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A King is a King, All the Same: The Twisted Truth of Macbeth’s Right to Survive

by Josina Reaves on July 27, 2012
Holywell Cemetery, by Josina Reaves

A little over a year ago, I was completing work on my degree, a Master of Letters degree in Early Modern Drama. The final hurdle was a viva, a conversation with the two professors who had read my exam paper and who were going to make me defend every idea I had pounded out in the course of three hours.

At one point, the conversation came around to my contention that Macbeth had deserved his tragedy because he had failed to meet a few of the basic traits of manhood, as defined in early modern England. Specifically, he did not have a family to raise into Christian adulthood and could not, thereby, secure the very crown he had stolen with a bloodline.

My professor then wondered why it wasn’t easier to bring about his end. Why couldn’t Macduff have been shifted into place as a rightful victor without all of the sneaking off to England to bring Malcolm back instead? My response came in a flash of insight, not unlike the kind Jonah Lehrer mentions in his book Imagine.

“Macbeth was a king—wrongfully, perhaps, but anointed and sceptered and enthroned—so killing him would as horrifying a prospect as killing Duncan had been. Even Henry Bolingbroke had to go through the motions of removing Richard II’s entitlements before he could have him murdered,” I said.

My professor’s response was swift and maiming: “I have never heard anybody compare Macbeth to Richard II like that before, by which I mean, I think it must be wrong.”

Well, okay, then. At that point, I thought I could see my degree being washed down the drain, but after a few more squirmy minutes, I was let off the hook and allowed to get my long-awaited diploma.

And yet, I never got over the comment. More importantly, I never got over the notion that I was right. Here’s why.

From a certain perspective, Macduff’s decision to travel to England to find Malcolm is more like something Hamlet would do than great strategic thinking from a mighty Scot. He has suspicions about the newly anointed king that cause him sleepless nights, yet instead of rousing an army of kinsmen, all likely to be suspicious themselves, and charging up to the castle to demand a recount, he slips off to England to bring back the lad who himself slipped off to England like a thief. Why? Sure, Malcolm had been named as Duncan’s heir shortly before the king’s untimely death, but Malcolm had shown no firm interest in the throne by his unwillingness to stand forth and claim it at his father’s death. His fear that he might be suspected of the murder was no more reasonable than his choice to leave his country without a king when it needed one most. The throne was his by right of election, regardless of rumor or suspicion, and knowing he had committed no murder should have given him surer footing on the throne.

Macduff, likewise, should have shunned a boy who could so easily abandon his duty, but he holds the right of election as a sacred bond. Therefore, wouldn’t he also honor and fear the power of God’s choice in allowing Macbeth to accede to the throne? If Malcolm should be sought as the rightful heir to the throne, that could only be important to someone who recognizes the validity of the possession of the throne. No upstart should march in there and snatch away a crown that does not belong to him, Macduff seems to say.

In this same vein, Henry Bolingbroke refuses to assume full command of the already “sceptered isle” until after Richard II has passed said scepter to him willingly. Though he knows Richard is only obliging because he has already lost the allegiance of every lord and vassal in his land, Bolingbroke still requires the ceremony because he cannot bring himself to commit regicide, only homicide. Richard, for all of his weakness and avarice, is fearsome as a king, and while he can be made to kneel and submit, he cannot be killed without consequences. Macduff knows this of Macbeth as well. Though he will kill him eventually, he will do so in the service of the heir, righting a wrong rather than committing one.

This idea could translate just as easily to Hamlet’s dis-ease about killing Claudius. Regicide is one of those felonies, speaking relatively, that crosses into federal laws. And you don’t want to mess with those federal felonies.

Now, that may be a bold analogy, my friends, but just because no one ever made it before, doesn’t make it wrong.

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