Discuss the development of loyalty and betrayal in Macbeth.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is depicted as a loyal, courageous soldier who supports King Duncan and defends Scotland against opposing armies. King Duncan is extremely grateful for Macbeth 's impressive performance on the battlefield and refers to him as his "valiant cousin" and "Worthy gentleman." King Duncan proceeds to give Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor for his performance in battle and views him as a noble, trustworthy servant. Despite Macbeth's loyalty to King Duncan, he immediately begins to entertain thoughts of treachery and betrayal after a prophecy from the Three Witches is...

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In Act 1 Duncan waits apprehensively for news of the outcome of the battle between his army, led by Macbeth and Banquo, and the rebellious Macdonwald allied with the King of Norway. When the wounded sargeant delivers a summary of Macbeth and Banquo's heroics, Duncan declares Macbeth a "valiant cousin and worthy gentleman." Not long after Ross arrives to confirm the sargeant's report. Duncan wastes no time rewarding Macbeth by making him Thane of Cawdor, but he is receiving a traitor's name. Macbeth and Banquo both speak heartfelt speeches declaring their loyalty to Duncan and willingness to serve him. What Duncan does know is that Macbeth was mesmerized by the witches' earlier prediction that he would become Thane of Cawdor and king. So when Duncan fulfills one of the witches's prophecies, Macbeth speaks an aside in which he envisions murdering his king, and that image speed up his heart rate and "unfixes his hair." Already contemplating treason, he sends his wife a letter detailing his meeting with the witches and Duncan's decisions. Lady Macbeth immediately understands what is written between the lines, and determines that she will manipulate her husband, who is "too full of the milk of human kindness" to commit a treasonous murder. At this point she is the less loyal of the two of them, and wishes to be unsexed and feel no remorse so she can commit the murder. When Macbeth returns from battle, their talk is laced with innuendo, but she is more traitorous, having already decided what they will do when Duncan enters their castle that night. The progression from Macbeth's loyalty to betrayal is very quick, for before Act II is half finished he and his wife are on the same page about the murder.