What are the differences in the reactions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Macbeth's reaction to his murder of King Duncan seems uncharacteristic for a seasoned warrior. Early in the play, the wounded Sergeant reports to Duncan how Macbeth killed Macdonwald on the battlefield without a second thought.

SERGEANT. Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,Which smoked with bloody execution, Like valor's...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Macbeth's reaction to his murder of King Duncan seems uncharacteristic for a seasoned warrior. Early in the play, the wounded Sergeant reports to Duncan how Macbeth killed Macdonwald on the battlefield without a second thought.

SERGEANT. Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements. (1.2.19-25)

Macbeth had serious second thoughts about killing Duncan, but once he decided to go through with it, he seemed fully committed to carrying out the murder.

MACBETH. I am settled, and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat. (1.7.90-91)

Shakespeare doesn't dramatize Duncan's murder, so the audience has no idea what occurred in Duncan's bedchamber. Did Duncan wake up to see Macbeth standing over him? Did they have a conversation, or did Macbeth simply kill Duncan without a word, the same way he killed Macdonwald? Macbeth doesn't say anything about what happened between Duncan and himself.

For whatever reason, when Macbeth returns to Lady Macbeth, he's totally unnerved. He makes no mention of remorse or guilt. He's too overwhelmed to think clearly, and he refuses to think about what he's done. He can't focus his thoughts. He rambles incoherently about hearing voices, real or imagined. Out of the blue, he asks where Duncan's son, Donalbain, is sleeping. Did he have in mind to kill Donalbain and Duncan's other son, Malcolm, as well? It wasn't part of the plan that the audience heard Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discussing earlier in the evening.

Macbeth is in a seriously disordered state of mind, but Lady Macbeth does her best to try to keep him focused on the matter at hand. She appears dispassionate and self-composed only in contrast to Macbeth's behavior. She makes only one passing remark that reflects her feelings towards the murder.

LADY MACBETH. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done't. (2.2.15-16)

After Macbeth returns to their rooms, Lady Macbeth doesn't have time to think about the murder or even react to it. She's too busy reacting to Macbeth. Why, for example, does it take so long for Lady Macbeth to realize that Macbeth is still holding the daggers he used to kill Duncan? He's been holding them the entire time that he and Lady Macbeth have been talking.

It isn't until Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to wash the blood off his hands—thinking that the business of murdering Duncan is done—that she sees the daggers in Macbeth's hands and realizes that the situation is unresolved.

LADY MACBETH. Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there. Go carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

MACBETH. I'll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on't again I dare not. (2.2.61-66)

Macbeth is still refusing to face the reality of the situation or think about what he's done, so Lady Macbeth goes into "damage control mode."

LADY MACBETH. Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. ... If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt. (2.2.67-72)

At the end of the scene, Macbeth is still in denial and still refuses to think about murdering Duncan.

MACBETH. To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself. (2.2.92)

From that moment until the end of the play, Macbeth mentions Duncan's murder only once—when he's considering killing Banquo—but he expresses no emotion about it, other than to refer to Duncan as "gracious." (3.1.70)

Macbeth's reaction to Duncan's murder was immediate but apparently not lasting. Lady Macbeth's reaction to the murder wasn't as immediate as Macbeth's, but she seems to have carried her feelings about the murder with her through the rest of the play—which might have caused her mental instability and ultimately contributed to her death.

LADY MACBETH. ... Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? (5.1.34-35)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In act two, scene two, Macbeth follows through with his wife's bloody plan by assassinating King Duncan while he is sleeping in his chamber. As soon as Macbeth leaves the king's chamber, he reveals his guilty conscience and tortured mind by asking if Lady Macbeth heard any noises. Macbeth then looks at his bloody hands and remarks, "This is a sorry sight."

Lady Macbeth remains resolute and unaffected by the assassination and responds by telling her husband that he sounds foolish. Macbeth proceeds to ask why he could not say Amen when the chamberlains said "God bless us!" and believes that he heard them say,

Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep.

Macbeth has evidently experienced auditory hallucinations while he was in the king's chamber, which reflects his guilty conscience and fear. He remains on edge following the assassination and refuses to reenter Duncan's chamber. In contrast, Lady Macbeth is composed and attempts to downplay the murder by telling her husband,

These deeds must not be thought After these ways. So, it will make us mad.

She proceeds to instruct Macbeth to wash his hands and calls him a coward for refusing to place the daggers back in Duncan's chamber. Lady Macbeth then takes the bloody daggers and puts them in the proper place to make it seem like the chamberlains murdered the king. Macbeth immediately regrets his actions and once again reveals his tortured soul by declaring,

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red.

Lady Macbeth reacts completely opposite and attacks her husband's masculinity by saying,

My hands are of your color, but I shame To wear a heart so white.

When they hear knocking at the door, Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to wash his hands, put on his nightgown, and act surprised.

Overall, Macbeth is severely disturbed and extremely guilty after assassinating King Duncan. In contrast, Lady Macbeth remains composed and resolute following the murder and attempts to calm her husband before the Scottish thanes arrive.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Macbeth is stunned and seemingly in shock after he has killed Duncan.  He tells his wife he heard voices.  Some of those voices were real - people talking in their sleep or saying their prayers before bed.  Some of those voices were not real, i.e., when he hears a voice say that Macbeth has murdered sleep and "Macbeth shall sleep no more".  Also, Macbeth comes out of Duncan's rooms holding the blood-covered daggers and with blood on his hands.  He tells Lady Macbeth that all this blood is a "sorry sight".  The plan was that he was supposed to put the bloody daggers on the sleeping guards to implicate them in the murder, but in his state of shock, he has forgotten.  When he and Lady Macbeth hear the knocking at the gate, he says he wishes that the knocking could waken Duncan.  This indicates that Macbeth wishes he could go back and undo the murder.  Lady Macbeth is much more together after Duncan's murder (but of course, she didn't have to actually do the deed!).  She tells Macbeth that it's foolish for him to say he sees the blood as a "sorry sight" because she's glad that Duncan is dead and he should be glad, too. Then she chastises Macbeth for forgetting to put the bloody daggers on the guards and takes the daggers herself.  After Lady Macbeth puts the daggers on the guards and gets blood on her hands, she again chastises Macbeth for his stunned state and tells him that a little water washes away the evidence and the deed.  This comes back to literally haunt her in Act 5.  Then when the knocking at the gate is heard, she takes control of the situation and tells Macbeth that he needs to get his nightgown on so that it appears they were both in bed asleep.  So, whereas Macbeth is appalled by his actions, Lady Macbeth is satisfied and in control.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team