Act 2, Scene 2: the murder of Duncan

Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's Macbeth presents the murder of King Duncan - the key event that propels Macbeth on to greatness as well as doom. In this scene, the Macbeths meet in their castle at night, immediately after Macbeth has stabbed the sleeping Duncan to death.

Prior to this, Lady Macbeth has drugged the wine for Duncan’s servants, making them unable to defend him and allowing them to be framed as Duncan’s killers. Macbeth is horrified at what he has done, whereas his wife mocks him for his weakness.

The dramatic function of this scene is to present the essential murder of the king (regicide), so that Macbeth must spend the rest of the play dealing with the consequences of this fatal act. To the Elizabethans, regicide was the worst possible crime since a king was anointed by God and had been placed by him in this privileged position. Dramatically, the murder of Duncan is Macbeth’s point of no return; once he kills the King, there is no way back for him.

The setting underlines the horror of the regicide in this scene. It takes place at night inside the claustrophobic rooms of Macbeth’s castle, and the characters are stained with Duncan’s blood and constantly fear exposure. You can easily imagine the couple whispering together and nervously looking over their shoulders.

Once again, we see the difference in character between Macbeth and his wife. If we start with Macbeth, he seems lost in thought as he keeps talking about how he heard someone saying a prayer when he had just killed the King. Macbeth was unable to reply “amen”, as you should: “I had mo...

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