Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth” is based on various different sources. There was a king of Scotland called MacBeth in about 1040, who was exposed to violence and torment from an early age when his father was murdered by his cousins. He then married Gruach, who was the granddaughter of a High King of Scotland. However there is no evidence that she had a malign influence on MacBeth, which is contrary to the portrayal of their relationship in Shakespeare’s play. Another source for the play arose from Holinshed’s chronicles. Previously Shakespeare had used these chronicles to develop various other stories.
These chronicles may have affected the tone of Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth” as Holinshed was uncritical of the historians he relied upon and he opposed all kingships other than that of the Tudors. Clearly Shakespeare altered and adapted the sources he relied upon to write the text as he had to make if dramatic to entice audiences to come and see his plays at the theatre. In order to be a successful playwright this meant making his plays as gruesome and shocking as possible, hence the emphasis on murder, madness and conflict. The text is therefore stylistic of much literature, aimed to entertain and please the audience.
It is believed that the play was performed in front of King James in 1606. There are therefore many parallels between the life and rule of King James and the story that unfolds in the play “MacBeth”. Fundamentally the murder of Duncan had to result in the untimely death of his murderer. This is because it suggests that attempts to seize power in such an oppressive manner result in misery and more distress. This is shown in the play because MacBeth’s efforts to become an established monarch of Scotland are quashed and remain futile. This was important to please the king especially since King James loathed regicide.Order now
This was not surprising given the failed attempt at his assassination in the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605, which is also referred to in the play. A catholic priest, Henry Garnet was put on trial for his involvement in the plot and he admitted he had only told half of the truth. Ironically the play too is filled with equivocations, most prominently seen in the speeches of the witches. For example in act 1 scene 3 one of the witches says to MacBeth “All hail MacBeth, that shalt be king hereafter”. It is not said how or when MacBeth will be king it only says that he will be.
Duncan’s murder is fundamental to the play for a number of reasons. It is the first act of treachery in the play and subsequently leads to the murder of the other characters Banquo, MacDuff’s family and Young Siward. This is due to the fact that once Duncan has been killed and MacBeth named king, MacBeth’s ambition forces him to employ violent and ruthless tactics in order to remain in such a high position of power. It was the case with MacBeth that “absolute power corrupts and power corrupts absolutely”. This ruthless ambition is a key theme in the play and it can be seen as the fundamental flaw in the characters of both MacBeth and his wife. This importance of this idea can be seen in the quote “I have no spur, To prick the sides of my intent but only, Vaulting ambition”. Here MacBeth becomes aware that he is driven by ambition alone.
The murder of Duncan is important in bringing originality to the play, to gain the approval of the crowd. To conduct such a murder in Shakespeare’s time especially, was scandalous. The murder is evil because primarily Duncan was a guest in MacBeth’s house so MacBeth should have protected and cared for him, offering him security as he was his host. Despite this, MacBeth plots and plans to bring about his demise as he is overwhelmed by greed. It is not sufficient that Duncan has made MacBeth Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor entrusting him with a large amount of power. In return Duncan wanted MacBeth’s respect, obedience and loyalty. At the beginning of the play MacBeth is regarded as a loyal and faithful man, fighting on Duncan’s behalf. It is ironic that he is heralded as being so worthy when later in the book he can be deemed as nothing but a traitor.
The opinion that he is trustworthy can be inferred from act 1 scene 2 when the captain speaks of him saying, “For brave MacBeth â€“ well he deserves that name â€“ Disdaining Fortuneâ€¦..Till he faced the slave”. He also personally kills the rebel Macdonald in the opening battle which shows a commitment to his king against the enemies of the crown. Secondly MacBeth’s murderous act was direful because Duncan was king, supposedly appointed by God and MacBeth was one of his noblemen. Obedience was vital in the hierarchical feudal system which governed the country in the time that the play was set and the flagrant disobedience of MacBeth would have made the play all the more shocking to the unsuspecting audience.
The prophecies of the witches are important in bringing about the murder of Duncan. Without the meeting between MacBeth, Banquo and the witches, MacBeth would not have conjured up such a scandalous plan to kill his king. He was a faithful fighter, loyal to the crown and because of this he was rewarded by being made Thane of Glamis and Cawdor. Without the intervention of the devil, personified by the presence of the witches I believe that MacBeth would not have been so desperate to kill Duncan. Before the meeting with the witches MacBeth does not appear to be discontent with what he has.
