Phase 1 = Opening scene → Decision to murder Duncan
Macbeth is a Scottish general who is loyal to Duncan, the Scottish king. Along with Banquo, he helps to defeat two rebel armies (led by Macdonwald & invaders from Norway). However, after Macbeth meets three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will be king, (Act 1, scene 3 – soliloquy “why do I yield to that suggestion?”) the general is no longer satisfied to remain loyal to his king. Although Duncan rewards Macbeth for his bravery on the battlefield with a new title and a royal visit to Inverness, Macbeth and his wife nonetheless hatch a plot to kill the king under their own roof and frame the guards outside the king’s bedroom for the murder. Although Macbeth has misgivings about killing the king (Act 1, scene 7 soliloquy – “he’s here in double trust”) his wife convinces him to go through with it.
PHASE 1 – PRIME SUSPECTS
The Instigators – The Witches
The Witches lay in wait for Macbeth and somehow seem to know his deepest darkest desires. They offer him the Prophesies to tempt him “Thou shalt be King hereafter” but disappear before he can question him further. However, they never actually mention murder and their powers are limited – they can predict the future and they can influence the elements but they CANNOT directly kill or injure a man “though his bark cannot be lost yet it shall be tempest tossed”. Thus if Macbeth wasn’t open to manipulation there is little else they could have done to change the course of the future.
The Accomplice – Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth exerts huge influence over her husband. He trusts her, treats her like an equal and at first confides absolutely in her – she is his “dearest partner of greatness” and he writes to her because he values her opinion. Lady Macbeth believes that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” and she worries that he will never fulfil his dreams and ambitions as a result. She claims he will grow to hate himself for being too cowardly to act and will have to “live a coward in thine own esteem” for the rest of his life, full of regret and bitterness. She manipulates him, questions his manliness “when you durst do it then you were a man” and rants that she would never break a promise to him no matter how difficult it was to keep her word “I have given suck and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it were smiling in my face, have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed his brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this”. The question is does she want what’s best for him? Or for herself? Or both of them?
Macbeth hears the prophesy just as he has fought and won two decisive battles so he’s feeling confident and powerful.
It is never explicitly stated but it is implied in the letter and in Lady Macbeth’s mention of a ‘promise’ that they had previously spoken of their desire to be King and Queen so the witches are telling him what he most wants to hear.
Also Duncan’s announcement that “we will establish our estate upon our eldest Malcolm” and his decision to visit their castle for the first time (“this castle hath a pleasant seat”) provides the Macbeths with both the motive and the perfect opportunity to commit the crime and get away with it.
The Murderer – Macbeth
To what extent should we hold him responsible for his own actions? Certainly he foolishly places an absolute trust in what the witches say even though Banquo warns him not to “the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles to betray us in deepest consequence” perhaps because they tell him what he wants to hear; perhaps because their prophecies unexpectedly start to come true and he becomes Thane of Cawdor.
He also confides immediately in his wife surely knowing that she is more ruthless and determined than he is, surely knowing that she will tempt him further rather than hold him back? Does he want her to talk him into it?
Nonetheless, Macbeth knows that Duncan hath been “so clear in his great office that the angels will plead out trumpet tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off” – he knows that he should against his murderer “shut the door not bear the knife myself”. He decides “we will proceed no further in this business” because he knows it is morally wrong and that the only thing driving him is his “vaulting ambition”. Is it fair then to lay the blame squarely at the feet of his wife? Or if he were a stronger man would he be able to resist her manipulation? Does he agree because he wants to do the wrong thing, the selfish thing, but just needs someone to push him over the edge? Or is he afraid to disappoint his wife? Is he afraid to appear weak and effeminate in her eyes?