Shakespeare: Sample Writing
Duncan’s Inconsistent Placement of Trust
Macbeth‘s king Duncan proves enigmatic in his placement of trust. Malcolm reports that the prior Thane of Cawdor was sincerely repentant before his execution:
very frankly he confess’d his treasons,
Implor’d your Highness’ pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. (I.iv.5-8)
With imminent death awaiting him, the Thane has no real reason to lie. Regardless, Duncan unflinchingly declares,
There’s no artTo find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust. (I.iv.11-4)
Duncan’s distrust of a condemned man is startling, given that two scenes later, he is duped by the Macbeths’ false faces. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to “bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (I.v.64-6). Macbeth acknowledges that “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I.vii.82). The Macbeths directly challenge Duncan’s new resolution not to trust a face by hiding their intentions behind false faces. Ironically, Duncan’s seemingly solid resolve — he won’t even trust a dying man’s pleas for forgivenessis suddenly shattered by the Macbeths’ deceit.
Why, though, does Duncan fall prey so easily to the Macbeths’ ploy almost immediately after refusing to trust a condemned man? His actions seem problematic. Tension and irony builds in Macbeth as numerous subtleties are revealed that foreshadow deceit and murder, and Duncan does not seem to notice.
One such hint of Macbeth’s deception can be gleaned from Rosse’s speech after the battle against Norway:
The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,
Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapp’d in proof,
Confronted him with self-comparisons,
Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm. (I.ii.53-6)
On the literal level, Rosse explains that Macbeth met each of the Thane of Cawdor’s moves with an equal move and emerged victorious. However, Rosse also seems to be subtly portraying Macbeth as a mirror image of the Thane of Cawdor — the traitor. Critic Maurice Hunt writes, “This notion … makes Macbeth Cawdor’s mime, his mirror image or alter-ego” (Hunt 5). Every move the Thane of Cawdor makes is matched by Macbeth, suggesting that he, too, will be (or already is) a traitor. Macbeth is said to confront Thane of Cawdor with “self-comparisons,” which is more of a psychological than military term. Because of such careful and unique word choice, it can be discerned that Rosse is referring to more than just similarities on the battle field — Macbeth and the traitor Thane of Cawdor are directly compared, right under Duncan’s nose. Duncan, unaware of these hints, declares, “Great happiness!” (I.ii.58). He is clueless.Duncan contradicts his oath not to judge by the face when he appoints his son Prince of Cumberland simply because he is Duncan’s son, not because of merit. Hunt asserts the oddity of this appointment: “When the king should demonstrate his gratitude for Macbeth’s services, he chooses this moment to give his elder son practically everything” (Hunt 13). Not only should Duncan be aware of what a slap in the face this is to Macbeth (and thus wary of Macbeth’s response) but also he is completely ignoring his earlier resolution. Duncan judges his son by his face — even though Malcolm is inexperienced, he is appointed princeand he neglects to judge Macbeth by his experience and success in battle. Duncan calls his son “O worthiest cousin” (I.iv.14), and Macbeth a meager “worthy Cawdor” (I.iv.48). Macbeth gets an empty title for his efforts and dedication to the throne, and Malcolm gets a near-promise to inherit the throne simply for being of royal blood. On some level, Duncan has to be aware that this will anger Macbeth, yet he takes no precautions.
More irony emerges when Duncan stays at Macbeth’s estate, and Banquo unknowingly increases the tension by using the word “haunt.” When Duncan is murdered, he is referred to by Macduff as “The Lord’s anointed temple” (II.iii.68). This is an ironic comment for Macduff to make, for earlier Banquo mentions seeing “The temple-haunting [marlet]…. / Where they [most] breed and haunt, I have observ’d / The air is delicate” (I.vi.4, 9-10). Marlets haunting a metaphorical temple (with a delicate, or easily damaged, air) in the same place Duncan is to sleep? Duncan is subtly compared with a precarious, fragile temple, and he is none the wiser.
Duncan is duly impressed by Lady Macbeth’s false face: “See, see our honor’d hostess! / the love that follows us sometime is our trouble, / Which still we thank as love” (I.vi.10-12), yet his excessive use of the word “love” seems to deflate the word’s value. His reply to her hospitality has a patronizing tone, which becomes more evident in the following lines: “Herein I teach you / How you shall bid God ‘ield us for your pains, / And thank us for your trouble” (I.vi.12-4). In other words, Duncan says, “May God reward me for your trouble.” The Riverside Shakespeare glosses this as a “gently facetious” remark, but given the context, it is gently insulting, if anything.
This remark essentially sums up how Duncan treats the Macbeths. After all Macbeth does for Duncan’s kingdom in battle, he receives nothing but a weightless thank you and empty promise from Duncan: “Only I have left to say, / More is thy due than more than all can pay” (I.iv.20-1). Duncan effectively weasels out of rewarding Macbeth with anything but an empty title by saying, “I owe you so much that I can never pay you anything.” With Duncan’s history of using Macbeth as a pawn for Duncan’s own benefit, “Macbeth could not have escaped feeling that he was being short paid” (Thumboo 183) when he is only made Thane of Cawdor and receives no tangible wealth. Although Macbeth admits “The service and the loyalty I owe, / In doing it, pays itself” (I.iv.22-23), Duncan should be aware that this is most likely said out of convention only, and Macbeth must harbor some feelings of resentment. However, after Duncan’s poor treatment of Macbeths, he is still demanding and insulting of them without expecting any retaliation.
If Duncan is interpreted as a tragic character, his faulty placement of trust in a face, not a person, holds significance in the grander scope of the play. Throughout Macbeth, titles constantly shift to different people, none of whom seem to be constant. The original Thane of Cawdor has no identity whatsoever: he exists only in title and the association with the act of treason. “The Norweyan lord” (I.ii.31) is a similarly gray character. He is referred to as “Norway himself” (51). Macbeth is skittish; his motives are largely influenced by his conniving wife and his steadily deteriorating mindset. Macbeth’s loss of identity is shown after he murders Duncan:
Macb.Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house;
“Glamis hath murther’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no moreMacbeth shall sleep no more.”
Lady M. Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brain-sickly of things. (II.ii.38-43)
In these six lines, Macbeth is referred to as Glamis, Cawdor, Macbeth, and thane, signifying that there is no single title he is associated with. This, combined with his psychological deterioration (brain-sickliness), shows Macbeth’s loss of identity.
Duncan’s determination not to trust a face (and subsequent failure) fits nicely into the theme of equivocal identities. Characters are often judged simply by title or name, while deeds or hidden thoughts and desires go unnoticed. Duncan acknowledges the folly of trusting the surface appearance of an individual and almost immediately seems to forget it. His failure to be wary of the mistreated Macbeths shows instability in his character, furthering the question of what defines identity and what does not.
Hunt, Maurice. “Duncan, Macbeth, and the Thane of Cawdor.” Studies in the Humanities 28.2 (2001): 1-30.
Macbeth. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 1360-1387.
Thumboo, Edwin. “Macbeth and the Generous Duncan.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22.2 (1971): 181-186.