Duncan's Deceptions in Act I (I)
Bill Long 7/20/05
Misjudging People and Places
What is the virtue of being a king if you can't tell whether your subordinates are really loyal to you? What is the value of royalty when you can't "read" the signs all around you that your life and throne are held precariously? The issue that must stalk the rich and the royal is whether they are in fact being deceived by people; whether palace coups are always underway; whether people small and great are taking advantage of them; whether the nodding heads and compliant words reflect an inner attitude of satisfaction or a barely suppressed rage that, when given the opportunity, will explode in fury. If, as the Apostle Paul says, God has so arranged the members in the body so that they must work together in order for the entire body to function, so it might equally be true that God has arranged social relations in the state so that no one is spared anxiety and fear.
And maybe one of the tragic lessons of Shakespeare's portrait of Duncan in Act I of Macbeth is that the King who lives from the heart, who lives with gratitude and confidence and trust in his subordinates, theeby opens himself to the most ghastly betrayal and death. For Duncan was a man who, above all, trusted his subordinates.
The Trusting Duncan
Duncan is betrayed in Act I by two people whom he trusted: Cawdor and Macbeth. We don't know much about the former or why he betrayed his sovereign, but we do know that he was captured in the revolt and put to death. The lines describing Cawdor's death are memorable. Malcolm, the future king, says:
"That very frankly he confess'd his treasons,/ Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth/ A deep repentance. Nothing in his life/ Became him like the leaving it: he died/ As one that had been studied in his death./ To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd,/ As 'twere a careless trifle" (1.4.5-11).
Malcolm reports on the traitor's transparency at death, even though he was not so in revolt. Duncan responds with a thought that runs throughout the play: the deceptiveness of appearances.
"There's no art/ To find the mind's construction in the face:/ He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust" (1.4.11-14).
That is, 'you can't figure out a person's disposition just by examining the face.' With this as his philosophy, how then did Duncan get it so wrong? Not a clue is given, but I think it relates to two things. First, is his penchant of speaking in unchecked superlatives, and second is his dependence on "reports."
a) Hyperbolic Language
Immediately after Duncan says these words, Macbeth enters. Irony abouds, of course, because right at the time when Duncan admits that appearances are deceiving there appears the one whose appearance will next deceive the King. But the King lets down his guard immediately. He effuses:
"O worthiest cousin!/ The sin of my ingratitude even now/ Was heavy on me. Thou are so far before,/ That swiftest wing of recompense is slow/ To overtake thee" (1.4.14-18).
He goes on to say that "more is thy due than more than all can pay." Macbeth is indeed, "a peerless kinsman" (1.4.58). Duncan's enthusiam is explicable, of course, since Macbeth has just saved his kingship, but when Duncan goes on to speak of "my plenteous joys,/ Wanton [i.e, unrestrained] in fulness" (1.4.33-34), we recognize a person of incautious temperament who hasn't quite learned the lesson of the rebellion. Perhaps his problem is that he trusts in his own goodness. Indeed Macbeth will later try to draw back from the plot to assassinate Duncan because "this Duncan/ hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/ So clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd, against/ The deep damnation of his taking-off" (1.7.16-20).
The great blindness of the righteous and good is that they think their goodness should absolve them from the injustices practiced by others. But this isn't the way life works. Quite the contrary. The Billy Budd's of this world are put to death; the ones who do nothing but extend themselves in kindness to others are discomfited; the "innocent" become the victims of the unexplored phobias and manias of others. Even while Duncan is singing the praises of his host and gracing them with his presence, they are plotting his demise (1.7).
b) Reliance on Reports
This point may have nothing to commend it, but it was striking to me that on two early occasions where the King misjudges, it is in the context of reports received from second and third-hand sources about what is happening. The Captain gives the report of Cawdor's treachery in 1.2. Malcolm gives the report of Cawdor's death in 1.4. But the latter report is "double-hearsay," as we say in law. Malcolm reports on something that has been reported to him. Thus, the King is pretty far distant from the springs of the "primary text," from the sources of life itself. I wonder sometimes if the reliance on reports, the dependence on how others see the world, is one of the sources of the King's and our own undoing.
What is it like to live in dependence on "reports?" It means that you live a life deceived. You are deceived because you think that the report gets you much closer to reality, but, in fact, the report twists or shapes the reality that it describes so that you get a mediated picture, a twisted view, even a gnarled take on an issue. When I served on the Board of a community college in the 1980s, my life was full of reports about students and funding and trends and so many things. I thought I was so incredibly informed about the world and life at the college. Indeed, I probably knew more than some people about various things, but that knowledge lulled me into thinking I knew much more than I did. Reliance on reports tends to relax, rather than hone, our critical instincts. Maybe it did this too for Duncan.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long