In order to answer this question you must look at the play carefully as the question is not as simple as it seems. Although Macbeth murdered the king the question of who is actually responsible is a debateable one. The witches, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself are all important characters and I will look at these in my essay. I will examine too, the situation surrounding the death of Duncan.
The supernatural plays a very big part in Macbeth and I think that the witches do have a part to play in the murder of Duncan. Whilst not really responsible they certainly contributed to his killing. In their first encounter with Macbeth they are portrayed as quite eerie. They talk in mystic riddle and rhyme. I think that Shakespeare chose to start the play with these witches in order to portray a sense of uneasiness with the audience and also to represent mistrust which is prevalent throughout the play. The fact that Macbeth echoes their words when he meets them, in the first line that is spoken by him indicates that they have a powerful part in the plot. Macbeth then goes on to address the witches:
‘Speak if you can: what are you?’
Then the first witch replies and talks of the past:
‘All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.’
It is to be taken note of that as yet there is no mention of Banquo as the next witch continues, talking of the present (Macbeth is not aware that he is at that moment the Thane of Cawdor):
‘All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.’
This will surprise Macbeth but what will surely shock him is what is said by the third witch talking of the future:
‘All hail Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter.’
He has just returned from a battle and is being hailed as a hero for his latest victories over the rebel Macdonwald as well as the Norwegian King. He is on a high, feeling almost invincible and probably believing that nothing is above him now, that the sky is the limit, so he would likely believe that becoming a King was not an impossible feat. This prophecy without a doubt influences Macbeth. When he’s told that he shall become ‘Thane of Cawdor’, and it comes to be almost at once, Macbeth is able to believe that he would become king with no trouble. Of course, this alone wouldn’t affect him and Shakespeare shows this by Banquo’s view towards the witches ‘prophecy’ which is quite different to that of Macbeths. His immediate response is:
‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear,
Things that do sound so fair? – I’th’name of truth
Are ye fantastical?’
In other words Banquo is saying to Macbeth ‘You don’t actually believe this do you?’ The witches set the trigger for Macbeth who told his wife and this chain of events ultimately led to Duncan’s death. They are, therefore certainly partly responsible for his death as they arouse Macbeth’s strong lust for power.
Duncan is obviously a deficient judge of character as we can see in Act I Scene 4 where we hear King Duncan saying:
‘He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust’
of the former Thane of Cawdor who betrayed him. The second Thane of Cawdor then goes on to murder him so it is clear to us that he puts trust in insecure places. When Duncan promotes his son, Malcolm, as the next of kin, it means that if Macbeth is ever to become the King, he will have to take the title for himself by force. Really Duncan is playing with Macbeths emotions. He does this by unwittingly raising Macbeth’s expectations and then dashing them. Lines 14 onwards of Scene 4 of the first Act are a congratulatory message from King Duncan to Macbeth and he admits:
‘The sin of ingratitude even now was
Heavy on me’
and because Macbeth has becoming king in mind after his conversation with the three witches he obviously expects a great privilege to be received from the King and thinks that becoming heir to the throne would not be excessive. Lines 37-39 then show us an announcement from King Duncan to others of his son, Malcolm, becoming the Prince of Cumberland and therefore an heir to the throne. We know that Macbeth wanted to become king badly by the words in Scene 3 of Act 1 where a comment by Banquo describes Macbeth’s reaction to the prospect of becoming king. He says:
‘Look how our partners rapt’
In other words Macbeth is rapt or keen on the prospect of becoming king of Scotland. This is confirmed by the next line.
‘If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me’
This incident has, in Macbeths mind, destroyed his prospects of becoming the next king of Scotland and Macbeth probably at about this point realises that if he is to become the king he will need to take the title by force or assassination.
Of course then Macbeth is presented with an opportunity by King Duncan himself to murder the king. The king invites himself to Macbeth’s residence in Inverness where Macbeth is provided with the perfect occasion to murder the King.
I believe that Banquo is, like the king, although not on the same scale as, a bit of a poor judge of character. He never suspects that his acquaintance would ever murder to make true the prophecy that was told to them by the King. When Macbeth and Banquo meet on the night Macbeth is going to murder Duncan Banquo mentions that he ‘dreamed last night of the three weird sisters’ and then commented in reference to Macbeth that ‘they have shown some truth’. Macbeth responds quickly saying that he ‘thinks not of them’ but this could not be farther from truth. We know he thinks of little else. Macbeth of course does not have a clue of what Macbeth and his wife are at this point planning. I believe that Banquo bears least responsibility for the death of Duncan than any other character that I shall discuss. The only thing that can be said of Banquo is he is guilty of nothing other than not seeing what Macbeth was planning and failing to do anything about it.
In contrast, Lady Macbeth, in my opinion, bears more responsibility for the murder of Duncan than any other character I shall discuss including Macbeth. She is a very strong character in the play. She is not only powerful, influential, authoritative woman but she works in a very close relationship with Macbeth which puts her in a level, even partnership with her husband, Macbeth. Although not expressed explicitly in the play I believe that she wants to become great, she wants to become Queen. She knows that the only way they are to become royalty in Scotland would be to remove King Duncan from the throne and she knows that she cannot really do this on her own.
