Summary of Degrees of Responsibility in Macbeth, or Who Is Guilty in Macbeth?
Introduction of Characters Responsible
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, several characters have a certain degree of responsibility for the assassination of King Duncan and the murders that follow. Macbeth, being a soldier, knows how to kill and is familiar with this act. This may be damning evidence that Macbeth is completely responsible for the murders he commits throughout the play. However, while Macbeth may be thought of as ultimately responsible for his actions, there are certain steps taken by other characters, such as the witches, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan’s guards, and even King Duncan himself, that push Macbeth to his eventual downfall. This essay will examine the different characters and the forces they exert that lead to the assassination of Duncan, Banquo, and others by Macbeth.
The seeds of of Macbeth’s downfall are first planted near the beginning of the play when the witches tell Macbeth that he shall be Thane of Cawdor and King (I.3.48-50). Next to Macbeth, the witches seem to hold the most responsibility for the eventual assassination of King Duncan. Had the witches not told him he would be either Thane of Cawdor or King he would not have believed that he was to become king. However, once he becomes Thane of Cawdor, he trusts that the other prophecy must also be true. The witches could have told Macbeth any forthcoming truth and that he would be king, and Macbeth still probably would have committed regicide to obtain the title of King. This is because he became confident that the witches were honest once one truth they had told him came true. While the murder of King Duncan may appear to be a result Macbeth’s own personality, had the witches not planted the idea in Macbeth’s head, he may not have committed the tragic murder.
The next culpable character for Macbeth’s downfall is his wife. Lady Macbeth knows her husband is too “full of the milk of human kindness” to murder Duncan with no persuasion (I.5.15-17). Once Lady Macbeth learns of her husband’s potential new position as king, she constantly challenges his masculinity and reliability to force him to kill King Duncan, which he has doubts about doing. She first challenges her husband’s reliability when she asks him if he will live as a coward letting “I dare not” outweigh his “I would” the rest of his life (I.7.43-45). She then goes on to challenge his manhood by saying that he was a real man when he said he was going to follow through with his plans, and if he actually follows through with his plans he will be even more than just a man (I.7.49-51). She continues to bolster their plans by saying that if she had made such a promise as he had, she would follow through with it, even if it was a promise to murder her own baby (I.7.54-59). Lady Macbeth is very responsible for being the prick in the sides of Macbeth’s intent to murder the king. Had she not pushed him he may have not followed through with his plans to murder the king. However, Lady Macbeth’s constant belittlement and demoralization, until the deed is done, makes her nearly as guilty as Macbeth for his actions.
Duncan and His Guards
King Duncan’s guards and King Duncan himself are also responsible for Duncan’s death. Had the guards not drank so much, and the king allowed them to drink, they would have been sober and ready for Macbeth’s attack. King Duncan also knew of Macbeth’s capabilities of violence. The bloody man told Duncan about Macbeth carving through the battlefield with his sword and unseaming Macdonwald, beheading him, and placing his head on the battlements (I.2.17-23). This should have been a sign to Duncan that Macbeth is a violent man, and to not grant him more power than is necessary. Had Duncan not granted Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, he wouldn’t have sought the kingship. Becoming Thane of Cawdor was a stepping stone that Macbeth needed in order to crave becoming king.
Finally, and most importantly, is Macbeth’s responsibility in the murder of King Duncan. It is possible that, had not the witches told Macbeth he would be king, and if his wife had not pushed him to take the kingship, Macbeth wouldn’t have committed the murder. However, immediately after learning about becoming Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth begins thinking about and plotting to become king (I.3.116-20). He even mulls over the idea of murdering Duncan almost immediately after becoming Thane of Cawdor (I.3.137-42). The letter to his wife shows that he is thinking about taking the kingship and believes what the witches have told him is true (I.5.1-13). Once Lady Macbeth has done her coercing of Macbeth to kill the king, nobody drives the dagger into Duncan but Macbeth. Even his wife admits that she couldn’t do it because he too much resembled her father (II.2.12-13). This is also a sign that Lady Macbeth will regret pushing Macbeth into murdering Duncan. While Macbeth does feel regret throughout the rest of the play for killing an innocent king, he continues to murder. He orders murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance (III.1.123-126) and to kill Macduff and his family (IV.1.172-75). This shows that while Macbeth may have doubts about killing Duncan, he doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone else in his way.
In Macbeth, there are many levels of culpability weighing on different characters for the murder of Duncan. However, Macbeth is the most guilty person as he is the only one who followed through on the plot to murder the king. While there may have been other forces at work prodding him in that direction, ultimately, Macbeth is the only one to actually murder the king.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.
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