Duncan, Macbeth, and the Thane of Cawdor.

Author:Hunt, Maurice
Position:Critical Essay

Cursory study of Shakespeare's representations throughout the canon of inherited or conferred titles conveys the impression of a disturbing disjunction between them and their bearer's intrinsic worth. Late in I Henry VI, Sir William Lucy asks,

But where's the great Alcides of the field, Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, Created for his rare success in arms Great Earl of Wexford, Waterford, and Valence, Lord Talbot of Goodrich and Urchinfield, Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton, Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of Sheffield, The thrice-victorious Lord of Falconbridge, Knight of the noble order of Saint George, Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece, Great Marshal to Henry the Sixth Of all his wars within the realm of France? (1) (IV. vii. 60-71) Joan la Pucelle undercuts this tremendous construction of a noble warrior by saying, "Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles/ Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet" (IV. vii. 75-76). Playgoers experience this bathos involving title in milder forms when in Twelfth Night Maria's forged letter forever thwarts Malvolio's wish "[t]o be Count Malvolio" (II. v. 34) and when in The Tempest Stephano's and Trinculo's thick-wittedness discredits for audiences Stephano's pronouncement that on the island he and Miranda "will be king and queen--save Our Graces!--and Trinculo and [Caliban] shall be viceroys" (III. ii. 108-9). Involved in a Shakespearean disjunction of title and bearer's worth is the power of title to transform the bearer's character. In The Winter's Tale, Perdita, thought to be a shepherd's daughter, conveys a mysterious majesty of appearance and gesture. At least she does so in Polixenes' eyes (IV. iv. 156-59). But onstage spectators, while noting this majesty, credit it only when they know for sure that she is royalty, that she is in fact the Princess of Sicilia (V. ii. 33-40). In this case, a title conclusively transforms its bearer's character in the minds of others.

Not surprisingly, this transformative effect also can occur within the mind of a title's bearer. In Coriolanus, the Roman general Cominius adds the honorific title "Coriolanus" to the warrior Caius Marcius' s name, making "Caius Marcius Coriolanus" an appellation testifying to the valor of the Roman who single-handedly overcame the Voiscian city, Corioles (I. ix. 5765, II. i. 161-65). This conferred title, meant to dignify, seems a curse, however. Rome's banishment of Caius Marcius Coriolanus negatively revalues the latter surname and consequently the warrior's sense of his own worth. Revealing himself in the Voiscian city, Antium, to his adversary, Aufidius, the exiled protagonist announces,

My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done To thee particularly and to all the Volsces Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may My surname, Coriolanus. (IV. v. 70-73) Caius Marcius now equates his entitlement with misery and the depletion of his self--with bloody loss--rather than with grand heroism:

The painful service, The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood Shed for my thankless country are requited But with that surname--a good memory, And witness of the malice and displeasure Which thou shouldst bear me. (IV. v. 73-78) Caius Marcius acts out the dehumanization of himself now associated in his mind with his entitlement by urging Aufidius either to use him as a sword against his native city, Rome, or to slit his throat (IV. v. 83-106). In his reappraisal of himself, he amounts to little more than a convenient tool of war.

Choosing to divest himself of a king's title, Richard, in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, predicts the metamorphic effect that a revolution of title can have upon human identity. "I have no name, no title," self-deposed Richard announces, "No, not that name was given me at the font,/ But 'tis usurped" (IV. i. 256-58). Reduced, Richard tragically discovers that, by giving up his title, he devolves to the status of unaccommodated man, who must be "pleased" with "nothing," "till he be eased/ With being nothing" (V. v. 40-41). So powerful an influence on a character or temperament is title that, in Othello, it helps precipitate the evil latent in Iago, when he, as an ensign, cannot stomach the idea that Cassio should be entitled lieutenant. The obverse of this effect is the political command that Prospero in The Tempest expresses when he, without an identity as a result of his forswearing magic, retitles himself Duke of Milan (V. i. 85-86, 106-11).

