Duncan, Macbeth, and the Thane of Cawdor

By Hunt, Maurice | Studies in the Humanities, June-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Duncan, Macbeth, and the Thane of Cawdor


Hunt, Maurice, Studies in the Humanities


Cursory study of Shakespeare's representations throughout the canon of inherited or conferred titles conveys the impression of a disturbing disjunction between them and their bearer's intrinsic worth. Late in I Henry VI, Sir William Lucy asks,

But where's the great Alcides of the field,
Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,
Created for his rare success in arms
Great Earl of Wexford, Waterford, and Valence,
Lord Talbot of Goodrich and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton,
Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of Sheffield,
The thrice-victorious Lord of Falconbridge,
Knight of the noble order of Saint George,
Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece,
Great Marshal to Henry the Sixth
Of all his wars within the realm of France? (1) (IV. vii. 60-71)

Joan la Pucelle undercuts this tremendous construction of a noble warrior by saying, "Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles/ Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet" (IV. vii. 75-76). Playgoers experience this bathos involving title in milder forms when in Twelfth Night Maria's forged letter forever thwarts Malvolio's wish "[t]o be Count Malvolio" (II. v. 34) and when in The Tempest Stephano's and Trinculo's thick-wittedness discredits for audiences Stephano's pronouncement that on the island he and Miranda "will be king and queen--save Our Graces!--and Trinculo and [Caliban] shall be viceroys" (III. ii. 108-9). Involved in a Shakespearean disjunction of title and bearer's worth is the power of title to transform the bearer's character. In The Winter's Tale, Perdita, thought to be a shepherd's daughter, conveys a mysterious majesty of appearance and gesture. At least she does so in Polixenes' eyes (IV. iv. 156-59). But onstage spectators, while noting this majesty, credit it only when they know for sure that she is royalty, that she is in fact the Princess of Sicilia (V. ii. 33-40). In this case, a title conclusively transforms its bearer's character in the minds of others.

Not surprisingly, this transformative effect also can occur within the mind of a title's bearer. In Coriolanus, the Roman general Cominius adds the honorific title "Coriolanus" to the warrior Caius Marcius' s name, making "Caius Marcius Coriolanus" an appellation testifying to the valor of the Roman who single-handedly overcame the Voiscian city, Corioles (I. ix. 5765, II. i. 161-65). This conferred title, meant to dignify, seems a curse, however. Rome's banishment of Caius Marcius Coriolanus negatively revalues the latter surname and consequently the warrior's sense of his own worth. Revealing himself in the Voiscian city, Antium, to his adversary, Aufidius, the exiled protagonist announces,

My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done
To thee particularly and to all the Volsces
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname, Coriolanus. (IV. v. 70-73)

Caius Marcius now equates his entitlement with misery and the depletion of his self--with bloody loss--rather than with grand heroism:

             The painful service,
The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country are requited
But with that surname--a good memory,
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me. (IV. v. 73-78)

Caius Marcius acts out the dehumanization of himself now associated in his mind with his entitlement by urging Aufidius either to use him as a sword against his native city, Rome, or to slit his throat (IV. v. 83-106). In his reappraisal of himself, he amounts to little more than a convenient tool of war.

Choosing to divest himself of a king's title, Richard, in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, predicts the metamorphic effect that a revolution of title can have upon human identity. "I have no name, no title," self-deposed Richard announces, "No, not that name was given me at the font,/ But 'tis usurped" (IV. i. 256-58). Reduced, Richard tragically discovers that, by giving up his title, he devolves to the status of unaccommodated man, who must be "pleased" with "nothing," "till he be eased/ With being nothing" (V. …

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