“Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope/ The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence/ The life o’ th’ building” – Macbeth: Act II, scene III
Perhaps the fundamental theme Shakespeare explores in Macbeth is the difference between good kingship and bad. In it, Shakespeare illustrates what makes a king a good ruler and what makes him a poor ruler. Unlike Machiavelli, Shakespeare comes down on the side of the personal character or morals—the virtue—by which the king lives as the definitive attribute of the good monarch.
Shakespeare’s Jacobean audiences were firm believers in the Divine Right of Kings, which asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. When Macbeth murders King Duncan, it’s not just treason, it’s a disruption of Godly rule, causing profound and irreversible chaos.
The regicide which starts Macbeth on his reign makes it impossible for him to be a good king in Shakespeare’s eyes, because it forces him down an immoral path. He must be always looking over his shoulder fearfully—fearful that he be betrayed by someone who suspects the truth, and moreover fearful that a rival will do to him what he did to Duncan. Macbeth becomes increasingly tyrannical, cutting down all obstacles in his way and bent on reckless bloodshed.
In contrast, Malcolm, Duncan’s eldest son, represents the good king. He is “meek,” by which Shakespeare means gentle and good to those beneath him, he is honest, and he does not give in to his passions and lusts. He is self-controlled and puts the needs of his people first.
Modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays focusing on tyranny often draw parallels with today’s political figures – the Bridge Theatre’s Trumpian Julius Caesar comes to mind – showing his portrayals of unbridled political ambition and misuse of power are as strong as ever. David Greig’s “sequel” to Macbeth, 2010’s Dunsinane, uses the backdrop of civil war and the installation of leaders by foreign invading powers to critique the Iraq war.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare makes a strong case for the prosperity of a country and its citizens depending on the justice, mercy, and overall moral virtue of its king.