How does Shakespeare explore the nature of kingship in Macbeth?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 when the concept of kingship in Great Britain was very much up for consideration. James I had just assumed the throne after his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, died without leaving a clear line of succession. Many were concerned about the establishment of the Stuart dynasty and the end of Tudor rule. Furthermore, James was suspected to have Catholic sympathies, something that was quite divisive at the time. Many in England were also uneasy with the idea of having a Scottish-born ruler.

Amidst this background, Shakespeare set out to explore kingship and what gave a monarch legitimacy. When the play begins, Duncan is the king of Scotland. He is kind and respected by his subjects. He rewards their loyalty. However, he fails to remain the king because he is too trusting of Macbeth and is murdered. Macbeth is the opposite of Duncan in that he is paranoid, tyrannical, and cruel. Both kings meet a violent end. Shakespeare invites his audience to consider what makes these two kings different. Considering that they both meet similar ends, we have to ask if one was a more successful king than the other.

Shakespeare also explores the notion of the Divine Right of Kings. This was the long-held belief that monarchs were given their legitimacy by God. This was an important way for monarchs to hold on to power. It helped prevent people from thinking that a king could simply be overthrown and a new one crowned. Duncan has the divine right to rule. By killing him and taking the throne, Macbeth violates divine will as is duly punished.

Shakespeare was a supporter of King James. The witches' prophesy that Banquo will sire a line of future kings helps make the point that the Stuarts are destined to rule, as James was a descendant of Banquo. Just a year before this play was written, the infamous Gunpowder Plot nearly killed the king and members of Parliament. The conspirators were captured, tortured, and executed. Shakespeare wanted to make the point that anyone who would seek to overthrow divinely appointed rulers will be punished in life as well as after they die. Even Macbeth realizes this. As he is considering his plans to murder Duncan, Macbeth says,

But in these cases / We still have judgment here, that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague th’ inventor. (act 1, scene 7, lines 7-10)

Macbeth recognizes that Duncan is the rightful king. If he commits regicide, he will be punished by those loyal to Duncan and then by God. Shakespeare is making the point that if anyone were to actually kill King James, they won't hold on to power long because James' supported will simply overthrow any pretender to the throne.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shakespeare explore the misuse of power in Macbeth?

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth greatly abuse and misuse their power in the play. Because of the confidence that they both have in the witches prophecies, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth basically go on a killing spree to ensure that they maintain the...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

new positions they have received. It starts with the killing of Duncan, and continues to snowball with the killings of Banquo andMacduff's family. Furthermore, the innocent are the ones that suffer the most. Macduff's family, Banquo, and Banquo's son (who they try and fail to kill) are all innocent parties caught in the crossfires. Duncan's soldiers are put to death because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth frame them for the murders, and his sons have to flee to keep from being killed themselves. Everyone in the play is directly impacted by the power-hungry Macbeth family, and everyone suffers from his ambitious rise to power. Truly, the misuse of power affects everyone in the play.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shakespeare present ideas of power in Macbeth?

In Macbeth, Shakespeare seems to be showing us that the effort required to attain power, no matter how difficult attaining that power might be, is significantly less than the effort required to keep that power.

Within minutes of killing Duncan, Macbeth faces the first of many challenges to the power he believes he's on his way to acquiring.

In the excitement of watching Macbeth accede to Lady Macbeth's urgings and kill Duncan, the audience assumes that when Macbeth kills Duncan, Macbeth becomes king. The audience forgets that killing Duncan is just the first step on Macbeth's way to becoming king.

In act 1, scene 4, after the battle in which Macbeth fought so bravely, Duncan gathers his nobles together to tell them that he's naming his son, Malcolm, as heir to his throne. Even while he's contemplating killing Duncan early in the play, Macbeth knows that he'll have to do more than kill Duncan to become King.

MACBETH: The Prince of Cumberland! [Malcolm]. That is a stepOn which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,For in my way it lies (1.4.55–57).

After Duncan is found dead by Macduff, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to keep suspicion for Duncan's death from falling on Macbeth. It's not until Malcolm and Donalbain walk into the scene that the audience is reminded that Duncan's sons stand in the way of Macbeth acquiring the throne.

However, Malcolm and Donalbain make it easy for Macbeth by fleeing the country, hoping to avoid their father's fate, and Macbeth assumes the throne in Malcolm's absence.

An added benefit to Macbeth is that by leaving the country so soon after Duncan's death, Malcolm and Donalbain have brought suspicion for Duncan's death on themselves and away from Macbeth.

MACDUFF: Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's two sons,Are stol'n away and fled, which puts upon themSuspicion of the deed (2.4.33–35).

Macbeth realizes that simply becoming king isn't enough. He has to stay king.

MACBETH: To be thus is nothing,But to be safely thus (3.1.52–53).

Macbeth hasn't forgotten the Witches' prophecy to Banquo that although Banquo would not be king himself, his descendants would become kings.

