Malcom describes Cawdor's last moments before execution. What is Duncan's reply?

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In act 1, scene 4, King Duncan asks his son if the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed. Malcolm replies by telling his father that he spoke to someone who witnessed the former Thane of Cawdor's execution and said that Cawdor openly confessed to committing treason. The former Thane...

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In act 1, scene 4, King Duncan asks his son if the former Thane of Cawdor has been executed. Malcolm replies by telling his father that he spoke to someone who witnessed the former Thane of Cawdor's execution and said that Cawdor openly confessed to committing treason. The former Thane of Cawdor also repented for his sins and begged for King Duncan's forgiveness. Malcolm also tells his father,

He [Cawdor] died

As one that had been studied in his death

To throw away the dearest thing he owed

As ’twere a careless trifle. (1.4.8-11)

Essentially, the former Thane of Cawdor died honorably by confessing to his sins and asking for the king to forgive his treachery. After listening to Malcolm describe the former Thane of Cawdor's death, King Duncan comments on the ease in which a person can disguise their genuine intentions and laments at his inability to read the former Thane of Cawdor's mind. Shortly after commenting on people's capacity for dissembling, Macbeth enters the scene and King Duncan addresses him as his "worthiest cousin."

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Malcolm lets King Duncan know that Cawdor did confess his treason before he died, so th. This is good for Cawdor because they believed back then that if a person didn't confess before they died then they wouldn't be admitted to heaven. Duncan loved the Thane of Cawdor but had to have him killed for betraying him. Duncan is sad at the news, but contemplates how he did trust the man; sadly, he says, "There's no art/ To find the mind's construction in the face" (I.iv.12-13). This means that even though a person can be trusted by the smiles they give or the faithful words that they promise, but no one can determine what is going on in the mind. Friendships and relationships are tricky things, especially when one friend is tempted by power, greed and glory. Also, it is tough to catch a liar.

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Duncan's reply emphasizes the theme of appearance and reality. He states,

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

In essence, he is saying that it is impossible to determine a person's true character or motives by observing his expressions. There is no skill which can enable one to read another's thoughts. He maintains that it is on this basis that he deemed Cawdor a gentleman who he firmly believed in. Cawdor betrayed his king by supporting the rebel Macdonwald and the Norwegian Sweno by taking up arms in an attempt to usurp the Scottish throne. Since the Scottish troops had been victorious, the thane was to be executed for his treason.

It is also tragically ironic that the king had, in Scene 2, instructed Ross to greet Macbeth with the thane's title. Duncan had absolute faith in Macbeth, who supposedly showed his loyalty on the battlefields by fighting with great vigor -- slaying the traitorous Macdonwald by unseaming him from "the nave to the chops" and continuing the battle, even though the odds were against them, and achieving a hard-fought victory.

The irony lies in the fact that Macbeth, just like the preceding Thane of Cawdor, is a traitor. He purposely sets out to assassinate the king. He forced the king's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, true heirs to the throne, into self-imposed banishment and then usurped the throne.

Macbeth then betrayed his country by imposing tyrannical rule on its citizens, spreading unexpurgated mayhem, bloodthirsty savagery, and disruption throughout the land. In the process, he almost destroyed Scotland and paid for his pernicious indiscretion with his life.

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After Malcolm describes the Thane of Cawdor's behavior before he is executed for treason, Duncan replies:

 

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

 

Duncan seems to express some regret and sadness as he hears about the traitor's execution. Cawdor has faced his death sentence with admirable courage. The King acknowledges now that in his dealings with Cawdor in the past, he obviously had no "art" or skill to discern Cawdor's true character. Cawdor's "mind's construction" or true motives and plans could not be read in his facial expressions or in his surface behavior towards King Duncan. Duncan remarks thoughtfully that he absolutely trusted Cawdor, who ultimately proved unworthy of trust and was adept at hiding his true feelings and schemes as he plotted against the King. Here Duncan also reveals his weakness in reading character, a weakness that proves fatal for Duncan.

The fact that Cawdor deceives the King contributes one thread to one of the themes of the play: appearances are deceiving. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."

Later, in Act 1 scene 7, Macbeth remarks that "False face must hide what the false heart doth know" as he resolves to go forward with the plan to murder Duncan.

 

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The answer you are looking for can be found at the start of Act I, Scene 4.

In that scene, Malcolm tells Duncan that the Thane of Cawdor died well.  He begged for the king's forgiveness and apologized for what he had done (he became a traitor and helped the enemy in the battle that had just finished).

When Duncan hears this, he is not really all that impressed.  Basically, he just says there's just now way to know what a person is really like by looking at them.  He says he trusted Cawdor and that Cawdor's actions proved he was wrong to do that.

Here's the quote:

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built 290
An absolute trust.

Ironically, enough, Duncan then turns around and puts his trust in Macbeth, making him Thane of Cawdor.  That doesn't turn out so well for Duncan either...

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