Nice guy, rubbish king? How does Shakespeare present King Duncan in “Macbeth”?

The question of what makes a good leader is central to the plot of Macbeth, and Shakespeare presents his audience with overlapping and contrasting examples of premiership which are used to reveal different virtues and flaws. If Macbeth is overly ambitious, he is also courageous and can – at least initially – command the respect of the army. Macduff is similarly valiant, yet his abandonment of his family sits uncomfortably, and might reveal a lack of foresight. Malcolm is the true heir to the throne and is intelligent in testing his followers’ loyalty – yet he does not lead his own troops, and his Machiavellian approach to leadership is somewhat calculating. Even the saintly Edward the Confessor seems too good to be true; his somewhat ethereal presence haunts the fringes of the play, and his absence on stage seems to indicate that such perfection is, perhaps, ultimately impossible to portray.

In opposition to the more perceptive younger generation of leaders, King Duncan is presented as at once saintly but weak, honest but overly trusting, generous but blind to reality. The play begins at a moment of crisis for Scotland, and the embattled king faces violence, war, supernatural meddling, and betrayal by not one, but two men. Both traitors are punished violently, and the incursion onto Scottish soil is quelled by Macbeth’s army. A stark warning of the fruits of treachery, Macdonwald is “unseam’d from the nave to the chaps”, whilst the “most disloyal traitor”, the Thane of Cawdor, is executed off-stage. Despite this emphasis on the restoration of order, our first impressions are of a king who has not maintained stability, but rather left his kingdom open to chaos and turmoil.

Shakespeare’s presentation of Duncan consistently emphasises his blindness to his subjects’ true natures. This is signalled in his first line: “what bloody man is that?”, Duncan asks, unable to discern the identity of a soldier reporting from the battlefield, just as he cannot discern Macdonwald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Macbeth’s deception. By placing Duncan away from the battle, ignorant of the current state of affairs, Shakespeare draws our attention to his lack of awareness. Either the frailty of age or a strategic decision to prioritise self-protection has kept Duncan away from the battlefield, and so he depends on hearsay and does not appear to be involved in the military decisions which will affect his nation’s safety. Therefore, whilst Macbeth is garnering the respect and obedience of the troops by leading the charge, the king appears physically weak and lacks the courage of the play’s military leaders. This myopia quickly becomes a thread which runs through Act 1. In 1.4 Duncan insists that “there’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face”, whilst in 1.6 he remarks that Macbeth’s castle “hath a pleasant seat” and calls the Machiavellian Lady Macbeth “our honoured hostess”. Later in the play, his son Malcolm is portrayed as more astute, as he tests Macduff’s loyalty before placing his trust in him. This contrast serves to highlight the errors made by Duncan in the exposition, whilst the dramatic irony undercuts the audience’s confidence in the king’s understanding of his own supporters.

However, perhaps there are aspects of Duncan’s character which are more calculating than credulous. Several times Shakespeare draws our attention to the king’s generosity in rewarding his followers: a detail which may be more pragmatic than naïve. By awarding Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor and promising to “mak[e] thee full of growing”, Duncan may be attempting to provide Macbeth with hope for further promotion in order to secure his loyalty. The anticipation of future reward is further extended to Banquo, who is held to Duncan’s heart in 1.4, and to Lady Macbeth, who is given an expensive diamond as a token of affection. Duncan is also shown to be securing the future stability of his nation, as he names Malcolm as the Prince of Cumberland – is Duncan aware that Macbeth is not the right candidate to receive this honour? The play’s denouement echoes and reframes this section, as Malcolm announces that his “thanes and kinsmen / Henceforth be earls” and repeats the imagery of planting and growth. It may be that such carefully considered and magnanimous political decisions are intended as a guide to positive leadership, even though they do not provide an effective stay against the stronger supernatural power of the witches. Indeed, it could be argued that Duncan’s use of the metaphor of growth is a means of suggesting vague future rewards without the drawbacks of genuine commitment.

Whether or not the audience perceives Duncan as a good role model for leadership, it is clear that Shakespeare consistently portrays him as the rightful king. Macbeth recognises that “his virtues will plead like angels”, underscoring the tragic hero’s understanding of his king’s integrity and religious sensibility. This idea is further compounded by the almost biblical events that follow Duncan’s murder. Ross reports that “darkness does the face of earth entomb”, just as the world was plunged into darkness following the crucifixion of Jesus. Of course, this darkness is metaphorical as well as literal, indicating the shift from a nation characterised by morality to one enmeshed in villainy and distrust. The fact that Shakespeare elides Duncan’s death (although he shows the killing of Macbeth) indicates that such a challenge to the Divine Right of Kings is too ghastly to be staged.

Overall, although Duncan is far from infallible, he is presented as the rightful king who has presided over a nation defined by a belief in honesty and integrity. Yet Shakespeare reminds us that such a world-view is vulnerable to attack and corruption, suggesting that an idealistic approach to leadership must give way to a more considered tenure. Ultimately, then, the play may both confirm the concept of the Divine Right of Kings and also hint that the power wielded by the monarch must be employed wisely.

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