband, Shakespeare has shown the overpowering control Lady Macbeth held over husband. As well as understanding his deepest feelings and faults she also knew how to overcome them and use them to her advantage. Although the witches too influence Macbeth into thinking about killing the king, it is only Lady Macbeth who persuades him in to actually performing the murder. Through the dramatic techniques explained, such as the revealing soliloquies of Macbeth and his wife, the dialogues between all the characters and the comparison of Macbeth to Banquo, Shakespeare has managed to shape the audience into thinking that moral responsibility for the deed should rest on someone other than Macbeth himself.