A conferred title in Shakespeare's plays most memorably transforms character for the worse when Duncan makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. This conferral not only helps corrupt Macbeth; it also works indirectly to destroy Duncan in ways that have not been described. Everyone in Macbeth speaks well of Duncan. Wrestling with the horrific thought of regicide, Macbeth concedes that "this Duncan"

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against The deep damnation of his taking-off. (I. vii. 16-20) After the king is dead, Lennox speaks of the "gracious Duncan/ [Who] was pitied of Macbeth" and of Malcolm and Donalbain's "gracious father" (III. vi. 3-4, 10). Even later, Macduff tells Malcolm, who has been slandering himself to discover whether Macduff is Macbeth's secret agent, that "thy royal father/Was a most sainted king" (IV. iii. 108-9). (2) Macduff s word "sainted" begs comparison of Duncan with the English king Edward the Confessor, whose saintliness apparently makes possible his ability to cure scrofula (IV. iii. 14056). King Edward, according to admiring Malcolm, "hath a heavenly gift of prophecy/ And sundry blessings hang about his throne/ That speak him full of grace" (IV. iii. 157-59). Duncan's single prophecy in the play--that the nests of "temple-haunting" martlets about Macbeth's castle betoken a divine blessing on the place (I. vi. 3-10)--is wholly mistaken, blinding him to a kind of hell. Neither clairvoyant nor gifted with a royal miraculous touch (Norbrook 94), Duncan, in Lennox's and M acduff s praises, most likely benefits from being lacked (Sanders 255-57): his saintliness becomes the imaginative creation of mourners who conform to the Shakespearean epistemology memorably described by Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing:

That what we have we prize not to the worth Whiles we enjoy it, but, being lacked and lost, Why then we rack the value, then we find The virtue that possession would not show us Whiles it was ours. (IV. ii. 218-22) Macbeth testifies to Duncan's virtues while the king is alive, but they are associated with meekness and "clarity of office"--lesser qualities than the beatitude, the saintliness, of an imaginatively reconstructed lost king.

The reverent description of King Edward in Macbeth introduces a perspective upon Duncan that encourages us to realize that this good king is not a blessed king, that, judged in retrospect, he cursed himself by a disastrous decision. (3) By transferring the title Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth, Duncan gives the witches the crucial middle term in their prophetic greeting of Macbeth:

FIRST WITCH All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis. SECOND WITCH All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Cawdor. THIRD WITCH All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter. (I. ii. 48-50) The witches' dialogue concerning the sailor "to Aleppo gone" (I. iii. 4-25, esp. 24-25) stresses the idea that, while they can physically torment victims, in Macbeth's case by the implications of their supernatural ability to know simultaneous happenings elsewhere, they cannot directly destroy men and women. Nor can they compel their will. Had Duncan not told Ross to greet Macbeth with the title Thane of Cawdor (I. ii. 64-66), the witches would have been deprived of the prophetic catalyst of Macbeth's ambition, of his supposition that he will become King of Scotland. After all, if the witches had had to greet Macbeth by simply saying-"All hail Macbeth, hail to thee Thane of Glamis. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter"--nothing in their prophecy would have made Macbeth think they had any supernatural knowledge of either his present affairs or the destiny of the kingdom. In this hypothetical case, they would seem to know, on the one hand, what everyone knows about his thane identity and, on the other , no more apparently than some seer-like yet ordinary men and women in any age do about the certainty that a given individual will become king. Greeting Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor thus empowers the witches in the titular character's mind. This fact lends tragic significance to Duncan's making Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Commentators on the play have not fully explored the complexity of Duncan's motivation in this respect or the ramifications of the cataclysmic entitlement for both men.

Everything begins with the Thane of Cawdor, paradoxically a shadowy, insubstantial character. Why does Duncan think of transferring the title Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth? After Macbeth has "unseamed" the rebel Macdonald "from the nave to th' chops" (I. ii. 22), Ross tells Duncan that the King of Norway "himself,"

with terrible number, Assisted by that most disloyal traitor, The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict Till that Bellona's bridegroom, lapped in proof, Confronted him with self-comparisons, Point against point, rebellious arm gainst arm. Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude, The victory fell on us. (I. ii. 51-58) Concerning certain verses in this passage, Stephen Booth notes that "although Assisted by that most disloyal traitor/ The Thane of Cawdor is, like with terrible numbers, merely parenthetical, a modifier (or a modifier for a modifier) for Norway himself, these lines can easily seem to describe a confrontation not between Macbeth and the Norwegian king but between Macbeth and Cawdor. That is so because the name Cawdor is physically nearer to the pronoun...

To continue reading