“Macbeth”: To what extent does Shakespeare present Malcolm as a good leader?

Central to Macbeth is the question of what makes a good leader? A country fractured by political and military conflict, Shakespeare’s Scotland is in desperate need of a strong monarch who can unite the thanes and repel invading forces. Yet despite there being a host of possible candidates for this position, from the outset of the play Shakespeare draws our attention to the inadequacy of each and every one. If Duncan is too credulous, Macbeth is too tyrannical. Whilst Banquo has great integrity, he cannot protect himself. Macduff’s integrity and military capabilities may mean he ostensibly appears to be an ideal leader, he abandons his family in a moment of great peril. Lady Macbeth is an effective persuader, but her gender disqualifies her from seizing any power with her own hands.

And so we are left with Malcolm, Duncan’s son and heir. In the midst of all of this chaos and bloodshed, Malcolm should be able to restore the Divine Right of Kings and return balance to the unsettled natural order.

Our first glimpse of Malcolm emphasises his generous nature, and benevolence must surely be a quality required by a successful leader. When the “bloody” sergeant reports back from battle in Act 1 Scene 2, Shakespeare highlights Malcolm’s connection with his future subjects: Malcolm recalls that “this is the sergeant / Who like a good and hardy soldier fought / ‘Gainst my captivity”. However, although Malcolm’s laudatory attitude here is echoed at the end of the play when he elevates his loyal followers to earls, on closer inspection these words highlight his own failure as a military leader. Whereas Macbeth unfailingly wields his “brandish’d steel” in the service of King Duncan, Malcolm has been a passive spectator of the heroism of others. Shakespeare continually draws our attention to Malcolm’s reluctance to engage in physical conflict. His first instinct after the murder of his father is self-preservation, and so he flees to England, where he laments the actions of the “tyrant” Macbeth, but takes little action until Macduff arrives. Then whilst Malcolm is present for the final battle in Act 5, it is notably Macduff who becomes the protagonist, seeking vengeance for his murdered family. Although it could be argued that Malcolm’s strategy demonstrates great wisdom (the heir to the throne must be preserved, after all), in a world in which military prowess determines success as a leader, he seems to lack the required qualities.

So if Shakespeare consistently demonstrates Malcolm’s failings as a military leader, does he present him as an astute political role model? If Duncan’s downfall was his overly trusting nature, surely Malcolm’s scepticism and testing of those around him is a positive character trait, and indicates that he is more akin to the early modern Machiavellian politician than to the medieval commander? When Macduff arrives in England, Malcolm’s first instinct is to test his loyalty. Following on as it does from the murder of Macduff’s family, this conversation provides a strange hiatus in the play, and is perhaps a moment for the audience and actors alike to catch their breath prior to the final battle scenes. Shakespeare initially portrays Malcolm as distraught at Scotland’s fate, as he invites Macduff to “weep our sad bosoms empty”. This emotional response to the situation is later contradicted when Malcolm warns Macduff to “dispute [his family’s murder] like a man”, leading the audience to question his true emotional state; was Malcolm truly grieving so passionately for Scotland, or is he now concealing his emotions on hearing of the slaughter of the Macduffs? Further evidence of the ease with which Malcolm can equivocate is found when he explains that he is unfit to be king because of his “confineless harms”. Whilst he “unspeak[s] [his] own detraction”, the audience is left unsure as to Malcolm’s true identity and fitness to rule. Being aligned with Edward the Confessor goes some way to establishing a sense of Malcolm’s integrity – but is this enough to redeem him?

Despite these tensions in his character, it is Malcolm who becomes the new king and who is fittingly given the final lines of the play. Through Malcolm’s condemnation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (“this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”), Shakespeare highlights that the new king will eschew such violence and corruption in favour of generosity and morality, which is reflected in the liberal giving out of honours. Yet the harmony and order of the play’s final rhyming couplets are undermined by echoes of earlier scenes and unresolved issues. Malcolm states that he will “plant newly”, just as Duncan “plant[ed]” Macbeth in Act 1. Malcolm gives honours, just as Duncan gave Macbeth the role of Thane of Cawdor. It was Malcolm who announced the execution of the original Thane of Cawdor in Act 1, and in Act 5 it is Malcolm again who celebrates the death of the most recent holder of that title. More unsettling, perhaps, is Malcolm’s lack of heir and the audience’s knowledge that Fleance has been prophesied as the next King of Scotland. So the play’s final tableau is of a temporary peace established by a flawed king; Shakespeare hints at the impossibility of “happy endings” in a world which seems irrevocably caught in cycles of violence and betrayal.

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