Tag Archives: Kingship

Kingship: Macbeth

If you’re going to discuss Macbeth’s reign you need to have absolute clarity about what was expected of a King and the extent to which he fell short of this ideal.

The term most commonly used to describe Macbeth by those he governs is ‘tyrant’ so let’s start by getting clarity on what a tyrant is. The dictionary tells me that in Ancient Greece the word tyrant was synonymous with usurper – in other words someone who had seized power without any legal right to do so. The more common understanding of the word tyrant is of a ruler who is oppressive and unjust; one who exercises their power in a harsh cruel way. Tyrants lack moral fibre; they are selfish and arbitrary, acting on whim or impulse and having no care for the impact of their behaviour on their subjects. They demand absolute obedience, disregard both law and custom and are thus often also described as dictators.

Now, let’s see how much of this applies to Macbeth.

Well first off, he is undoubtedly a usurper. He commits the ultimate crime of regicide, thus challenging both the Great Chain of Being and the Divine Rights of Kings. As cousin to the King and a renowned warrior, once Malcolm and Donalbain flee the country he is the next obvious choice to ascend to the throne so he doesn’t exactly ‘seize’ power but he certainly criminally manouvers his way into the position.

However, his behaviour once he achieves his goal of becoming King is unquestionably oppressive and unjust. For starters he’s terrified that his crime will be uncovered (obviously if this happened he would be removed from the throne, disgraced and sentenced to death). Macbeth was there when Banquo proclaimed that he wouldn’t rest until Duncan’s murderer was caught and punished “in the great hand of God I stand, and thence against the undivulged pretence I fight of treasonous malice“; add to this the fact that Banquo heard the witches prophesy and later repelled Macbeth’s offer “if you shall cleave to my consent…” proclaiming that he wanted to keep his “bosom franchised and allegiance clear” and it’s easy to understand why Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat “to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo stick deep“; not to mention the fact that according to the witches Banquo’s children will be Kings (a sore point for Macbeth who has no living children but who hates the thought of having gained a “fruitless crown” and “barren sceptre” which will not pass to his descendants).

So is he decision to hire murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance tyrannical? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that they are innocents who have committed no crime. However, Macbeth is not yet acting on whim or impulse – in its own twisted way his decision to murder them makes absolute sense. Furthermore he appears to still be able to recognise the essential immorality of his actions commenting “Banquo thy soul’s flight, if it find heaven, must find it out tonight” which is reminiscent of his earlier lament “hear it not Duncan for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell“. He’s still capable of this odd advance-remorse but it’s not powerful enough to stop him from committing these crimes. It also important to recognise that the impact of Banquo and Fleance’s deaths (except Fleance gets away) would have minimal impact on the vast majority of his citizens. It will make the nobles more fearful yes but it won’t throw all of Scotland into turmoil.

So murderer, yes. Tyrant? Not quite. Not yet.

The Banquet scene is a pivotal moment however. He’s only just been crowned King but his odd behaviour will ring all sorts of alarm bells amongst the nobles who witness his fit and who are dismissed so hurriedly by Lady Macbeth “stand not upon your going but go at once“. Macbeth is already so paranoid of a rebellion against his rule that he spies on all of his nobles – he admits to his wife “there’s not one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d“. He’s also deeply suspicious of Macduff who has refused an invitation to the banquet. Macbeth now appears to be completely losing his grasp on the difference between right and wrong: he proclaims that he now has so much blood on his hands that “returning were as tedious as go o’er” and a ghostly shiver of foreboding slithers down our spines as he observes “we are yet but young in deed“.

Our sense that Macbeth’s behaviour is plunging the entire country into turmoil only really solidifies at the very end of Act Three when two minor characters (Lennox and one so minor that he is just called “a lord”) meet in a forest near Macbeth’s castle. They discuss Malcolm’s gracious welcome into the English court and Macduff’s decision to go and beg Malcolm to rouse an army against the tyrant Macbeth. It’s clear that Macbeth is deeply unpopular as they recount the official story of how Duncan and Banquo met their deaths, sarcastically concluding that “men must not walk too late” and once they both feel certain that the other also regards Macbeth as a tyrant they openly criticise his rule, describing the current state of affairs in Scotland with Macbeth as King vividly as they pine to “give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights, free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives, do faithful homage and receive free honours, all which we pine for now“. Both feel confident that once Malcolm realises how dire things are in Scotland he will return at once to save his beloved country – they imagine “some holy angel” flying to the English court to inform him and pray that “a swift blessing may soon return to this our suffering country under a hand accursed“.