He has not yet been made Thane of Cawdor despite the fact that Duncan has already expressed his wish to confer the title on MacBeth to Ross, Malcolm and Lennox. Maybe the fact that once MacBeth does become Thane of Cawdor fulfilling the prophecy of the witches, he knows that he also will become king should he pursue the notion. The fact that his killing of Macdonald results in him obtaining the title of Thane of Cawdor, it may subconsciously make him aware of the fact that to receive Duncan’s title he must act similarly. Should he have not told his wife about the prophecies he was foretold by the witches he may also not have plotted to kill the king. It is apparent that his wife was a pivotal influence in his decision.
A crucial scene in the play is act 2 scene 1. This is because it is the scene which occurs directly before the murder of Duncan. Firstly Banquo speaks of how grateful Duncan is to have received the invitation to MacBeth’s house and what hospitality he has been shown as a guest. Banquo says that Duncan “hath been in unusual pleasure, And sent forth great largess to your offices” which shows the extent to which Duncan appreciates the apparent kindness of MacBeth. It is disturbing how beguiling MacBeth can be with such dishonourable intentions. This deceit becomes apparent when MacBeth tells a blatant lie to Banquo. MacBeth says he has not thought of the three weird sisters and their prophecies. Contrary to this false testament, he has thought of little else. The scene leads on to a soliloquy by MacBeth.
It is quite clear that MacBeth is obsessed by the fact that he is going to murder Duncan. It has completely engulfed his life and he thinks of nothing else. He starts to hallucinate about “a dagger of the mind” and he is finding it hard to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. We know this because MacBeth says “Is this a dagger which I see before me”. These are the signs that first give the reader or audience the indication that MacBeth has been taken over by his greed and desire for power.
Duncan’s murder takes place in act 2 scene 2. This scene is important, not only because it is where the murder occurs but also we learn more about the involvement of Lady MacBeth. It is she who has drugged Duncan’s bodyguards and she is the one who questions MacBeth’s manhood and accuses him of cowardice when MacBeth informs her that in act 1 scene 7 he has decided to in fact not kill the king. In act 2 scene 2 she forces MacBeth to return the daggers to the scene of the crime and it seems as if she is the true instigator of events. Ironically although MacBeth slowly becomes mad, consumed by his own guilt, it is Lady MacBeth who dies first and we observe her slide into madness. She continually tries to wash blood from her hands and is clearly disturbed by the treacherous act she has forced her husband to commit. “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” she cries desperately in act 5 scene 1.
This is an element of her suffering as she is losing her sanity. She also suffers from lack of sleep. Blood appears to be a major theme in the play as the repercussions echo throughout. Another important theme is that of darkness. It is portrayed by the use of vivid words as the text as whole is full of imagery. “Dark night strangles the travelling lamp” and “Come thick night” are two quotes which portray this imagery. The language used in these quotes show hidden meanings similar to the way the dark night conceals murderous intentions. The use of the word “strangle” expresses this idea coherently. It is dark when Duncan is killed and his death results in lack of sleep for MacBeth and his wife. These themes are consistently present throughout the play and give it a certain level of complexity so that it is not merely a tale of murder.
In conclusion the murder of Duncan is fundamental to the play. The committing of regicide is MacBeth’s first step on the ladder to his demise. In retrospect of the play, it sets in motion the death of one great man, Duncan, and the slow downfall of another, namely MacBeth. Arguably MacBeth was a good man, corrupted by ambition, power and principally the influence of his wife. She is evil and corrupts their relationship with her ruthlessness. Unknowingly she urges MacBeth to destroy all that is good, the fate of the country, the life of a good man and unintentionally their marriage. When he appears to be frightened and worried by the apparition of Banquo he finds he cannot even find solace in his wife which shows how much the support within their marriage has deteriorated. The murder of Duncan leads to a culmination of events which brings about the downfall of MacBeth and epitomises the evil in the play. The evil is emphasised in the scenes where the murder occurs, act 2 scenes 1 and 2, by the use of darkness and blood. This is a prime example of Shakespeare’s diverse use of imagery.
He frequently uses imagery and pathetic fallacy to convey themes and ideas. The use of soliloquies is important because they serve two purposes. They show a certain element of madness because the character is addressing themselves rather than the other characters, commonly seen as a sign of delusion in society. Secondly they allow the audience to know the exact thoughts of the character. This was used by Shakespeare to show that despite his actions MacBeth was not solely a butcher, he was also human and could express feelings of compassion and guilt. Without these crucial soliloquies where MacBeth voices his inner feelings, we may not have seen this side to him and the play would lose its depth and complexity.