Macbeth – The Issue of Kingship
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The issue of Kingship was such an important issue of Shakespeare’s time because there is a change of ruler, which will affect the lives of the population. Queen Elizabeth was a benevolent Queen who strived for peace. She was the virgin Queen and was, in effect, married to her country; she did this in order to protect her country from another King, who could potentially start tension and war. This commitment shows Elizabeth’s love for her country, as she took on the personal commitments to defend her country. People loved her as a consequence of this. A benefit of this was that Elizabethan times were full of prosperity, advances in learning and the expansion of empire. There was no civil strife as there had been before in the war of the Roses. When Elizabeth’s long era came to an end when she died in 1603 there was debate as to who would be the next ruler. The blood line of the Tudors found King James VI of Scotland as the legitimate candidate to be King James I of England. This united England and Scotland, and Shakespeare uses the play ‘Macbeth’, to compliment King James, to promote a good image and to show the significance of the Monarchy.
Another significant issue to the background of ‘Macbeth’ is the hierarchy in place at this time. Elizabethan’s desired stability as it meant they could move forward and could be protected from the outcome of war, which the population were afraid of. This lack of change was accepted so much so that they believed if you were born would be where you will stay, i.e. if your family were commoners, therefore you would be born a commoner and would be expected to stay and have no social mobility. The people with power supported this because it benefited them most, e.g. land owners would not want to change this stable structure of society as it could jeopardise their position and lifestyle. However I need to point out that a change in society would leave things unbalanced and a further concern would be chaos and eventually a collapse of this stable era of Elizabethan’s.
Besides the structure of the Hierarchy, other ideas are influential in the time of the Elizabethans. The Great Chain Of Being was the traditional Elizabethan idea of natural connection of worlds. This means that the man, spiritual world, nature and animal worlds were all linked, and the Elizabethans ascribed in that any disruption of this would lead to chaos, which is similar to the Hierarchy, which I have already mentioned. Similar animalistic chaos mentioned in ‘Macbeth’, “And Duncan’s horses — ’tis said they did eat each other’. This shows chaos because it is going against their nature, as they are herbivores and do not eat meat, let alone each other. This is strongly linked to Macbeth killing his King and unbalancing Elizabethans theory, therefore showing that this Hierarchy has just gone through something extremely disturbed.
A further belief of the Elizabethan time is the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. This is the belief that the King has been chosen by God to rule his country. Elizabethans suffered from indoctrination, which means they were brainwashed into thinking this, similar to the hierarchy and Great Chain of Being issues. If anyone was to kill the King by regicide, a pre-meditated murder, Elizabethans would believe they have committed sacrilege and would suffer eternal damnation, loose their soul. We can see support of this when Macduff says:
“Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s most anointed temple, and stole thence
The life of the building.”
The only exception is fighting in a country against country battle, where God would be seen to be on their side, and God will choose the winner. In ‘Macbeth’s’ case, he would be excommunicated, excluded from the religion, for killing Duncan. This would therefore mean no one could speak to him, and in Elizabethans time there was only one church, which was led by the King, which all of the population believed in. Therefore his life would be destroyed, and he would have to leave the country.
Additionally, the succession of the throne, meaning next in line to be King or Queen, was a huge issue in the time of the Elizabethans. An elective system was in place at this time, where the King would choose his most fitting next King or Queen to succeed him. ‘Macbeth’ pushes himself forward because of his leadership qualities, as Duncan does make him Thane of Cowdor after his battle victory. The advantage of using this system is that anyone could be chosen by the King, as long as he fully believed they were suitable, e.g. Macbeth. Elizabethans also believed the Kings choice was inspired by God, and therefore most would agree to it. The practice of primogeniture, which is the first born child taking over the thrown of his parents, had many benefits, of this there are no rivalry’s or chaos, as there is no competition to who the successor is going to be. However the disadvantage of this is the succession in line when a un-natural deed, e.g. regicide takes place as it can cause devastating effects, this is proven by the old man describing his night when King Duncan died;
“but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.”
