King Duncan is a fictional character from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He is a rather stupid man who creates dramatic, verbal, and situational irony through his trusting nature. Upon arriving at Dunsinane, Macbeth’s castle, he announces that: “this castle has a pleasant air.” In fact, the inhabitants of the castle are planning to kill him and steal his crown.

He is particularly gullible since he has been hoodwinked before by MacDonwald, the traitor who Macbeth kills. When Macbeth kills him, he inherets his position. Since clothing is a symbol for social status in Macbeth, it is telling that Macbeth calls these honours "borrowed robes."

After MacDonwald's betrayal, Duncan tells Macbeth: “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. He (MacDonwald) was a gentleman in whom I placed an absolute trust.” After this verbally ironic phrase, Duncan places an absolute trust in Macbeth, who kills him.

King Duncan
Or: A Good Place to Store Your Knives

William Shakespeare wrote a great deal of historical fiction. His chronicles of British kings--the histories-- are rife with inaccuracy, placing Exeters where there were only Nothumberlands, or Johns of Gaunt where there wasn't anybody at all. The Scottish play is no different.

But MacBeth, you protest, isn't a history. It's a tragedy. Greed, corruption, murder, manipulation--you know. Politics. No one counts it as a history.

That is true. Nevertheless, many of its characters did exist; they are fictionalized--not fictional. King Duncan was a real king. And MacBeth deserves to have his name cleared.

The Story So Far...

Before Duncan I, there was Malcolm II. He stood upon the Stone of Destiny in 1005, and sat upon the Scottish throne until 1034, though periodically standing up again to stretch his legs and kill a few people, as kings do. As the last in the direct male line from Kenneth McAlpine, who at least on paper united the Picts and the Scots back in 843, Malcolm had to do a bit to keep things together in practical terms.

He had three daughters, one of whom, Bethoc--rolls off the tongue, that, doesn't it?--exchanged rings with the Abbot of Dunkeld. The Abbot had a son--our man Duncan, whom Malcolm made King of Cumbria in 1018.

Seems like rather a nice gesture to make to your grandson by marriage, to be made a king. My grandfather gave me sweaters.

Out, Out, Damned Scot

On his succession to the throne of Alba, ie. the Greater Scotland area--Duncan united the kingdoms, and was now in control of everything from Lothian to Northumbria, less a few Norse jarldoms. But as is often the case, a few people took issue with the succession.

According to some historical accounts, Malcolm II was murdered, and his throne seized by Duncan amidst the confusion.

I've always wondered what that meant, 'amidst the confusion.' As if all one had to do to be King was be the first to call it. 'Shotgun!'

Now then. Thorfinn, the Jarl of Orkney and Caithness, was a first cousin to Duncan, and like him, had been keeping one eye on the throne and another on Macbeth, the mormaer of Moray. MacBeth was another first cousin, son to another of Malcom's daughters, and also related through his wife Gruoch, whom you know as the rather overbearing and none-too-full-of-the-milk-'o-human-kindness Lady MacBeth. She was the widowed granddaughter of King Kenneth III. Historically, her gripe is accurate; she had a decent claim to becoming Queen, as Malcolm had tossed out the established tanaise system like so many cabers.

So two strong leaders wanted Duncan removed, and both had claims to the throne that were at least as legitimate as Duncan's, if not more so. In medieval times, certainly enough reason to kill him. But there's more.

Slam Duncan

Duncan, as a king, left a bit to be desired. He was not the kind, naive, sweet old man of Shakespeare's imagination.

The reason Gruoch was a widow is probably because Duncan had her husband killed in order to secure the throne for himself, and militarily, he couldn't fight his way out of a paper bagpipe. Duncan enjoyed no overwhelming successes on the field, losing mightily in his attempts to take Caithness and Durham in 1039. All his forays into England met with equal failure.

He also tried to assert the as of yet unrecognized successional system of primogeniture through his own son Malcolm, by giving him the province of Cumbria. The perpetual inheritance of land and title through the eldest male of the line was not yet practiced in Scotland, and so both Duncan's claim to the throne as well as his son's were hotly contested.

Duncan was a young, war-inclined, mediocre king with a weak claim to the throne, under the best of circumstances.

Under the worst of circumstances, he was killed in battle --not in bed--by the combined armies of Thorfinn and MacBeth in August 1040, at Elgin.

A round of whisky on me to:

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