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Kingship in Macbeth


  • The theme of kingship is hugely important to the play Macbeth, as it underpins the regicide Macbeth commits, the goal Macbeth attains and the contemporary issues with which James I grappled at this time. 

  • Macbeth was written for James I, who was intensely interested in what made a good king. James I wrote two tracts or books on the idea of kingship.  One of these, the Basilikon Doron, expressed the necessity for integrity in kingship and enumerated the qualities which a good king would have.  Questions of kingship reflected perhaps the challenging which James I faced at the beginning of his reign: a country divided by religious persecution; inheriting the English throne as a Scottish monarch and other concerns of economy and governance.

  • At the time of writing, the idea of the king was somewhat different to our contemporary understanding of the role. 

  • Firstly, while the king represented their country, they were also spiritually linked to it.  The body of the mortal king was complemented by the ‘body politic’, the body of his country.  These two bodies were essentially linked.  Hence why, in Macbeth, when Duncan is murdered, the country too is seen to be torn apart in an oddly literal way.

  • Monarchs were also seen to rule by divine right – in other words, they had been literally chosen by God to lead the country.  Therefore, the king is divinely compelled to lead the country, making their role all the more important – and usurpation all the more heretical.

  • Effectively, we have three kings within the play whom Shakespeare is writing about, and a fourth who Shakespeare is writing for.  The kings within the play are Duncan, Macbeth and Malcolm, whose qualities we will now look at in greater detail.


King Duncan

  • King Duncan may be seen during his time in the play to be an extremely kind and honest man.  He is very trusting with a lot of integrity, and who is in turn well liked by his subjects.  Duncan is fair, rewarding those who have served him well, as is repeatedly linked with Christian motifs such as the lamb, showing his virtuosity.

  • Yet Duncan’s innocence and kind-heartedness also makes him a naïve and somewhat ineffectual monarch.  Duncan is unable to see Macbeth’s true intentions, which is particularly ironic at the start of the play as he had just been betrayed by the old Thane of Cawdor.  Thus Duncan repeats his own mistakes due to his essentially trusting nature.  While Duncan may then be the epitome of a kind and Christian monarch, his innocence leads him to his downfall.  Perfection, perhaps, cannot coexist with the natural evil inherent in the human world.


King Macbeth

  • Macbeth comes to be a king through the usurpation of Duncan’s throne. Drawing upon the idea of the king’s two bodies, Macbeth’s corrupt kingship is reflected in the body of his state.

  • Thus, Scotland is repeatedly likened to an assaulted body, bleeding and broken as Macbeth rules.  The country experiences famine, upheaval and supernatural decay and chaos, due to the pollution of the monarch by regicide.

  • Reflected in the natural world is also Macbeth’s moral darkness, which is frequently mirrored in pathetic fallacy.  As Macbeth becomes king, Scotland is cast into an eerie and unworldly night, reflecting Macbeth’s inner darkness, as well as his blindness to the eventual consequences of his actions.

  • Unlike Duncan, Macbeth is ambitious and tyrannical, to the point of madness.  Where Duncan had been overly trusting, Macbeth is paranoid - leading him to kill Banquo and Macduff’s family in order to stabilise his reign. 

  • Whereas Duncan is kind and merciful, Macbeth is (like Lady Macbeth) full of ‘direst cruelty’ - something that may be hinted at by his early ruthless violence.  It is significant that our introduction to Macbeth is through reports of his bloody actions on the battlefield.  While Duncan interprets these actions as signs of bravery,  they may instead hint at his lack of suitability for kingship even before he meets the witches - the seeds of his terrible acts are always there.  

  • Moreover, unlike Duncan who is repeatedly seen as a religious figure, Macbeth’s relationship with Christianity is undone in his murder.  After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth expresses the idea that God has turned his back on him - ‘Wherefore could not I pronounce Amen’.  Thus, turning the divine right of a Christian king on its head, Macbeth may be seen as a heretical ‘butcher’, forsaken by God and ruining the very body of his country.


King Malcolm

  • Malcolm resumes the rightful Kingship as Duncan’s son and chosen heir, restoring balance to Scotland at the play’s end.  More importantly, Malcolm is a character who self-consciously examines the idea of kingship, discussing it at length with Macduff, contrasting him to the impulsive and reckless Macbeth. 

  • In Act IV, Scene 3, Malcolm attempts to test Macduff’s loyalty to his country.  As the testing of Macduff unfolds, we see Malcolm’s knowledge of the important of loyalty to the country beyond loyalty to an individual; the fallibility of all men and necessary qualities a good king must have. Malcolm, an audience may see, is the synthesis of Macbeth’s bravery, cunning and willingness to act, with Duncan’s purity.  

  • Throughout the play we see Malcolm’s many kingly qualities: his cunning is seen in his disguise at Birnam wood; his judgement is seen when he flees to England; his fairness when he tests Macduff and his Christian virtues when he declares himself free of common sins.  Thus, Malcolm acts as a foil to both Macbeth and Duncan.  While he has inherited his father’s virtues, he lacks his father’s naivety.  While he mirrors Macbeth’s willingness to act, he nevertheless has the many kingly qualities which Macbeth lacks. 

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