MACBETH: Our fears in BanquoStick deep . . . There is none but heWhose being I do fear . . . He chid the sisters,When first they put the name of King upon me,And bade them speak to him; then prophet-likeThey hail'd him father to a line of kings:Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown (65)And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,No son of mine succeeding (3.1.53–68).

Macbeth arranges for murderers to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, to rid himself of anyone in Banquo's line who might rise up against him.

Macbeth confides his fears to Lady Macbeth.

MACBETH: O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!Thou know'st that Banquo and his Fleance lives (3.2.40–41).

Macbeth is happy to learn that Banquo has been killed, but Fleance escaped.

MACBETH: Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect,Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,As broad and general as the casing air:But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound inTo saucy doubts and fears (3.4.23–27).

Macbeth rationalizes that for now, Fleance is not a threat, but the thought of Fleance challenging him for the throne is a constant reminder of how insecure his throne really is.

Soon, another, more pressing threat to his throne arises. Macduff is raising an army against Macbeth. Macbeth goes to the Witches and demands answers to his questions.

The Witches conjure up apparitions, and the first thing that the apparitions tell Macbeth is, "Beware Macduff" (4.1.78–79).

Macbeth is well aware that Macduff is to be feared, but he puts that warning aside when other apparitions tell him that "none of woman born" can harm him, and that he "shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him" (–105).

Macbeth is in fear for his throne and in fear of his life. In his desperation, he hears what he wants to hear. He ignores the most important admonition to "beware Macduff" and relies instead on the false hope given to him by the the other apparitions.

The power that Macbeth usurped from Duncan has not allowed him to enjoy even a moment's peace. He's had to fight continually to keep his power until he paid the ultimate price for his treachery at the hand of one who was "none of woman born."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shakespeare present ideas of power in Macbeth?

Shakespeare presents power as a potentially corrupting influence. It is as though the Weird Sisters held the possibility of power out to Macbeth in order to see what he would do to acquire it. The response, from a man who many agree to be a good one, is so shocking, his descent into corruption so swift, as to amaze his friends and even his wife.

Lady Macbeth is likewise corrupted by the influence of power. She is so unused to doing evil things that she must actually pray for supernatural assistance to do so. Nevertheless, the opportunity to be queen is too compelling to pass up, and she jumps to the idea of murdering Duncan much faster than her husband does. Power does not have to corrupt, but it clearly can, changing a loving and equal marriage into a sham and a good man into a monster.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shakespeare present ideas of power in Macbeth?

Power is usually considered to be one of the primary themes in William Shakespeare's play Macbeth. Shakespeare looks at several important aspects of power over the course of the play.

1. How is power acquired?

Macbeth ascends to the throne through deceit, manipulation, and violence. Power is not just handed over to him; he has to trick people, then act with ruthless savagery.

2. How is power maintained?

Gaining power is the first problem, but holding on to it is an equally daunting task. Macbeth continues to use violence to frighten and eliminate his opposition. He kills his friend Banquo, then slaughters Macduff's wife and children. For awhile, he holds his power through fear of violent reprisals.

3. What are the effects of the actions needed to gain and hold power?

Shakespeare is most interested in how the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth affect them psychologically. Lady Macbeth begins to suffer guilt over their acts, as she sleepwalks and sees imaginary blood on her hands. Macbeth loses his desire to live, as evidenced by one of the most famous soliloquys from the play:

Life is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

He has the power he dreamed of, but finds that in the end it leads to a meaningless existence because of the horrible things he has had to do to keep it. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Shakespeare explore the relationship between gender and power in Macbeth?

In Macbeth the relationship between gender and power is best shown through the relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  When Lady Macbeth receives word from her husband about the prophecy and his promotion, Lady Macbeth reflects upon Macbeth's character.  She knows that he is ambitious, yet she also thinks that he does not have the gumption to go after what he wants.  She says, "unsex me here" to suggest that she has the strength her husband lacks and is unfortunately held back by the conventions of women's behavior.  After the pair execute their plan and murder King Duncan, Lady Macbeth chides her husband for fearing that someone will uncover their crime.  She tells him that he is behaving like a woman.  These situations suggest that power is located in a masculine realm.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is power misused in Macbeth?  

In Macbeth, Macbeth is taken over by greed and he abuses his power as king.  Ultimately, Macbeth fears the verity of the witches' prophecy, which states that Macbeth will be king but that he will not be father to a line of kings as will Banquo.  As a result, Macbeth is quite insecure in his position as king, so he goes to extreme measures to try to gain a sense of security.  As king, he is able to wield his power to get others to do his bidding.  For example, he threatens two men to kill Banquo and Fleance, and the men feel that they have no choice but to comply with Macbeth's orders.  Macbeth uses his power to have other people murdered, like Macduff's entire family and court, to cover up his initial crime of killing Duncan and to try to get out of the snare of the witches' prophecy.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on