In the historical time period in which the play Macbeth is set, Kings enjoyed an almost divine status. Their hereditary position was blessed by God and in some cases were considered God’s deputy on earth. In the play Duncan is endowes with this divine blessing. He is the “most sainted King” whose murder by Macbeth opposes the whole natural order of the world. Macbeth’s ambition to become king and achieve the “Golden round” is the central theme of the play. Yet throughout this theme Shakespeare explores the virtues of kingships and the effect of power upon men.
Shakespeare proposes a list of qualities required for kingship. “The king becoming graces”. He includes “justice, vertity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude”. Although it is an extensive list Duncan possesses them all. He is just by punishing the traitor Cawdor and rewarding Macbeth and Banquo. He is humble, offering to be Macbeth’s guest in return for his bravery. He is compassionate in sending the injured captain to have his wounds bathed. In fact Duncan’s “Virtues will plea like angels trumpet tongu’d”. Macbeth on the other hand doesn’t possess any of these.
Duncan has some faults. He isn’t sufficiently brave or capable to lead his armies on the battlefield. Secondly he is gullible and easily deceived. Cawdor betrayed him when Duncan put his “absolute trust” in him and so did Macbeth. But throughout the play an emphasis is placed on Duncan’s good qualities. He is compared to Edward the Confessor, King of England, whose “Sundry blessings hang about his throne that speak him fall of grace”. He uses God-given healing powers to cure his subjects of “the evil”. Both kings are models of the just and benevolent exercise of power.
Macbeth wants Duncans power due to his ” Vaulting ambition”. He takes the throne by murdering, against his own conscience, and better judgement, a good man who is his guest, subject and Kinsmen. Regicide is unatural and he knows Duncan was a fine king. Malcolm, Duncan’s son, was the named successor and was a “step on which I must fall down else o’er leap for in my way it lies”. Yet Malcom was weak and did not contest Macbeth’s right to the throne after the death of his father. Instead he fled to England and his brother Donalblaine fled to Ireland.
Macbeth aquires his power illegally and immorally, he become “an untitled tyrant bloddy sceptered”. He has usurped the throne, a position that should only be held by Macolm the rightful successor to Duncan. Once in power he abuses it. He is tormented by insecurity and angered by the fact he cannot impose his lineage due to Lady Macbeth’s infertility. He murders Banquo but Fleance’s escape goads him. He recognises that kingship will only be temporary and that even the “seeds of Banquo” have more of a future than he.
Ironically Macbeth doesn’t even enjoy his kingship “to be thus is nothing”, the chores of rule irritate him and he begins to envy Duncan’s peace. Macbeth the “tyrant” soon become demonic in his rule. He murders Lady Macduff and her children, by hiring assassins. The murder is commited on stage and is the most harrowing moment in the play, as it attacks the family unit, which is the basis of society. Macbeth lacks all the virtues that Duncan and Edward embody.
A king’s duty to his country must be above his own interests, hence Macbeth’s rule is sailed. Macbeth brings only chaos to Scotland, this is symbolized in the darkness that coverd the land “tis day and yet dark night stangles the travelling lamp”. Nature becomes disturbed ” a mousing owl hawked at and killed a falcon” horses “broke their stalls and started eating each other”. Ross laments that Scotland “cannot be called our mother but our grave”. Royal power corrupts Macbeth and his tyrannical rule is imposed upon the country for which he fought so many battles to protect.
“Each new morn, new widoes howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face”, these are the effects of Macbeths rule. He broke open the Lords “annointed temple” and stole power for himself. He is in total contrast to Duncan and Edwards kingly virtues. Order and peace are only restored to Scotland when Malcom, the “soverign flower” and Duncan’s rightful successor, takes up the crown. For Macbeth kingship was abstract, it was dipping through his fingers at any moment.