Please explain this quote from 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...

Please explain this quote from 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" (1.4.23-26)?

Expert Answers
kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To put this quote into context, King Duncan has just expressed his gratitude to Macbeth for performing so well on the battlefield and bringing to an end the rebellion of Macdonwald. This quote is a response to Duncan's gratitude and is spoken by Macbeth.

In terms of its literal meaning, Macbeth is saying that having the chance to serve King Duncan is all the reward he needs. Moreover, Macbeth believes that Duncan does not need to thank him for what he did in battle. In fact, Duncan's job is to accept Macbeth's service and loyalty since it is what Macbeth owes to him. Finally, Macbeth compares his relationship with Duncan to the relationship between a child and his parent. In his mind, serving Duncan is as natural and right as a son serving his father.

Looking deeper, this quote portrays Macbeth as the perfect Thane. Not only he is completely loyal and subservient, he expresses total gratitude to Duncan for being such a great king.

But we have to wonder just how sincere this quote really is. In the previous scene, Macbeth heard the witches prophecies and immediately began thinking about murdering Duncan so that he can take the throne for himself. Either Macbeth still feels some loyalty toward Duncan or he is trying to ensure that nobody suspects him of committing Duncan's impending murder.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

King Duncan has bestowed upon Macbeth the title Thane of Cawdor, in addition to the title he already has, as a reward for his bravery and loyal service to the crown during the battles against the rebel Macdonwald and the Norwegian king.  Macbeth was already the Thane of Glamis, and now he is Thane of Cawdor as well. 

When Macbeth arrives and sees Duncan, he greets Duncan as his friend, kinsman, and king.  Duncan expresses his gratitude to Macbeth for everything that he has done to protect Scotland, and Duncan says that he feels as though he cannot actually reward Macbeth enough for all his service.  Macbeth responds with the lines you cite, saying, 

"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."

What he means is that it is his duty to serve the crown, and this service is its own reward.  It is the king's job simply to receive the services his subjects provide because it is their duty.  Finally, he says that these duties performed by his subjects are owed to Duncan the way children owe their parents and servants owe their masters.