Interestingly all of this happens before Macbeth orders the murders of Lady Macduff and her children. If we accept what these men say at face value then it appears that Macbeth is not looking after the poor (give to our tables meat) and that the entire country lives in a state of paranoia and insomnia, unable to sleep for fear that they will be murdered in their beds. Those who pay homage to Macbeth are doing so not because they want to (they don’t respect Macbeth) but because they are afraid not to and this is a sure sign of a tyrant – one who controls his citizens through fear. It’s not clear to what extent all of the things they say are true however; the rumour mill must really have gone into overdrive after Macbeth’s performance at the banquet because suddenly his bizarre behaviour has morphed into “free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives” – I don’t remember him pulling a knife on anybody in that scene, do you? Nonetheless most of what they say if not entirely factually accurate is based on fact so we can certainly conclude that at this point he is widely considered a tyrant by his subjects.

His really tyrannical behaviour kicks in with his decision to have Lady Macduff, her children and all of Macduff’s servants murdered as punishment for his disobedience. If we revisit the definition of a tyrant for a moment, a tyrant is someone who (1) demands absolute obedience; (2) one who acts on whim or impulse in a cruel and arbitrary way; (3)one who disregards both law and custom and who lacks any moral fibre.

Now lets apply this to his latest decision. First of all, Macbeth is reacting to Macduff’s refusal to offer absolute obedience and to the witches warning to ‘beware Macduff’. Secondly, the order to murder Macduff’s wife and children once he receives the news that Macduff has “fled to England” is arbitrary impulsive and cruel. Macbeth himself admits that he’s going to ignore both conscience and logic from now on, instead acting immediately on his desires “henceforth the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand“.  He also makes this decision just after he admits that the witches cannot be trusted “infected be the air whereon they ride and damned all those that trust them“. Thirdly, Macbeth is profoundly contravening both custom and morality in murdering innocent women and children. So why does he do it? Probably to send out the message that those who disobey him will have his wrath visited not only on their heads but also upon their loved ones. It’s a very oppressive way to safeguard your power but it’s also frighteningly effective (I wonder if Shakespeare had read Machiavelli’s treatise “The Prince on how to maintain power – certainly Macbeth here obeys the law that the end justifies the means!)

So does he remain a tyrant for the rest of the play? Well for the forces of good the answer is quite simply yes – Macduff even before he hears of the deaths of his loved ones vividly describes how “each new morn new widows howl; new orphans cry; new sorrows strike heaven on the face“. He believes that “not in the legions of horrid hell can come a devil more damned in evils to top Macbeth” and Malcolm then goes on to list the vices he associates with Macbeth “I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name“. [Many of these are undoubtedly true – he has been false, deceitful, and now with his latest behaviour impulsive and deliberately cruel. However, we’ve seen no evidence that he has ever been unfaithful to his wife (luxurious = lustful) or that he is particularly greedy (avaricious) – other than his greed for the throne there have been no reports that he has seized either land or wealth off his subjects]. During the battle to overthrow Macbeth we learn that those who obeyed Macbeth through fear rather than loyalty are now deserting him and switching sides. The idea that Macbeth is not morally fit to rule is memorably described by yet another random minor character Angus who proclaims that “those he commands move only in command nothing in love: now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief“. It is thus not entirely surprising that once defeated, Malcolm dismisses Macbeth as nothing more than a “bloody butcher“.

So was he a tyrant to the bitter end?

Yes and no…

He accepts that he deserves neither honour nor respect from his subjects, thus showing an awareness of his impact on his subjectsI have lived long enough…and that which should accompany old age as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but in their stead curses, not loud but deep“. Yet in the very next breath he orders his servant to “hang those that talk of fear“. That’s pretty extreme even by his standards.

His refusal to surrender means that more people will die but for Macbeth it is more honourable to “die with harness on our back” than to “play the Roman fool” and commit suicide. He recognises that running away is no longer an option “They have tied me to a stake I cannot fly but bear-like I must fight the course” and sees his determination to “fight til from my bones my flesh be hacked” as a return to his former glory on the battlefield.

