In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth commits three sets of murders. Were these murders justified or were they just acts of a madman? While the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s family are all politically expedient for Macbeth, the immorality of them leads to Macbeth’s downfall.
Duncan’s murder is the only way for Macbeth to gain more power. Macbeth subconsciously realizes this as soon as the weïrd sisters foretell that Macbeth will be king. His thoughts immediately jump to murder with:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, Against the use of nature? Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings. My thought, whose murther yet is fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man, That function is smother’d in surmise, And nothing is, but what is not. (I.iii.134-142)He is under the influence of the witches. Shakespeare writes “yield” suggesting that perhaps Macbeth has no say in the matter. One yields to something more powerful, and in this case it seems fate is more powerful. “Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair” alludes to how crazy the act of regicide is. In normal circumstances, Macbeth would never dream of killing the king. It also may allude to the witches and their appearance. His use of “fantastical” suggests Macbeth is still under the witches’ spell. After all, they are fantastical themselves, and it is their words that lead Macbeth to ponder murder. Macbeth consciously decides on murder after Duncan has proclaimed Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth says to himself:
The Prince of Cumberland! – That is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires; The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (I.iv.48-53)With “fall down, or else o’erleap,” Macbeth knows he has to get passed the heir to get to the throne. Since he is not the heir, he has to go straight for the kingship. He calls to the stars to help him. The stars represent a pagan belief system, showing he is still under the witches’ influence.
Macbeth knows regicide is immoral and is pushed into the murder by Lady Macbeth but remains undiscovered because he takes precaution against such discovery. While debating with himself how to become king, he ponders, “if Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me,/Without my stir” (I.iii.144-145). He gives credence to the idea that since fate gave him Cawdor, it may give him the kingship without extra effort on his part. “Chance” is capitalized, showing Macbeth treating it like a deity. It would be very immoral to start worshiping pagan gods and ideas, yet Macbeth shows signs of straying from God. It is Lady Macbeth that ultimately pushes Macbeth to regicide. Lady Macbeth’s first thought after learning the witches’ prophecy is not how to make Macbeth king. She says to herself:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be Wat thou art promis’d. – Yet do I fear thy nature: It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness, To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it... (I.v.15-20)It is the fact that she believes him too kind to take the quickest path to the throne. “The illness should attend it” implies she thinks ruthlessness must be a trait of someone who wants power. Lady Macbeth knows her husband is not ruthless enough to take the throne on her own. She goads him into killing Duncan. Macbeth tries to back out of the murderous plan with:
We will proceed no further in this business: He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people, Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, Not cast aside so soon. (I.vii.31-34)This shows Macbeth as the honorable thane that everyone perceives him to be. At the moment of truth, it seems Macbeth is still willing to do the honorable thing. He would rather keep his new titles than scheme for more at present. “Golden opinions” suggest not just good opinions, but stellar opinions. It would mean Macbeth has a reputation beyond reproach. But “not cast aside so soon” suggests Macbeth is still willing to scheme later, he may just be saying that to his wife to appease her and to stall. He believes he has no justification for the murder. King Duncan had just praised him, so Macbeth could not possibly have a grievance with him. Lady Macbeth goads him by attacking his manhood and honor. She says “I would...dash’d the [baby’s] brains out, had I so sworn/As you have done to this” (I.vii.55-59). This is where Macbeth’s sense of honor goes awry. An honorable thane would never conspire against his king, yet Macbeth, having done so, feels he must see the murder through because he gave his word. This is not the honorable thing to do. Ultimately, what leads him to murder King Duncan is not his thirst for power, but his inability to break his word. Yet Macbeth still knows his action to be immoral. Because his sense of morality is still intact, he thinks ahead enough to cover the crime by blaming Duncan’s attendants.
