When considering the balance of moral responsibility for the death of Duncan, how do dramatic techniques help to shape and direct the audience’s responses?

There are three parties in Macbeth who share the balance of moral responsibility for the death of Duncan. Without any one of the three, the murder of Duncan would not have taken place. We can, however, analyse how Shakespeare portrays the characters to ascertain who he wants us to perceive as ultimately responsible. It must be remembered that Macbeth is a play, not a novel. The playwright, Shakespeare, is able to portray his characters through many forms, rather than just illustrating them through words. Shakespeare is able to manipulate the audience and their views. To decide what Shakespeare wants us to feel about the true culprit, we must analyse each of the three main contributors.

The first characters we are introduced to in the play are the three Witches. Now it must be remembered that Shakespeare’s audience would have taken witches and evil very seriously. In the first scene we can note several aspects of them: They are connected with disorder in nature (not only thunder and lightning but also ‘fog and filthy air’); they can hover; they reverse moral values (‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’) and they presumably foresee the future, since the third Witch knows that the battle will be over by sunset. We also learn, most importantly, that the Witches cannot directly kill. This proves to be an important factor when considering all arguments.

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The third scene shows more clearly what seems to be an ambiguity in the presentation of the Witches. On the one hand, they have features that are typical of the old English ‘witch’, being old women, ‘wither’d’ and with ‘choppy fingers’ and ‘skinny lips.’ But on the other hand they are mysterious and ‘look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth’, and they prophecy the future. Then what is the function of this ambiguity? On one level, no doubt, it enabled Shakespeare to draw upon the common belief in an ‘evil’ at work in the English countryside, whilst never reducing the play’s Witches to simply village widows, etc.

From the first scene, Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of terror and moral chaos. One might ask, why? Does the fact that the world Macbeth lived in, which was in moral chaos, make us more accepting of his crimes? Does it create more sympathy for Macbeth and lay more blame on the sisters? The famous line ‘Foul is fair and fair is foul’ is extremely important. It suggests to us that values have been turned upside down, and that appearances, whether of good or evil, cannot be trusted. This line tells us that although witches were imagined to be evil, spirit-worshiping children of the devil, and must therefore be the most responsible for the crime, it may not be so.

One could instead view the Witches as the heroines of the piece. It is they who, by releasing ambitious thoughts in Macbeth, expose a reverence for hierarchical social order for what they may have seen as simply a pious self-deception of a society based on routine oppression and incessant warfare. The Witches are shown to be exiles from that violent order, inhabiting their own sisterly community. It is their riddling and ambiguous speech (they ‘palter us with a double sense’) which promises to subvert this structure: Their teasing word play infiltrates and undermines Macbeth from within, revealing (not creating) a lack which hollows his being into desire.

The Witches are shown to signify a realm of non-meaning and poetic play which hovers at the piece’s margins, one which has its own kind of truth; and their words to Macbeth catalyse.

(So by dictionary definition: to accelerate an action or process. Acceleration only speeds up something. So in this case we are led to believe that Macbeth must have had the propensity to commit such a crime but his desires and ‘dark side’ has been brought out of him.)

Which thus implies that without hearing the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth would not have thought to kill his King, as he would not have had the notion that this would lead to his becoming king.

To summarise, the Witches did not guarantee the death of Duncan, although they may have been responsible for watering the seeds of an idea naturally present in Macbeth, feeding his all-consuming desire to be King. .


There is an importance of gender roles in the play, which is subtly made apparent to us. The world of Scotland at the time is one of blood and brutality. Indeed, the first human words of the play are ‘What bloody man is that?’ The answer describes the hero, Macbeth:

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel,

Which smok’d with bloody execution,

Like valor’s minion carv’d out his passage

Till he fac’d the slave:

Which nev’r shook hands, no bade farewell to him,

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops

And fix’d his head upon our battlements.

Such a description was obviously intended to shock the audience and to prepare them for what was to come. It could imply the hero is not totally admirable, were it not for the fact that we hear only praise for Macbeth. He is ‘brave Macbeth’, ‘valor’s minion’, ‘valiant cousin’ and ‘worthy gentleman’. The most praise comes from Duncan, the King, and the authority figure. Shakespeare is trying to help us understand that Macbeth lives in a culture which values barbarism and butchery. Throughout the play, manhood is equated with the ability to kill.

The imagery of the play is divided into masculine and feminine categories. Blood and royal robes are symbolic of male prowess, authority, and legitimacy, as opposed to the feminine procreative and nourishing images of babies, children and milk. Lady Macbeth informs us of her values in her first appearance. She tells us Macbeth’s flaw is that he is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.’ This contradicts the perception of Macbeth as a heartless warrior and is quite astonishing. Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s view, should encourage this ‘milky’ side of her husband’s character, but instead she resolves to align herself with male principles, in a passage explicitly connecting gender roles and moral values:

Come you spirits

That tend on moral thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty!… Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall.