The Kingship therefore can continue to stay in the family and the monarch can continue at smooth progression, as after the King has died, the successor is already ready to be King of his country.
There are various examples of how different Kings can be in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’; I will be starting with Duncan. Duncan has many strengths which I need to address, for example Duncan is a humble and a leader who restored peace. The Elizabethans wanted peace as it meant there was no abuse of power and certainly no chaos, Duncan was a gentle as there was no chaos or abuse of power. Duncan’s composed view on his Kingdom however can be decisive, as his execution of the traitor of the old Thane of Cawdor was haste, however so was his re-optioning of the new Thane. This act shows the country that Duncan will not tolerate such traitors.
Duncan gains respect for his victories in battle, as Lennox says “The gracious Duncan”, just after the battle.
Duncan’s other attributes include intelligence as he tactically rewards Macbeth with Thane of Cawdar to keep loyalty. The praise Duncan offers to Macbeth is also equalled to Banquo, who fought well in the battle and deserves to be praised. This double praising gives Macbeth and Banquo confidence and stability that their king as he can make good decisions, one of Duncan’s best decisions was to make his Son, Malcolm the next King of Scotland. This was a key, important decision because Duncan recognises Malcolm’s strengths as political leader in peace. The timing of the decision was also significant as it was straight after the battle, therefore there was no fighting for the next King, and peace is fully restored. This peace is lost and chaos is caused later on in the play when Duncan dies. However the respect for him is obvious in this quote, when Macbeth exclaims;
“Here lay Duncan
His silver skin laced with his golden blood
And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature.”
Duncan didn’t make Macbeth the next King because he judged Macbeth as not a political leader but a military leader, and Duncan was alert enough to know that Macbeth’s ambition could come in the way of being a worthy King of his country. Duncan’s decision for not letting his Son’s into battle, was for the same reason that he knew they were going to be the next in line to be King, therefore they need to stay alive and well.
Duncan can also be proved to be a tactical leader as he does not send himself into battle, if he went into battle he could be central to the opposition attack and then captured and therefore his side would lose. Duncan has faith in his soldiers that they can win the battle for him because of their love for their country and their king. Here is a quote from the play from Ross, who is talking to King Duncan after the battle; he talks of the soldiers love for their country,
“And everyone did bear
Thy praises in his kingdom’s great defence
And poured them down before him.”
This then shows how Duncan can put his soldiers into battle without worrying about himself or his sons going into battle as his soldiers are so patriotic for their country.
However some could say Duncan is not a strong leader as he is old and cannot defend himself physically. Duncan can be said to be too secure for a King, as he appears to be too trusting to the Thane of Cawdar, which nearly costs him his life. Duncan was trusting of Macbeth and gave him the Thane of Cawdor as Macbeth eventually abuses this power and kills Duncan himself; Macbeth does show loyalty to Duncan in battle and in speech,
“The service and the loyalty I owe
In doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part
Is to receive our duties: and our duties
Are to your throne and state and children and servants
Which do but what they should, by doing everything
Safe towards your love and honour.”
However Macbeth does eventually commit regicide, if Duncan was more sceptical, I believe he would have continued to reign in Scotland for a very long time.
After Duncan has died, Macbeth the next to the throne. Macbeth is the most influential in the play regarding the issue of Kingship, as he needs to interfere in the great chain of being to get his Kingship. His strengths as a leader mainly include his military success and experience. In Act 1 Scene 2 Line 54 he is even called, “Bellona’s Bridegroom”, Bellona was the Roman Goddess of war, therefore Macbeth had so much respect from his fellow soldiers that he was seen to be and called her husband. The shows his invincibility as he cannot be conquered because of his shear determination in battle. Macbeths respect brings authority, which is needed for Kingship. His Kingship qualities are received by not only soldiers, but everyone in the Kingdom, “Brave Macbeth, well he deserves that name”.
Macbeth was held in high regard by Duncan as he calls him “noble Macbeth”, and immediately after battle rewards him with the thane of Cawdor:
“What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won”.
Macbeths other strengths include his natural popularity. Just after the King has died, Ross says
“Then ’tis most like
The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth”.
