Character Sketch of Duncan in Macbeth
Shakespeare makes considerable alternations of Holinshed’s description of Duncan. Holinshed’s estimate of Duncan is expressed in the following remark: “The beginning of Duncan’s reign was very quiet and peaceable without any notable trouble, but after it was perceived how negligent he was in punishing offenders, many misruled persons took occasion thereof to trouble the peace and quiet state of the commonwealth.”
Shakespeare makes Duncan noble and honest in order to increase the effect of Macbeth’s crime and to intensify the tragic irony. His dramatic life is very short but he leaves a vivid impression on the readers (audience).. We cannot agree with Tillyard who says:
“Shakespeare has consciously refused to allow Duncan to become an individual.”
Macbeth gives an estimate of his character:
“Hath bore his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead, like angels trumpet tongued…..”.
Macduff says of him to Malcolm:
“Thy royal father was a sainted king”.
This estimate is corroborated in the action of the play. His praise of Macbeth is heartfelt, “O valiant cousin!” By an underlining of his main characteristic, he uses the word ‘honour’ on a few occasions – in praise of the loyalty of the wounded captain, and with unintentional irony, in praise of Lady Macbeth, the honoured hostess’. He shows concern for the wounded captain and takes quick decision in passing sentence of death on the Thane of Cawdor and awarding the title to Macbeth in recognition of his great service to the state. He is trusting and honourable, and he sets great store by honour and trust. But he is betrayed first by the thane of Cawdor and then by Macbeth.
Duncan is a noble king, and combines the qualities of humility, generosity and strength. He wishes to reward Macbeth in proportion to his achievements and thank Lady Macbeth more than he is able to. There is a strain of sentimentality in him. He is exuberant and sentimental in praising Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He is moved to tears of happiness as he greets Macbeth and Banquo. But he is firm, decisive and open in announcing that his son Malcolm will be his heir. His honesty and freedom from intrigue in a play full of treachery and intrigues are the moral focus before the murder. He is contrasted with Macbeth whose tyranny will unleash the forces of disorder and disloyalty in the country.
Duncan appears as a spiritual and royal presence. Before his murder Duncan is ever present in Macbeth’s mind, and he remembers his meekness, humility, fairness of his rule. He harps on the word hostess and kisses Lady Macbeth’s cheek in gratitude-a fine ironic touch because Lady Macbeth has already by persuading Macbeth to murder given him the kiss of death
His unsuspecting trustfulness is the cause of his undoing. He builds an absolute trust on Cawdor and he is deceived, he chooses Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as fit persons to trust and he brings his doom. He is painted in angelic terms to emphasise his ideal kingly qualities and to highlight the enormity of the crime of Macbeth. But we know almost no details about him and we have no personal interest in him. So no human sympathies are aroused at his murder and we are more interested in the murderer than in the murder.