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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: December ::
Absolute Scotland
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2829  Wednesday, 12 December 2001

From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Wednesday, 12 Dec 2001 00:32:43 -0500
Subject:        Absolute Scotland

>Who was important, because Macbeth's already strong claim to the throne
>was greatly strengthened by his marriage to Lady Macbeth (who is only
>called that in the "Dramatis Personae") and by being stepfather to
>Lulach.
>
>Just stirring. But so far as Shakespeare's play is concerned, the
>question is whether Shakespeare understood the Scottish system of
>tanistry. Perhaps he believed that Banquo was a historical person (not
>an invention to bolster the Stuart/"Steward" claim: see the huge chunk
>of Holinshed that is omitted from "Shakespeare's Holinshed", which poor
>Shakespeare couldn't consult.) But it does seem (to me) likely that
>Shakespeare understood that Duncan was behaving in an unconstitutional,
>or even tyrannical, fashion when he made his own son Prince of
>Cumberland. Macbeth, who is not an idiot, is staggered by this,
>precisely because the Scottish system was not based on primogeniture but
>(think of Chairmen in English departments, if you will) on rotation
>among the qualified. Rosse promises Macbeth that his new title is merely
>"an earnest of a greater Honour"--which doesn't materialise. Editors
>have always been strangely silent on this point.
>
>Best wishes, Graham Bradshaw

I agree that Lulach is enough to explain the missing infant.  But I
don't think Macbeth is shocked by Duncan's ambition to absolute status,
only its dynastic implications seem to catch him off guard.  He displays
a kind of shortsightedness (or perhaps he is benighted by Hecate's
power) as when he creeps past Malcolm sleeping peacefully in the next
room twice with daggers in his hands. While Malcolm calls his father "my
liege" and "your highness" it is in fact the Macbeths who first begin to
address Duncan extensively in the language of absolute monarchy. Macbeth
says:

        The service and the loyalty I owe,
        In doing it, pays itself.  Your Highness' part
        Is to receive our duties: and our duties
        Are to your throne and state, children and servants;
        Which do but what they should, by doing everything
        Safe toward your love and honour. 1.4.22

upon which Duncan says,

        Welcome hither:
        I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
        To make thee full of growing.

and four lines later refers to himself for the first time as "we" as he
establishes his estate upon "our eldest Malcolm"

In 1.7, Lady Macbeth says,

                                                             All our service,
        In every point twice done, and then done double [the Weird Sisters?],
        Were poor and single business, to contend
        Against those honours deep and broad, wherewith
        Your Majesty loads our house: for those of old,
        And the late dignities heap'd up to them,
        We rest your hermits.

After which Duncan again refers to himself as "we." LM then refers to
him as "your Highness" and he replies,

        Give me your hand:
        Conduct me to mine host: we love him highly,
        And shall continue our graces towards him.

The term Highness along with Majesty and certainly the royal we in his
relationship to the Thanes are signs of the transformation from elective
or rotating king, the greatest among equals to absolute monarch, a
unique and hereditary status.  This transformation (also figured in the
banquet during which Macbeth is suspended between his seat at the table
and his high throne beside the Queen and during which she refers to
standing upon order i.e. hierarchy) would not by possible for Duncan
without the extended endorsement in the language of the Macbeths.  It is
they who make his usurpation of absolute authority possible (with
Macbeth's still bloody sword standing
beside him in case any of the Thanes should object), and they are duly
rewarded for the service.  Of course they only help Duncan to a highness
they intend to usurp, but it is an absolute throne Macbeth inherits by
overleaping the step it initially places in his way.

Clifford

P.S.: I think Duncan's little pun on Banquo/Banquet points to an
understanding of the mythological origin of the character.

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