Macbeth and Duncan are compared to one another in Macbeth in terms of their suitability to be king. In the Holinshed chronicles Duncan is figured as unable to rule effectively, and Shakespeare uses this in Act 1 Scene 7 as Macbeth’s justification of his actions: "Duncan/ Hath borne his faculties so meek [...] that his virtues/ Will plead like angels" (1.7.16).Duncan is portrayed as virtuous, but this is inappropriate for a king; given the internecine nature of Duncan’s society, he seems weak and incapable of controlling his thanes effectively. Initially reluctant to kill Duncan, Shakespeare contrasts two sides of Macbeth’s personality as ambition competes with his horror at what he is contemplating: "I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition" (1.7.25). He is a man capable of great brutality, evidenced by the opening scene of the play, but he also has an acute moral sense of right and wrong, acknowledging that he has no reason to murder Duncan except his own ambition. This acknowledgement of the irresistible desire for power speaks to a ruthless nature which Macbeth does not recognise in Duncan. It is for the audience to evaluate whether Duncan’s weakness legitimises Macbeth’s regicide.
Courage and masculinity are framed as positive kingly values in Macbeth, but Macbeth’s masculinity is called into question in his discourse with Lady Macbeth. This compels the audience to re-evaluate their perceptions of his character as ambitious and more powerful than Duncan. The role of Lady Macbeth is pivotal, with some productions giving agency for murder to Macbeth while others frame Lady Macbeth as the force persuading Macbeth to carry out the murder. If Macbeth is portrayed as inherently good but corrupted by his wife, Lady Macbeth needs to be a dominant figure, convincing the audience that she is giving him the courage he needs: "When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man." (1.7.49). The ambiguity of “man” plays on the evaluation of Macbeth’s morals, questioning whether Lady Macbeth is referring to her husband living up to the expectations of decent human conduct, or the masculine trait of courage. By questioning Macbeth’s masculinity, Lady Macbeth is implicitly forcing him to prove himself a man through murdering Duncan. In the text Lady Macbeth is portrayed as more masculine than her husband as he tells her to "Bring forth men-children only:/ For thy undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males." (1.7.73). This reassertion of male qualities emphasises the almost inverted gender roles the scene can convey. The idea of Macbeth being controlled by his wife undermines any concept of him as a powerful and forceful king, instead positing him as the puppet of a wife whose ambitions render her inhuman in her desire for murder.
Ultimately the idea of motivation comes to the fore in the audience’s evaluation of Macbeth’s actions. The actors, in their portrayals of the couple interacting, has the greatest impact on how Macbeth’s kingly qualities are perceived: whether his courage derives from his wife’s persuasion, or whether he is inherently evil and prepared for violence from the start.
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