Macbeth Theme Of Kingship Essay
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 subjects “I 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!
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Macbeth – Kingship In the monarchical society depicted in this play. The King was regarded as God’s direct representative on Earth. The universe was viewed as an ordered structure in which every creature had its place. An offence against the King, the head of this ordered structure, was considered an offence against God, and an offence on the ordered scheme on which human welfare depended. The King embodied the moral and social welfare of his subjects and, with this in mind, the theme of Kingship can easily be understood.
In the play, the exercise of royal power, whether with potential for good or evil, is so significant a theme that Shakespeare prevents four versions of it. Firstly, there is the kind, almost ideal kingship of Duncan, whose murder creates the perversion of this ideal. This is followed by the cruel reign of the usurper Macbeth. King Edward, though an indirect character, has supreme royal power and his reign represents the opposite to Macbeth’s reign of terror. While Macbeth’s reign highlights the capacity for evil hidden in kingship, Edward’s represents the capacity for absolute goodness.
Finally, speculation remains as to Malcolm’s potential as future King of Scotland. Such was the Godlike power that the King exerted over his subjects, the path was left open for the triumph of good or evil. “Gracious Duncan” is the first example of a benign and worthy King. From his introduction in to his untimely death, Duncan appears to have been the ideal King, who exemplified the “King becoming graces” sought by Malcolm. Duncan is the essence of graciousness, humility and temperance. He is admired by his subjects for his justice, gratitude, generosity and humility.
He is generous in his praise of those whom he feels have served him well, in particular Macbeth, “O worthiest cousin/ More is thy due than more all can pay. ” Duncan’s benign guidance is rewarded by the loyal support of his people. However, Duncan is not entirely without fault. While his strengths as a King lie in his mild-tempered nature and generous character, his weakness is displayed in his overly-trusting nature. He is too trusting to notice the corruption in a treacherous subordinate, “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust,” and of this naivete the Thane of Cawdor took full advantage.
Duncan himself declares “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. ” However having scarcely been saved from rebellion by the “bloody execution” of his great warriors (on whom he is heavily reliant,) Duncan once again displays a foolish lack of judgement in his haste to pronounce Macbeth “worthy Cawdor. ” In doing so, he once again affirms an “absolute trust” in a disloyal subordinate. Although Duncan is invested with certain flaws, he is primarily a force of goodness in the play. The trust he places in others is noble in a King, as it is the insecure mind which harbours suspicion.
Duncan’s murder, therefore, is unnatural, against the moral order, a heinous crime against the course of nature. The regicide is so unjust that even Macbeth himself realises its callous, horrific nature, “This Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels trumpet tongu’d against the deep damnation of their taking off. ” Macbeth’s obvious distress and guilt in the face of his crime is indicative of Duncan’s benigh reign, yet nevertheless he commits regicide and succeeds to the throne as a usurper.
Macbeth’s unlawful accession to the thrown perverts the ideal and upsets the natural order. Life giving imagery associated with Duncan reflected the harmony in nature, the peaceful concord that existed during his reign, “I have begun to plant thee and will labour to make thee full of growing,” while under Macbeth, “Scotland bleeds. ” Macbeth’s reign exemplifies the latent potential for evil in kingship. He acquires regal power illegally and abuses it when he has it, to the detriment of his country, killing all those who oppose his rule. Macbeth, however, is unhappy in his “great office. The achievement of power has not brought him contentment, “To be thus is nothing but to be safely thus. ” He fears that his “borrowed power” will be taken from him in the same way he achieved it and therefore he seeks immediately to establish a dictatorship, in order to fortify his position on the throne. His reign, for which he “play’d most foully” is marked by tyranny, corruption and death, as Scotland “sinks” under the rule of the “dwarfish thief” who cannot measure up to the fruitful and just reign of his predecessor. The potential for evil in kingship is explored through the many murders committed by Macbeth.
He is able to maintain his regal power only by resorting to murder and terror against his subjects, culminating in the callous murder of Macduff’s family in Act 4 Scene 2. This heinous crime, fuelled only by a deep-rooted insecurity, is indicative of the potential for evil in kingship. As the “untitled tyrant,” Macbeth unleased the full reign of evil present in his nature and thus let loose into Scotland a disruptive evil force. Under Macbeth, Scotland, “sinks beneath the yoke/It weeps, it bleeds and each new day/A new gash is added to her wounds. The heinous nature of Macbeth’s “blood-soak’d”Reign supports the notion that kingship bears potential for both good and evil. Edward, King of England, provides a welcome alternative to the diabolical cruelty of Macbeth. There is a pointed contrast between Edward and Macbeth. Having disregarded the natural order, Macbeth used his regal power for purposes of destruction and ruination. However Edward, like Duncan, was chosen by God as one of his direct representative’s on Earth. He is a true and rightful King as is seen as a saintly force, endowed with virtue and holiness, whose powers of miraculous healing represent the divinity of kingship.
The court of Edward, where Malcolm sought refuge from Macbeth’s murderous designs, is presented as a holy place, presided over by a King who enjoys divine sanction and special gifts from God that “speak him full of grace. ” Edward is portrayed as a “holy King,” a fitting opponent to the diabolical cruelty of Macbeth. As the opposing forces of goodness assemble, liturgical language and imagery become more fluid and frequent. Words such as “prayer” and “blessing” are frequently employed to illustrate the beatific reign of Edward and to convey his healing power and graciousness.
The absolute goodness of King Edward highlights the opposing forces of good and evil in the play and represents the potential of kingship not only to generate goodness but to transform evil into goodness. The final image of kingship in the play revolves around Malcolm. His function in the play is highly significant as it is his duty to restore the status quo. As the rightful heir to the throne, the son of a good King and a holy mother, his smooth accession to the throne secures his acceptance by his subjects. Not only does this entitle him to the kingship, but it also promises a beinign reign.
However, Malcolm appears young and ineffectual and seems a slight figure to dispel the dark cloud of Macbeth’s reign, certainly when compared to the strength of character of Macduff. His hasty departure following the murder of his father is the frenzied action of a fearful, doubtful character. However, Shakespeare allows for Malcolm’s maturing and he quickly grows into his role. He does not squander his time in England, rather he actively seeks King Edward’s aid. Malcolm is cautious and careful, wary of becoming “a weak poor innocent lamb to appease an angry god. His caution is commendable and desirable in a future king and he displays none of the naivete of his father, “To show unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy. ” He subjects Macduff to an elaborate tests to assure his loyalty to Scotland and he recalls the king-becoming graces, “Justice, loyalty, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude. ” Malcolm’s vision of kingship is admirable and marks a hopeful outlook for the future of Scotland. Malcolm acquires authority and is obeyed.
His succession to the throne is significant in restoring the natural order, and it is evident that Malcolm will use his regal power for purposes of good. The future of Scotland looks bright under the new King, although it is hard to imagine his asserting his authority without men of Macduff’s calibre on his side. The theme of kingship in the play Macbeth is indeed a crucial one. There seems to be more to attaining regal power than merely sitting on the throne. One must be a King and inherit rightfully by succession, and thereby prosper with the grace of God.
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Malcolm, like Edward and Duncan, is the rightful heir to the throne and this status promises a benign reign. It is evident from the above examples that the position of King is such a potent one that there is immense potential for absolute good or absolute evil. With the death of Macbeth, and the subsequent accession of Malcolm, the universal order is finally restored and Scotland will subsequently thrive. Under Macbeth, Scotland suffered and it is clear then that a country’s suffering or prosperity is a direct reflection of the moral nature of its King.
Author: Cari Minns
Kingship in Macbeth
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