In Shakespeare’s time a King was considered to be god’s representative on earth. He was looked upon as equal to god. Shakespeare’s ideas towards kingship can be seen throughout the play. He shows that a king should be chosen by divine right and shows the character and attributes of what is takes to be a good king. The character of the king was also a matter of importance. If the king was just and good, the state thrived. If the king was unjust, cruel and self motivated, then the state suffered.
In Macbeth we see how the kingship, with its potential for good or evil, is a major theme of the play. Macbeth is seen as a hero in the eyes of all, a man worth and significance the saviour of his country, noble and brave: “Brave Macbeth”, “Valour’s Minion”. In his first appearance, King Duncan performs two of the basic duties of a king: punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Upon learning of the treachery of Cawdor and the heroism of Macbeth, he says, “No more that thane of Cawdor shall deceive / Our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, / And with his former title greet Macbeth”.
The phrase “bosom interest” means “vital interests,” but “bosom” suggests that a relationship of love should exist between a king and his subject. Cawdor, for his treason, is sentenced to death, but Macbeth and Banquo are rewarded for their loyalty. Macbeth is rewarded with the title of the Thane of Cawdor and is showered with the praise and promise of future glory. Therefore, there is much potential for good. The play provides us with a definition of the qualities required for kingship. In the course of his conversation with Macduff, Malcolm lists the ‘king-becoming graces’.
Duncan is the lawful king of Scotland, and is portrayed as virtous, strong and just. At the start of the play he has defeated his enemies. Duncan’s murder is greeted with dismay and horror because it is attack against God and an attack on the whole notion of order. It is an act of extreme evil and this is reflected in the disorder that results in nature. The world itself is shaken and thrown into confusion by such an evil deed. A good king has been more cruelly murdered: “most sacrilegious murder”.
Desperate and helpless, Macduff arrives in England to see Malcolm, the legitimate successor to Duncan’s throne. Malcolm is almost an embodiment of all the positive qualities of kings. He, along with his brother, immediately decides to rely on themselves to preserve their dynasty by leaving Scotland despite the obvious and inevitable suspicion that it raises and their own bereavement. They handle the situation with wisdom and courage, all for the sake of their kingdom. When Malcolm meets Macduff we see more of his wisdom. He adopts the personality of a man who is “not fit to govern and not even to live.
” Malcolm makes sure to not jeopardise his own life and the welfare of Scotland by “testing” Macduff. Malcolm, unlike Macbeth, is able to tell appearance from reality in his superiority as king. Macbeth’s reigns regenerates into the bloody tyranny. In order to silence his conscience and ensure his safety, he has Banquo murdered. “There’s not a one of them but in his house / I keep a servant fee’d”. he seeks information from the instruments of darkness and has Lady Macduff and her children slaughtered to satisfy his blood-lust.
The whole state convulses in pain- “It weeps, its beeps, and each day a gash is added to her wounds”. The main aspects highlighted by Malcolm that are absolutely incompatible with a decent king are lying, voluptuousness and greed. He plans to “cut the nobles of their land, desire his jewels and this other’s house… your wives, your daughters, your matrons and your maids may not fulfil the cistern of my lust. ” Satisfied with Macduff’s reaction Malcolm opens up: “All I am is thyne and mine country to command” and admits that he is not ridden with vices are he pretended.
We find out Shakespeare’s vision of king-becoming graces: “Justice, Verity, Temp’rance, Stableness, Bounty, Perseverance, Mercy, Lowliness, Devotion, Patience, Courage, Fortitude” The return of the rightful king is marked by the delight of the army. Nature reacts positively when Malcolm returns. Macbeth, on the contrary, is full of bravado and feels invincible one minute and then left thinking about “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death… a poor player that struts and frets his hours upon the stage” as Scotland, Lady Macbeth and his soul are all deteriorating around him.
In conclusion, the theme of kingship is well developed in the play, with illustrations of the difference between a noble king and a noble man turned incompetent tyrant and the principles behind kingship. The stability of the state depends on the king. The virtuous king rules over a strong and contented state. True kings like Duncan, Malcolm and Edward are associated with “renown and grace” because they rule by the grace of God and possess king-becoming graces. On the other hand, Macbeth, the usurper, destroys order and plunges his country into chaos unleashing fear, murder and evil.