Is Malcolm the Ideal King?

Shakespeare’s exploration of kingship in Macbeth

Writing at the beginning of the 17th century, shortly after James I’s succession to the English throne following the childless reign of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare explores the importance of secure monarchy in Macbeth. After a history of civil war and disputes over monarchy, a smooth transition of power was a relief to the country.

In the play, Shakespeare creates several examples of kingship, which finally focus on Malcolm as he takes the crown of Scotland at the end of the play. His final speech restores order to the troubled kingdom; for that speech to be persuasive, Malcolm needs to be considered to be a good king, even though he has just been crowned.

Shakespeare begins that characterisation early in the action, when Duncan pronounces that Malcolm will be his successor and Prince of Cumberland. In 11th century Scotland, there was no Divine Right of kings, making Duncan’s appointment important. Despite Macbeth’s heroism in the war against the rebels, Duncan chooses his son rather than the war hero, making Malcolm ‘a step’ which Macbeth must ‘o’er leap’ if he is to become king. While the audience has not had much chance to get to know Malcolm, Shakespeare perhaps shows his wisdom in fleeing after Duncan’s murder; he is alert enough to realise that his ‘safest way’ is to avoid murder himself and escape.

The Qualities of Kingship

After this point in Act 2, Shakespeare maintains Malcolm’s absence from the play, so that the audience still knows very little about him when he is reintroduced in Act 4 Scene 3. This is a crucial scene in Shakespeare’s exploration of the qualities of kingship, as Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland by at first denying those qualities. With such little knowledge of his character, the audience might be as surprised as Macduff at Malcolm’s speeches. He lists indiscriminatingly all the women who would be subject to his ‘lust’: ‘Your wives, your daughters, / Your matrons and your maids’. By including close family members, young and old, this is particularly shocking. He also claims a ‘stanchless avarice’ which would rob citizens of their ‘lands’ and ‘jewels’, creating an image of an insatiable greed for ‘wealth’. He is using these ideas to compare with adjectives he applies to Macbeth, including ‘bloody’, ‘avaricious’ and ‘malicious’, each of which defines a vice. By this description of Macbeth, and Malcolm’s claims about his own character, Shakespeare is defining the opposite of an ideal king – one who uses absolute power corruptly, for selfish ends. It is a version of kingship which Macduff finally rejects, saying that such a king is not only not ‘fit to govern’, but ‘not to live’. At this point, the play explicitly rejects tyrannical monarchy.

Shakespeare builds on this rejection with Malcolm’s denial of his claims once he is sure of Macduff’s loyalty to his country. His list of kingly virtues, which he formerly denied, form the basis of Shakespeare’s suggestions of ideal kingship. They include attributes which could not be associated with Macbeth, such as ‘justice’ and ‘stableness’, while ‘devotion’ is also listed, which can be associated in the play with both Duncan and Edward of England. The religious connotations of this word could be connected with the Divine Right of kings; although not directly relevant to 11th century Scotland, the newly crowned King James was a keen promoter of the idea, so the association would be meaningful to Shakespeare’s audience. Malcolm also lists ‘mercy’ and ‘lowliness’ among the virtues. Not only are such terms antithetical to Macbeth, they suggest a different kind of kingship altogether, which is confirmed when Malcolm says to Macduff that he is ‘Thine and my poor country’s to command.’ Rather than taking imperative ‘command’, Shakespeare’s use of the passive voice makes Malcolm the subject of command, presenting an idea of kingship as service to the country, rather than rule over it.

Hail, King of Scotland

The qualities of Malcolm’s actual kingship lie outside the plot of the play, but Shakespeare uses the final moments to give a taster of it. In what would be a striking verbal and visual moment on stage, Malcolm is juxtaposed with the severed head of the defeated Macbeth, while his followers cry ‘Hail, King of Scotland’, giving him that formal title and showing their allegiance, most likely accompanied by kneeling in front of him. That open acknowledgement of loyalty is a sign of other characters’ faith in Malcolm. Shakespeare also gives him the final, order-restoring speech of the play. He shows close association with his followers by calling them ‘My thanes and kinsmen’ and signals his debt to God by claiming his success is ‘by grace of Grace’, while the perfect iambic pentameter of ‘We will perform in measure, time, and place’ also uses the vocabulary of order and control to contrast with the rule of the ‘dead butcher’.

Much of Shakespeare’s character development of Malcolm happens off stage during his absence in England, but ultimately he is presented as a foil to Macbeth, and associated with the virtues of ideal kingship.