Why didn't Macbeth kill Malcolm and Donalbain in Macbeth?In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth had a golden opportunity to kill King Duncan because the battle was being fought near Dunsinane and...

Why didn't Macbeth kill Malcolm and Donalbain in Macbeth?

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth had a golden opportunity to kill King Duncan because the battle was being fought near Dunsinane and therefore Duncan would stay overnight in Macbeth's castle with his two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain. Malcolm was the heir apparent. Macbeth could achieve nothing simply by murdering Duncan. Malcolm would become king. If Macbeth murdered Malcolm on that same night, then Donalbain would be next in line for the throne. Why didn't Macbeth and his wife plan to kill all three at the same time? If they did have such a plan, why didn't they carry it out?

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It should be noted that Macbeth in the opening scene of Act 2 tries to draw Banquo into his conspiracy.

I dreamt last night of the three Weird Sisters.
To you they have showed some truth.

I think not of them.
Yet, when we can entreat an hour to serve,
We would spend it in some words upon that business,
If you would grant the time.

At your kind'st leisure.

If you should cleave to my consent, when 'tis,
It shall make honor for you.

So I lose none
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
I shall be counseled.

Good repose the while.

Thanks, sir. The like to you.

This is marvelous dialogue. If Banquo had shown an interest in conspiring with Macbeth, together they might have murdered Duncan and his two sons that night. Banquo makes it clear he is uncorruptible. He evidently brought up the subject of the Weird Sisters only because he is trying to find out what Macbeth might be thinking and planning.

Without Banquo's assistance, Macbeth proceeds immediately to murder Duncan. Only a couple of lines after Banquo says, "Thanks, sir. The like to you," Macbeth is saying,

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?

And he continues his famous soliloquy as he follows the dagger offstage to murder Duncan. I believe he would have preferred to murder Malcolm and Donalbain that same night but couldn't handle the job alone. For one thing, he is horrified by the bloody act of murdering Duncan. For another, he is frightened by a voice.

Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"



Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the primary reason Macbeth and Lady Macbeth left Malcolm and Donalbain out of their reckonings is that these two were not perceived as threats, either individually or together. In Shakespeare's play, all of Duncan's men expected Macbeth to be named as the next king. Duncan departed from the longstanding cultural tradition of passing the sceptre to the man who could win the support of the other lieges by appointing his eldest son as next in line for the throne, thus establishing (he thought and hoped) a perpetual tradition of primogeniture: the sceptre being passed peacefully and automatically to the eldest son.

Shakespeares's Duncan's objective was to eliminate the bloodbaths that could and often did occur as top rivals battled it out metaphorically and physically for the right to the empty throne. Even though Duncan's men would all have rallied behind Macbeth so that in all probability the passing of the king's crown would go peaceably, Duncan wanted to take his one and only chance to initiate a perpetual peaceful transfer of power by initiating primogeniture by naming Malcolm.

Two things of consequence from this relate to why Macbeth and Lady Macbeth left Malcolm and Donalbain out of their reckonings. The first is that, with Duncan gone, all the lieges would once again rally round Macbeth since Malcolm had never had anything more than an introduction as future king: he wasn't yet an established element for the men to give any heed to. The second is that while Duncan had named Malcolm, initiation of the primogeniture power-transfer had not gone so far as to specify what would happen if Malcolm could not ascend the throne: Donalbain wasn't even a factor for consideration.  

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth has just killed Duncan and has not had the opportunity to kill Duncan's sons, though Macbeth has already acknowledged the need to dispose of Malcolm—something he is aware of the day that Duncan declared Malcolm as his heir by naming him the Prince of Cumberland.

We will establish our estate upon

Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter

The Prince of Cumberland... (I.iv.33-35)

When Duncan is murdered and his body discovered, Macbeth has his hands full with the chaos that erupts. He has killed the King's guards who seem to have been involved in the plot—he has a lot of explaining to do for this because they cannot identify others involved in the plot. (This means they also cannot expose Macbeth as the murderer: hence his decision to kill them.) While Macbeth sorts out all these details, the brothers are quickly aware that without knowing who was behind the plot (for the guards would have nothing to gain themselves by killing the King), they can safely assume they will be targeted next. So each agrees that they should separate and flee.

Let's away;

Our tears are not yet brew'd… (II.iii.139-140)

Macbeth will spread the word that this implicates them in Duncan's death, but the reader knows they disappear to remove themselves from the hands of whoever murdered their father. Donalbain will not return in the play, but Malcolm, with support of England's Edward the Confessor, will face Macbeth's army on the battlefield in Scotland at the play's end.

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All of the above posts make excellent points, and I would add another-- Macbeth is a terrible strategist; allowing Malcolm and Donalbain to flee, which allows them plenty of opportunity to build numbers against Macbeth later, is a perfect example of how Macbeth's ambitious plans show a decided lack of forethought.  The perfect case in point is Duncan's murder--Macbeth is so caught up in his ambition and trying to control his feelings of guilt that he barely pays any attention to the details of how he is going to murder Duncan.  The crime scene is sloppy and nonsensical and completely unbelievable.  For example, his idea of blaming the crime on the servants was totally preposterous; anyone in the kingdom with the slightest degree of intellect or perception could see through that story.  Macbeth's plans are shallow and poorly put together.  Oh, if only he had consulted the three witches for a play-by-play set of directions...

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Malcolm and Donalbain were not as easy to kill.  Both were young (Malcolm is described as young, so Donalbain must have been really young) and probably more spry then Duncan.  Duncan might not have been suspicious, but Malcolm and Donalbain seem a bit jumpy.  They fled before their father’s corpse was even cold. 

Malcolm immediately says he is going to England.  Donalbain instantly wants to go to Ireland.

To Ireland, I; our separated fortune

Shall keep us both the safer. Where we are(160)

There's daggers in men's smiles: the near in blood,

The nearer bloody. (Act 2, Scene 3)

To me, this further demonstrates that they knew they were next and took off as soon as possible.  They knew that the plan was to kill their father and then frame them, and if that did not work, to kill them.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As others have noted, to kill Malcolm and Donalbain along with Duncan would have been an even more challenging mission for Macbeth to act upon in one night. He is scarcely able to carry out the plan to dispatch the king, let alone other nobles who would put up more of a fight during any attack.

Furthermore, Malcolm and Donalbain make effective scapegoats for the murder of their father amongst those who are skeptical of Macbeth's condemnation of the servants.

In terms of the drama, Malcolm's flight in particular assists in offering a loose end to the incident which will be neatly resolved in the final act.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would venture to say that Malcom and Donalbain were of no concern to Macbeth. They, after their father's murder, fled. Essentially, they were not around for Macbeth to murder. Initially, Macbeth did not want to even kill Duncan (it was because of pressure by Lady Macbeth and his growing ambition). That said, they did not pose a direct threat to his crown. Unlike Banquo, whose children were named in the prophecy, Duncan's sons were not brought up by the witches at first.

wordprof eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two points:  First, Shakespeare is following his sources in history--Froissart's and Holinshed's Chronicles--and secondly, this is dramaticfiction, not history--further atrocities like this would clutter an already complex dramatic view.  We have to be careful as readers when we ask why an author doesn't have something happen--why didn't Anna Karenina jump off a building?  Why didn't Hamlet get drunk? etc.