It’s weird to think of a tyrant as having a code of honour but oddly that seems to be the case in the dying scenes of the play. It’s also weird to think of a tyrant as someone with any trace of morality in him but when Macduff challenges Macbeth, Macbeth reveals traces of his former self by making reference to his guilty conscience “of all men else I have avoided thee: but get thee back, my soul is too much charged with blood of thine already“.

So I guess we can conclude that Macbeth is an oddly likeable tyrant? Who knew such a thing existed!


Kingship: Malcolm (& Ed)

King Edward

We never actually meet Edward the Confessor but he is the person to whom Malcolm turns for help after his father is murdered. Despite the fact that Malcolm falls under suspicion after he flees the scene of the crime, Edward obviously dismisses these rumours as lies by accepting Malcolm into the English court, offering him a safe haven while he regroups and figures out a way to win back his rightful place on the Scottish throne. Edward is said to have healing powers – he is associated with “heaven” and “grace” and all things “saintly“. It’s clear that he represents absolute good and through his association with Edward, Malcolm also comes to be associated with the forces of good. Meanwhile Macbeth through his crimes, his association with the witches and his reign of tyranny (more of this later) increasingly comes to be associated with absolute evil (only his soliloquies and private conversations with his wife reveal to us that he is not in fact completely evil…).


Malcolm doesn’t actually become King until the final scene of the play but he has a very clear sense of the role a King must play – in fact it is he who lists “the king-becoming graces, / As justice, verity, temperance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, / Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude“. Two scenes in particular help us to get to know him better. The first is when Macduff arrives in England to convince Malcolm to march on Scotland. Malcolm is suspicious of his motives and asks Macduff why he has left his wife and children unprotected and why Macbeth hasn’t harmed Macduff in any way?

Perhaps Macbeth is manipulating Macduff in some way –  Malcolm is realistic enough to recognise that when a King gives an order his subjects must obey even if they disagree with their orders (“A good and virtuous nature may recoil in an imperial charge“). Malcolm could be described as paranoid here but his reluctance to trust others is hardly surprising given the circumstances (he’s afraid he’s being lured back home under false pretences so that Macbeth can murder him) so he puts Macduff to the test, claiming that he possesses all manner of vices which would make him an even worse King than Macbeth. Once it is clear that Macduff’s loyalties lie with his beloved Scotland, Malcolm reveals the truth and together they promise to restore Scotland to her former glory. We feel reassured that Malcolm is an intelligent man with a clear sense of the virtues a Kind should possess and of the responsibilites that Kingship brings. His primary concern is to restore Scotland to her former glory. He knows that “our country sinks beneath the yoke. It weeps, it bleeds and each new day a gash is added to her wounds” but he feels confident that divine justice will play its part in their inevitable victory: “the powers above put on their instruments” “the night is long that never finds the day”.

The only criticism I’d make of him is his response to bad news. Back at the beginning of the play when Macduff reveals “Your royal father’s murdered” Malcolm responds “O! By whom“. Not exactly the response you expect from a man who’s just been told that his father is dead! His lack of emotion makes him seem rather heartless and his immediate switch to tactical considerations (“to show an unfelt sorrow is an office that the false man doth easy. I’ll to England“) makes him seem capable of an almost inhuman calm.  Macduff actually seems more upset at Duncan’s death (“O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee“) than his own sons do.

Later when it is revealed that Macduff’s wife and children have been brutally murdered he again appears rather cold and callous: he tells Macduff to “dispute it like a man“, not giving him even a moment to process the enormity of his loss but instead urging him to “let grief convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it”.

The second scene where we really see what Malcolm is made of is when he is finally crowned King. Here he finally seems genuinely concerned about those soldiers who have not yet returned from the battle and when Old Siward receives news of his son’s death, Malcolm finally reveals a more compassionate side stating “he’s worth more sorrow and that I’ll spend for him“. Unlike his father he rewards all of those who fought for him equally, with the new title of earls and immediately makes plans to welcome home those who fled Macbeth’s tyranny, including his brother Donalbain. He is decisive and businesslike, proclaiming that “by the grace of God” he will attend to everything else that needs to be done and invites then all to his coronation. It’s only to be expected that he describes Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in such derogatory terms (as a “dead butcher” and “fiend-like queen“). We are left feeling that he will be a capable, wise and fair King but noetheless the essential blandness of his goodness makes him rather boring by comparison to the complex usurper whose head will now decorate the battlements as a warning to those who would challenge the rightful King.