Such an unfeeling speech is hardly intended to endear us to the character. Shakespeare wants us to understand and consider that at the time the purpose of a woman/wife was to serve her husband, look after him and guide him where she could. When Macbeth has doubts about murdering Duncan, Lady Macbeth is responsible for relinquishing those doubts. Although it is clear that Macbeth has, before the opening of the play, considered taking over the kingdom by force, it is also clear from his hesitation that he could have been dissuaded from killing Duncan. And within the feminine/masculine polarity of morals and roles in Shakespeare’s division of experience, it is Lady Macbeth’s function to dissuade him. But Lady Macbeth, a powerful figure, is drawn to the role within which worldly power resides.

She seems to be, by the world’s standards, an exemplary wife. She encourages and supports her husband in a wifely fashion; she does not undermine him, she sees, knows, and understands the terms of the world she lives in, and accepts them. However can we blame her for doing so? Shakespeare makes clear to us the importance of rank throughout the play. How can Lady Macbeth be blamed for wanting the best for her husband, even if it means he must commit murder? We see that it does not seem unnatural to her for Macbeth to kill Duncan. Had Shakespeare wanted us to see the driving force behind Macbeth (his wife) as a truly evil, heartless woman he would not have included the simple line where Lady Macbeth tells her husband and the audience that had Duncan not resembled her father, she herself would have killed him.

“Had he not resembled

My father as he slept, I had done it”

This illustrates that although she may have had the ambition, the drive and the intention to commit the deed, she could not do it. She alone could not kill Duncan. She may have mocked her husband for loosing heart and may have persuaded him to commit the murder when he had decided he could not, but she did not kill Duncan. She may have scorned her husband and ridiculed his manhood, but she did not directly force him. The verbal guidance of another cannot entirely force someone to perform an action, unless there are consequences in not committing the action. In this case, the only ramifications would be any sporadic, child-like disdain shown by his wife. As Macbeth was not forced to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth cannot be held ultimately responsible. Her character was obviously formed and portrayed to deflect some blame away from the central ‘hero’, but not to take away the fact that Macbeth was ultimately responsible.


Macbeth is the central character from the beginning of the play. Shakespeare ensures that his plot and stage direction allow us to see all that happens to him, hear all his thoughts and the thoughts of those close to him. By hearing the insights of people close to him, we subconsciously conclude Macbeth is incriminated. For example, had Banquo himself also begun to think murderous thoughts on hearing the Witches’ prophecies, then Macbeth’s actions may have been excusable. The audience might assume that the great emphasis placed on rank and the current state of hierarchy, would persuade any man that the chance to be King, or as in Banquo’s case, to have their son become King, was an irresistible prospect.

However, we see that even after hearing that his sons are promised the crown, Banquo does not appear to think of, and does not act upon, the prophecy in the same way as Macbeth. He even thinks to himself that Macbeth may have ‘played most foully’, when he hears that Macbeth is named for the throne. Not only does this indicate that it was possible for Macbeth to cast aside the prophecy and ‘think not’ of the ‘three weird sisters’, but also that Macbeth’s close friend has no trouble in believing him capable of such a crime. This again reinforces how Shakespeare wanted us to perceive Macbeth: Banquo is the only companion of Macbeth’s that we are introduced to in the play and yet even he speaks ill of Macbeth and his devilish tendencies.

As previously mentioned, Shakespeare knew his audience would have had extremely negative and suspicious views towards witches and witchcraft. It is interesting, therefore, that at the beginning of the play, the recently acclaimed ‘hero’ is associated with the three Witches. In the scene after we have heard one of the Witches utter the strange word play of ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, we hear Macbeth use similar jousting when he describes the day. (“So fair and foul a day I have not seen.”)

I believe Shakespeare uses these techniques to incriminate Macbeth. We are shown that he is not only a butcher, but that he is respected for being so. To make sure that we are not led to believe that this is acceptable we are shown, in a number of ways previously addressed, how Shakespeare depicts Macbeth’s world to be one where morals and normality is reversed. Macbeth, in his society, is considered a hero; in ours he would be condemned as a criminal. Shakespeare has to make sure that Macbeth is viewed as a villain so that the blame for the murder of Duncan cannot be passed away from Macbeth.

In conclusion, after having considered all arguments, I believe that the three weird sisters only provoke a tendency, or weakness perhaps, in Macbeth. This feeds his desire. It is implied in the storyline that, non-verbally, Macbeth invites his wife to be his partner in crime; this was not necessary if he had had no intention of doing anything about the Witches’ prophecies. Lady Macbeth gives her husband the courage to do what he had a mind to do anyway.

I believe Shakespeare wanted to formulate the audiences’ ideas into deeming Macbeth the most guilty party.


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