After Macbeth set the events in motion, Macbeth had to commit the other murders to stay in power. Macbeth killed Banquo to avoid the toppling of Scotland’s government, since Macbeth was leading it. If Macbeth had cared for Scotland, he would not have caused political upheaval by murdering the king. Macbeth had to get rid of Banquo because Banquo was a threat to Macbeth’s own person. Macbeth’s decision to kill Banquo hardly causes Macbeth any grief at all. The question of whether Macbeth had the right to have Banquo murdered is immaterial to Macbeth’s reasons for killing Banquo. Banquo had to die because he could cast suspicion on Macbeth. Banquo heard the same prophecies Macbeth did, and could cast doubt onto Malcolm and Donalbain’s supposed guilt. It may be argued that Banquo had already begun to suspect Macbeth of foul play. He says “thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all,/As the weïrd Women promis’d; and, I fear,/Thou play’dst most foully for’t” (III.i.1-3). Macbeth, as the new leader of Scotland, has to silence any opposition.
The immorality of Banquo’s murder comes from Macbeth’s jealousy of Banquo’s descendants. Macbeth’s malice from the witches’ prophecies that Banquo’s line will be kings leads him to murder Banquo. Macbeth is beginning to believe in the witches’ gift. Macbeth’s own jealously played a roll in why he wanted Fleance killed. Since Fleance survived the attack, this all the more proves to Macbeth that the witches have a unique gift of prophesy. The fact that Macbeth was unable to change the future with the death of Fleance incenses Macbeth to try harder when he learns of more threats from the witches. This murder is immoral because Macbeth does it in secret, and can only justify it to himself and his wife. He is not able to hide this murder as well because he believes himself to be justified. Macbeth casts suspicion on himself at the feast with:
Ay, and since too, murthers have been perform’d Too terrible for the ear: the time has been, That, when the brains were out, the man would die, And there an end; but now, they rise again, With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns, And push us from our stools. This is more strange Than such a murther is. (III.iv.76-82)Macbeth implicates himself in murder. The “murthers have been perform’d/Too terrible for the ear” shows Macbeth knows his actions are completely evil and immoral. “They rise again,/With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns,/And push us from our stools,” hints that if Macbeth’s involvement with the murders became public knowledge, it would topple Macbeth’s power.
Contrary to valid political reasons for killing Banquo, Macbeth had Macduff’s family killed just for spite. Macduff poses no real political threat. The thanes would have considered Macduff a traitor. The best evidence is when Macduff’s son asks his mother whether his father is a traitor. Lady Macduff puts it very simply: “ay, that he was” (IV.ii.45). If his own wife thinks him a traitor, then all of Macduff’s comrades must surely think so as well. Even Malcolm is not sure whose side Macduff is really on. Macbeth in this respect has no real reason for going after Macduff. Macbeth does have precedent for ordering Macduff’s execution, though. Macduff is officially a traitor, and even King Duncan put the first Thane of Cawdor to death. However, Macbeth, who was willing to ignore the witches and take no action against Duncan at the beginning of the play, is now hanging on to every word they say. They – with the help of the apparitions – warn him to “beware Macduff” and even though they contradict themselves in the very prophecy that “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.71 & IV.i.80-81). Still, Macbeth decides to order the murders anyway, because of his faith in the witches. Macduff poses no threat in Scotland after he is branded a traitor.
Macbeth makes a blunder by killing Macduff’s family as it drives the thanes away from supporting Macbeth and convinces Malcolm to return to Scotland. He may have justification for trying to kill Macduff – since he has fled to England – but he has none for going after Macduff’s family. Macduff’s family even agrees with Macbeth. Thanes flock to support Malcolm and Macduff. Angus sums up how the thanes feel about Macbeth when his villainy is known:
Now does he feel His secret murthers sticking on his hands; Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach: Those he commands move only in command, Nothing in love: now does he feel his title Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe Upon a dwarfish thief. (V.ii.16-22)Now that his “secret murthers” aren’t so secret, everyone is revolting because they were murders, and not justifiable and completely immoral. These murders are “sticking on his hands” much like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands. Angus and the other thanes will not stand for someone as ruthless Macbeth. These murders fuel Macduff’s rage, and it is Macduff that finally kills Macbeth on the battlefield.
Macbeth profited from these murders, but it was the blatant immorality and his inability to keep them secret from the world that messes with his plan of holding the throne. Macbeth kills Duncan and reaps the rewards of the throne. Then he kills Banquo to keep the throne. Finally, he kills Macduff’s family and that is the final mistake that loses him the throne. In the end, his own actions that gained him the power of the throne also caused him to lose it because the thanes discovered what he had done.