Lady Macbeth first hears of the witches in a letter sent by Macbeth via a messenger to her. Her immediate response in her mind is clear and must have gone this way ‘The easiest way for us to go about becoming King and Queen is by getting rid of what already is there: King Duncan’ Of course she realises that only her husband can cause this to happen but she fears that he ‘too full of the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way’. She is worried because her husband is actually too nice. How bizarre! Then, again bringing the supernatural into the play, Lady Macbeth calls on the devil for help in Act 1, Scene 5 where she calls:
‘Come you mortal spirits,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here’
It is often said that it is not natural, not normal and the domain of mentally ill people to murder another human. Lady Macbeth knows that she nor her husband are persons such as this and so she is asking for her womanly compassion and kindness to be removed from her by spirits so that she may become like a man, brave and strong almost as a warrior like her husband even. She continues:
‘And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse’
Here she is actually asking to be made evil, having her blood thickened or polluted with evil and is asking to not feel pity or remorse, repentance or compunction. This is quite astonishing. She is here admitting that ultimately she considers herself to be directly involved in committing the murder of the king. It is as though she commits the murder but Macbeth slits the throat. Then she makes a pact with the devil saying that if he helps her carry out this unnatural deed then she will sacrifice her ability to have children.
In fact it is her that really persuades Macbeth. Although we cannot be certain that Macbeth wouldn’t have committed without her influence I believe that we can be 99% sure as shown in the soliloquy before Lady Macbeth entered where Macbeth has decided upon not killing the king.
Such things as taunting his masculinity – calling him a coward:
‘Art thou afeared
to be the same in thine own act and valour
as thou art in desire?’
are really effective in showing how strongly Lady Macbeth feels about the matter. She says he cannot love her:
‘From this time
such I account thy love’
This is a personal taunt and it really hits home for Macbeth. It is unexpected because their relationship is so intense. Then Lady Macbeth goes on to describe how she has ‘given suck’ to a child and how she would have ‘dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you/
Have done to this’ . She realises that Macbeth’s doubts needs to be prevailed over and quickly and this needs extreme measures. She knows very well that King Duncan will only be staying at their Inverness Castle the one night and that will be their one and only chance. She and Macbeth know very well that they must seize this opportunity. In the end she has convinced Macbeth inside of about 60 lines and has led him to be speaking as if the murder had already been carried out despite the fact that in the soliloquy before Lady Macbeth had entered he had decided upon not murdering the king
‘I am settled and bend up,
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat,
Away, and mock the time with fairest show,
False face must hide what the false heart doth show’
That last line is interesting as it reveals that Macbeth knows that what he is doing is wrong, ‘false’ and knows that it must be covered up. He has been convinced so far by Lady Macbeth, by the witches and by himself. Lady Macbeth is convinced that the only way to get what she wants and what she thinks is best is by murdering King Duncan.
But what part does Macbeth himself actually play in the murder? Well it’s obvious that he plays a great part in it. After all he actually ‘slit the throat’ [quotes mine] although we’re not told exactly how King Duncan was killed. I believe that it is fair to compare Macbeth with a lump of clay. He can be moulded into various forms by the various influential factors. And I believe that in this essay what I am doing is simply reasoning on how powerful each of these factors is. For example at the beginning of this play the witches mould Macbeth into believing that he shall become the king. And later on in the play Lady Macbeth moulds him to make him believe he can and will become king. I believe that just like King Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth is weak and irresolute.
As soon as Macbeth, still on a high after his glorious battle, met with the witches and heard what they had to say he must have been slightly puzzled at first but was ‘rapt with awe’. He obviously wanted to become the king badly and this run in with ‘the weird sisters’ helped him see that this was possible. Macbeth has a good relationship with his wife (unusual in the day, as most marriages were arranged simply for political alliances) and she persuades him to murder the King when really he had no intention of doing this.
I also believe that Macbeth was a sort of puppet. In those days a wife had no rights except through her husband and because he loved her he wanted to please her and because of this tried to please her. So when Lady Macbeth persuaded him to carry out the murder he complied.
After King Duncan arrive at Macbeths castle Macbeth withdraws from the surrounding castle life and presents a soliloquy to the audience:
`If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly…’
or in other words if Macbeth could guarantee that the whole murder would go ‘smoothly’ and no complications would arise then it would be best to kill the King and kill him quickly’ This soliloquy also reveals that Macbeth knows that if he murders the king to become King, another person who is also desperate for power, could do the same to him when he becomes king with the knowledge that Macbeth did this and so with even greater justification. We can see this when Macbeth says:
‘Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague the inventor…’
So Macbeth realises that his actions are not good and may come back on him. In effect he is dissuading himself! Then he goes on to reason why he should not murder the King, saying that he has been given ‘double trust’ ‘First, I am his kinsman and subject’ and also ‘as his host’.
So Macbeth is actually related to the King as well as being a host and subject. He compares King Duncan to a ‘naked new-born babe’ and in doing so represents him as defenceless. After all it would be wrong to murder such a being. By the end of this soliloquy he has reasoned to himself that he shall not murder the King because:
‘Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other – `
Of course then, as I have previously discussed Lady Macbeth then persuades Macbeth back into committing this crime. But of course Macbeth should not have allowed himself to have him ideas changed by his wife, but he did, so he is responsible for what went on to happen.
In conclusion I believe that the responsibility for the ultimate killing of King Duncan does not lie with one single individual. Rather all have a part to play in it. The witches inspired Macbeth to murder the King. He jumped upon the idea, liked it and believed without hesitation that he could trust these witches and what they said to him. I think Duncan contributes to his own death as he invited himself to Macbeth’s castle and does not read his character well.
I think that Banquo contributed to the death of Duncan in that he did not see the signs given off by Macbeth and failed to act on what he saw. I think Lady Macbeth was responsible in that she was the one who actually persuaded Macbeth when he had decided against murder. Finally I believe that Macbeth is responsible for the killing in that it was ultimately his decision to kill King Duncan and could have refused to do so. In the end the question is certainly not as simple as it outwardly appears.