This is significant as Ross just assumes the throne will fall upon Macbeth because of his leadership qualities in battle, which does make him loved among the people.
However we need to address Macbeth’s weaknesses also. Macbeth is a military leader, not a political leader therefore his reign turns into a dictatorship as he is a tyrant. Macbeth’s ambition overrides his moral, as he is against his word when Lady Macbeth is begging to him kill Duncan, he responds with; “We will proceed no further in this business.” Macbeth abuses his power to use it as a force of control and therefore uses to persuade people to kill future kings who could be in his way to retrieving the longest reign as possible. We see this in his quick assassination of Banquo, his best friend;
“Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep, and is his royalty of nature”.
Macbeth commits regicide in the play; this can be seen as his biggest weakness as he murdered his own leader. Macbeth would believe he has already “jumped the life to come”; therefore killing again would not be a huge problem for Macbeth has he has nothing else left to loose, “We are yet but young in deed.” Macbeth’s immoral killing leads to real chaos among everyone around the time of the murder, as Ross talks of extremely disturbing circumstances;
“And Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain…
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience as they would
Make war with mankind.”
This quote further proves a point I made earlier in the essay, that regicide leads to a unbalance and completely unnatural feeling for all involved and the consequences can lead into battle and unhappy circumstances until the situation has been revolved.
Near to the end of Macbeths reign people are starting to be afraid of his maltreatment, and are aware of his role of terror;
“May soon return to this our suffering country
Under a hand accurs’d.”
This quote, coming from Lennox at the end of Act 3 signals the beginning of the end of Macbeth’s era.
Edward the confessor is shown as the best example of a king during the play, as he confirms what the good qualities of a king should really be like, as good or gracious are the terms used to emphasize his purity. His rules as leader are given for the benefits of the people:
“Gracious England hath
Lent us god Siward and ten thousand men-
An older and a better soldier none”
This speech by Malcolm is talking of freeing Scotland from tyranny, and showing the respect Edward the confessor has, even over Malcolm, who is soon to be the next king of Scotland. Edward seems to be able to work miracles; therefore he has a God given support “A most miraculous work in this good king”.
Malcolm, one of Duncan’s son’s returns at the end of the play, like Edward the Confessor, he has many qualities. Malcolm can sense danger, we know this as he flees to England as then he becomes a recognised ally of Edward the confessor. If he had stayed in Scotland he might have been punished or killed by Macbeth. Malcolm was skilfully enough and aware enough to safe guard himself from potential harm. He tests Macduff’s loyalty in Act four by falsely telling him he doesn’t think he will be suitable for kingship. Macduff shows his loyalty to his country by saying he shouldn’t fight for him any more, but eventually does when Malcolm tells him why he spoke so badly upon himself
“My first false speaking
Was this upon myself. What I am truly
Is thine, and my poor country’s, to command:”
Malcolm has clearly thought about the prospects of kingship and tells us what he must do, he talks of
“Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude”
In line 97 Act 4 Scene 3, Malcolm reveals he wants Kingship not for personal gain, power and glory but to protect his country, and to selflessly improve his peoples life’s and the Kingdom.
“Had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.”
Malcolm is a good military leader, just like Macbeth. Therefore he has aspects of a warrior King, for example using the strategic wood of Birnam to defeat Macbeth, again showing that God is on his side.
The last speech Malcolm makes of the play is a significant one as he reveals his qualities of King in practise by doing the following, restoring peace, harmony and balance. Malcolm rewards all involved equally,
“My thanes and Kinsmen,
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour nam’d.”
He creates a new title to totally crush the old tranquil reign of Macbeth, and what the people of Scotland had finally been waiting for; Malcolm treated his people with dignity.
In conclusion, Duncan’s insight into his Son’s ability to lead and be a king is proven to be correct by the end of the play, and everything is proven to be balanced again, as Malcolm has all the leadership qualities his country need. Macbeth however, has had his life on earth ended early, and as he knows he has “jump the life to come”, showing the cost of committing regicide.