The Coming Age, part 3

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

3. I have laid the foundations for criticism of Duncan, but the imagery I mentioned earlier, imagery that leads us away from the primordial chaos of the first battles, is associated primarily with his being. He is the feudal order in full blossom, as the exchange between him and Macbeth in scene four of act 1 attests:

Duncan: …O worthiest cousin!

The sin of my ingratitude even now

Was heavy on me: thou art so far before

That swiftest wing of recompense is slow

To overtake thee. Would thou hadst less deserved,

That the proportion both of thanks and payment

Might have been mine! only I have left to say,

More is thy due than more than all can pay.

Macbeth: The service and the loyalty I owe,

In doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part

Is to receive our duties: and our duties

Are to your throne and state children and servants,

Which do but what they should, by doing every thing

Safe toward your love and honour.

Duncan: Welcome hither:

I have begun to plant thee, and will labour

To make thee full of growing. Noble Banquo,

That hast no less deserved, let me infold thee

And hold thee to my heart.

Banquo: There if I grow,

The harvest is your own. (1:4, 15-34)

The feudal order makes ties of fraternity literal, as it makes them familial whenever possible. Reciprocation in service and honors is how love is used to tie men together and preserve the nation arising from those ties. The key to love is not merely the bonds of affection that men develop towards each other, but a higher concept of Nature, which creates an order under which growth takes place. But when Duncan gives Malcolm the title of Prince of Cumberland, he says that

honor must

not unaccompanied invest him only,

But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine

On all deservers (1:4, 39-42)

Given that Duncan is giving Malcolm an estate, there is a confusion here, similar to the confusion of Will and Fortune and whether there is an “end” involved or not. One would think that true virtue needs no signs, that it shines forth and impresses all men. To the degree one needs signs, “nobleness,” if taken to mean virtue, collapses into merely conventional honors (again, note how Will collapses into depending on Fortune because of the need of a proper manifestation). Another problem, no less significant, lies in what is given to Banquo – nothing except “love,” and Banquo’s answer could be seen as mocking what has been “given.” The feudal can barely even give honors; it rather assumes that the king, like a parent, will be a caretaker, and will reciprocate for his children.

The trouble is that not that an order does injustice – every order is not perfectly just. The real problem lies in that this order, which aspires to being divine, is dependent for its survival on one who can conquer Fortune and has enormous strength of Will. The feudal assumes that such strength has grown from men being cared for properly, but the imagery Duncan uses is that of plants, or at the highest, stars, objects that do not move in the way beasts or men do. Macbeth’s power, which saved the feudal temporarily, is emphatically not the power the feudal brings about.

The positive case for what Duncan represents, though, is not hard to see, and the loss of Duncan is a loss which changes the world forever. Macbeth, in speaking of the king’s body after the murder, says

Here lay Duncan,

His silver skin laced with his golden blood;

And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature

For ruin’s wasteful entrance (2:3, 19-22)

Silver and gold echo the myth of the metals in the Republic; in his physical constitution, he was a Guardian, and in his mental constitution, beloved by wisdom. His loss means the end of a conception of Nature, one where love feeds into courage and inspires men to do their best for each other without material gain needing to be had (2:3, 24-6). What “ruin” is one can see from the examination of the passages previous: if Banquo or Macbeth are not satisfied by what they are given, as opposed to Malcolm receiving that which is proper for his status and virtues, and the former is catered to at the expense of the latter, then there has not merely been a “lowering,” but a world has ended. There is nothing natural in killing one’s own father (2:2, 13-4), and yet the new order will not be a simple restoration of Duncan’s rule – something has been lost forever.

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1 Comment

  1. Again good comment- the natural analogy is obviously there- I wonder as well about the relevance of those who work with supranatural and by definition rebellious powers- ie witches- in this context- they afterall inspire Macbeth to go down the road to destroy Duncan.

    As a side issue given that banquo is meant to be the ancestor of the Stewarts- is it possible that his commentaries reflect a Shakespearian advice to James I

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