Difference and Similarites in the reaction to Duncan's murder seen in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

Essay by NatvinHigh School, 10th gradeA+, January 2007

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When two people are in the same situation one would assume that their reactions would be similar in nature. However, each person has his or her own unique personality traits and emotions, which are reflected in their response to the event. One can see the distinct personality of each character in his/her response. This is clearly illustrated through Duncan's murder in Shakespeare's play, Macbeth. In Act II, scene ii, both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth initially seem to respond in a similar manner, however as the scene progresses the diverse reactions are quite easily observed as one character becomes more decisive and the other more distressed.

As Macbeth leaves the hall to kill Duncan, Lady Macbeth enters, remarking on her boldness.

"That which has made them drunk had made me bold,

What hath quench'd them hath given me fire."(II.ii 1-2)

She asserts that she would have killed the king herself then and there,

"Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done't."


Although Lady Macbeth appears brave and strong we can still find moments of her being tense and nervous just as her husband is throughout the murder. Prior to the murder Lady Macbeth takes a drink of wine. She does so in order to calm her nerves confirming that she is indeed very tense about the forthcoming murder. In addition, while Macbeth is doing the deed, Lady Macbeth begins to worry that the guards will awake and although this does not actually happen she is so tense her mind cannot help but obsess over the smallest of noises. Her anxiety is also apparent through her constant use of the word 'hark' as she almost jumps with every sound.

Throughout the murder Macbeth seems to be extremely tense as well, as he calls out "Who's there? What, ho!" and then asks Lady Macbeth "Didst thou not hear a noise?" It is apparent as well that he begins to hear things but no one is there. It is his nerves that compel him to imagine these nonexistent noises.

Another obvious reaction to the murder that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth exhibit is that they are both very frightened. However they are both fearful of two very different things. Lady Macbeth seems to be mostly afraid of getting caught.

"Alack! I am afraid they have awak'd,

and 'tis not done; the attempt and not the deed

Confounds us. Hark!" (II.ii 10-12)

In this quote Lady Macbeth expresses her feelings of dread clearly by saying 'I am afraid'. She is afraid the guards may have woken up, resulting in their being caught 'red-handed' and ruined; this thought is the deepest of her concerns.

Although Macbeth expresses similar fears, his panic is triggered by very different motives.

While Macbeth may fear getting caught, what alarms him more is the actual sin he has committed. After Lady Macbeth tells him to return to the murder scene he emphatically states that he cannot because he is afraid of what he did.

"I'll go no more:

I am afraid to think what I have done;

Look on't again I dare not. (II. ii 51-52)

Later on Macbeth asks himself if the greatest ocean can wash the blood off his hands. Of course he does not mean the literal blood but rather can his sins ever be washed away? He realizes what he did was so grave he may never be forgiven and this is what overwhelms Macbeth.

At this point in the scene, after he examines the blood on his hands, Macbeth seems to cower, whereas Lady Macbeth appears to become more daring. Lady Macbeth initially tries to steady her husband but she becomes annoyed when she notices that he has forgotten to leave the daggers with the sleeping chamberlains so as to frame them for Duncan's murder. Lady Macbeth then says,

"Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers.

The sleeping and the dead are but as a picture;

'Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.

If he do bleed, I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal;

For it must seem their guilt." (II.ii. 53-57).

Macbeth acts very cowardly when told to return to the guards. He, the master of the house, should not be afraid but rather take charge of the situation and return the daggers. Instead Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of being a coward and describes to Macbeth how immature and unmanly his behavior is to be afraid of the now deceased Duncan. She on the other hand bravely decides to go to the guards and smear Duncan's blood on them, which is very risky.

Following the murder, feelings of guilt begin to disturb Macbeth. After looking at his own hands Macbeth says, "This is a sorry sight". When Macbeth looks at his bloody hands he acts completely shaken and does not believe they belong to him and seems completely traumatized by his own actions. The sight of Duncan's blood cannot help but make Macbeth feel guilty about the brutal murder he has just committed; therefore saying it was a sorry sight. However, Macbeth's true remorse is portrayed through the last line in the scene.

"Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" (II. ii. 74)

Macbeth shows he truly regretted his actions by wishing Duncan could once again be alive. Only one with true remorse would wish they could undo what they have done.

Lady Macbeth does not share this regret. In fact she even tries to sway Macbeth so he does not focus on his guilt either. After Macbeth says, "this is a sorry sight" Lady Macbeth replies, "A foolish thought to say a sorry sight." Here Lady Macbeth is chastising Macbeth for feeling guilty. She obviously does not feel the slightest bit of remorse otherwise she would agree the blood was indeed a sorry sight. As well, Lady Macbeth leads her husband back to the bedchamber, where he can wash off the blood. And with little remorse she says, "A little water clears us of this deed," and she tells him. "How easy it is then!" (II.ii.67-68). If Lady Macbeth truly feels that all that is needed is water to clear them of murder, she cannot be feeling all that guilty.

As a result of Duncan's murder Macbeth becomes completely overwhelmed and cannot think straight as opposed to Lady Macbeth who becomes more clear minded and in control of the situation. Lady Macbeth asks:

"Why did you bring these daggers from the place?

They must lie there: go carry them, and smear

The sleepy grooms with blood

...Give me the daggers." (II.ii. 48-50)

Macbeth was so confused, after the actual stabbing he just left without thinking and took the daggers with him. Macbeth obviously was quite overwhelmed and distraught by his own actions; otherwise he would not have forgotten to carry out the most important element of the murder plan - the framing of the guards (by smearing the guards with blood and leaving behind the daggers). Had Lady Macbeth not been so calm and collect after the cold-blooded murder, realizing Macbeth took the daggers the two would have been caught. Not only was Lady Macbeth clear minded but she also took charge of the situation by telling him to give her the daggers so she could bring them to the guards herself.

After the murder Macbeth's conscience is awakened and he confronts his responsibility for his part in the conspiracy to murder Duncan. When Macbeth emerges, his hands covered in blood, and says that the deed is done, he is badly shaken. He remarks that he heard the chamberlains awake and say their prayers before going back to sleep. When they said "amen," he tried to say it with them but finds that the word stuck in his throat. This is because he realizes the enormity of his atrocious actions and therefore could not utter even one holy word. In contrast, Lady Macbeth tries to avoid any thought of her involvement and tries to coerce Macbeth to do likewise, with her comments "Consider it not so deeply." (II.ii 31) and "You do unbend your noble strength to think so brainsickly of things." (II.ii. 45-46), urging him to avoid any contemplation of the murder and its consequences, as she knows it will be their undoing.

Although both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are exposed to the same situation, because of their different personalities their reactions are conflicting with few exceptions. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experienced moments of anxiety and fear in this scene. However, Lady Macbeth overcomes her apprehensions and is moved impassively to action. Macbeth on the other hand becomes increasingly overwhelmed by his feelings of remorse and is confounded by the enormity of his guilt becoming gradually less able to take further action and finally (at the end of the scene) is led away by his wife.