Kingship: Duncan

Kingship is an oft discussed theme in the play Macbeth and it’s hardly surprising – we are presented with so many Kings it can be hard to keep track of them… but God loves a trier so here goes.


The first King we meet is Duncan. He’s waiting anxiously for news of not one but two battles (against the rebel Macdonwald and an invading Norweigan army) and he’s relying on his two great generals Macbeth and Banquo to win the day.

You need to form an opinion, good or bad, of Duncan – is he a good King or not? Interpret the facts don’t just list them. It doesn’t matter whether you take a sympathetic or a judgemental attitude towards him as long as you don’t sit on the fence…

Those who champion Duncan point out that he inspires great love and devotion from his army, particularly his warrior cousin Macbeth who carved his way through to the enemy then “unseamed him from the nave i’ th’ chops and fixed his head upon our battlements“. Duncan shows no mercy to the traitorous Thane of Cawdor (who fought alongside the rebel Macdonwald) ordering his immediate execution but he does reward loyalty, offering this title to Macbeth and paying Macbeth the great compliment of initiating a royal visit to his castle. This is a shrewd political move on Duncan’s part – he recognises that he needs to keep the brave fearless Macbeth onside and feels this is a good way to do it. Duncan had no possible way of knowing what Macbeth was plotting against him; after all Macbeth is his cousin; he had just risked life and limb to keep Duncan on the throne and is widely regarded as an “honest” and “worthy gentleman“. Duncan is also savvy enough to pronounce that “we will establish our estate upon our eldest Malcolm” so that if his life is threatened again there will be no confusion as to who’s going to ascend to the throne after he dies.

[NOTE: To understand the significance of this announcement fully you need to appreciate that the modern notion of succession didn’t apply here. The King could name anyone he wanted, it didn’t have to be his eldest son, it could be whoever he considered most worthy – his brother, a middle or youngest son, or the bravest warrior in his army. In fact at this time in Scotland if the King died suddenly there would be a conference of all the warrior chiefs and they would decide amongst themselves who should take over as King. So Duncan’s announcement really dashes Macbeth’s prior hope that “if chance will have me King, why chance may crown me without my stir“].

Those who criticise Duncan point to the fact that not one but two armies have taken arms against him. He doesn’t seem to inspire loyalty and must be in some ways perceived of as weak if his nobles so openly rebel against him. He also lacks the wisdom to offer equal reward for equal service – he gives Macbeth a new title and bestows the honour of a royal visit to his castle but offers Banquo only a measly hug. Luckily Banquo’s not the jealous sort but it does give us some insight into how Duncan may have inadvertantly made enemies in the past through tacklessness and favouritism. Duncan’s decision to visit Macbeth’s castle can also be interpreted as a foolish decision; evidence that Duncan is a gormless overly-trusting individual who fails to learn from his mistakes. After what’s just happened surely he should be upping his security detail and holing himself up in his own castle until he is absolutely sure who he can and cannot trust! A little paranoia wouldn’t go astray here. Furthermore his pronouncement that “we will establish our estate upon our eldest Malcolm” was bound to raise some hackles amongst the more ambitious Scottish nobles (see the rules of succession above) – he should have known this and been extra careful while this news was sinking in.

Like him or lump him, we get our clearest sense of Duncan’s reign from the man who’s plotting to kill him. Macbeth admits that Duncan is “here in double trust” and acknowledges that Duncan has been an exemplary King who “hath been so clear in his great office that the angels will plead out trumpet tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off“. Ultimately Macbeth believes that Duncan is a good man and a good King and he doesn’t deserve to be murdered in his bed in cold blood. Much later in the sleepwalking scene the horror of murdering an old man in his bed is relived by Lady Macbeth who mournfully laments “yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?“. The only other mention of Duncan in the play comes from Macduff who laments that Malcolm is apparently so lacking in virtues despite the fact that “thy royal father was a most sainted King

So now it’s time for you to get off the fence – do you think if Duncan had been more alert to his perceived weakness as a King; less trusting and more cautious in his choice of road trips that he would still be alive? Or do you think that Duncan is entirely the wronged party; a man whose essential virtue prevented him from foreseeing that his most loyal general would turn against him and God and commit the most heinous crime known to man: regicide.

You decide!!!