Duncan, King of Scotland

[This is an annotated list of all appearances and all mentions of King Duncan.]



Nicholas Selby as King Duncan

Source: Explore Duncan Plays . . .


"What bloody man is that?" (1.2.1.), asks Duncan when he sees the bleeding sergeant who has news of the battle. Duncan says little in this scene, but he's the center of attention as he receives and rejoices in the news of Macbeth's defeat of the rebel Scottish forces. Also, he shows himself to be firm and decisive when he orders the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, and rewards Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




"Is execution done on Cawdor?" (1.4.1), asks the King at the opening of the scene in which he announces that his son, Malcolm, is heir to the throne, and heaps praise upon Macbeth for his victory over the rebels. Concerning the rebel Thane of Cawdor, Duncan seems more puzzled than angry. He says that he had absolute trust in Cawdor, but "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" (1.4.11-12).      [Detailed Scene Summary]




When Macbeth tells his wife that the King will leave Dunsinane "tomorrow," she exclaims, "O, never / Shall sun that morrow see!" (1.5.60-61). She means that she is determined that they will murder the King that very night.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




"This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses" (1.6.1-3), says King Duncan about Macbeth's castle. Lady Macbeth then comes out to welcome him. Later that night, she and her husband will murder him.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




As King Duncan is having dinner under his roof, Macbeth thinks hard about his planned murder. Macbeth is afraid of being caught, and "Besides, this Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off" (1.7.16-20). Later in the scene, Lady Macbeth enters and persuades Macbeth to proceed with the plan, but not because of anything than Duncan has done or not done.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




Banquo says to Macbeth, "The king's a-bed: / He hath been in unusual pleasure, and / Sent forth great largess to your offices" (2.1.12-14). In other words, Duncan, now in bed, feels that he has been royally entertained and sent tips to the cooks and waiters. He also gave Banquo a diamond to give to Lady Macbeth, to thank her for being a gracious hostess. Ironically, the next mention of the King in this scene is at the end, when Macbeth says, "the bell invites me. / Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell" (2.1.62-64). Then he goes to murder his King.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




"Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't" (2.2.12-13), says Lady Macbeth of King Duncan. "Done't" means "done the murder." Duncan was saved from death -- but only for about a minute -- by the fact that he reminded Lady Macbeth of her father.      [Detailed Scene Summary]

A moment later, Macbeth comes with the news that he has done the deed. However, the sight of King Duncan's blood on his hands horrifies him, and at the end of the scene, he calls out to the unknown person who is knocking on the gate, "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" (2.2.71).      [Detailed Scene Summary]




Is the king stirring, worthy thane?" (2.3.45), Macduff asks Macbeth, in the early morning hours, not long after Macbeth has murdered King Duncan. After Macduff discovers the King's body, he speaks of him as a blessed saint, crying out, "Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope / The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence / The life o' the building!" (2.3.67-69)

Later in the same scene, Macbeth also speaks highly of the King. After he has seen the body, he exclaims that the death of the King has made life meaningless and bitter:
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There 's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.     (2.3.91-96)
A little later, he speaks to Malcolm and Donalbain of their father as "The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood" (2.3.98). By "blood," Macbeth means the royal family. Macbeth's praise of King Duncan may even be sincere, because we know he didn't have anything personal against the King.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




Shortly after the murder of King Duncan, Ross and an Old Man are discussing the strange day, which is dark when it should be light. The Old Man comments, "'Tis unnatural, / Even like the deed that's done" (2.4.10-11). The whole scene suggests that the murder of Duncan has made nature itself go wrong. At the end of the scene, Ross is off to see the coronation of Macbeth, but Macduff's farewell suggests that Duncan was a better king than Macbeth will be: "Well, may you see things well done there: adieu! / Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!" (2.4.37-38)      [Detailed Scene Summary]




In a soliloquy just before he arranges the murder of Banquo, Macbeth complains that if all of the Witches' prophecy comes true, "For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind; / For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd" (3.1.65). "Filed" means "defiled," and "Banquo's issue" are Banquo's descendants.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




After he becomes king, Macbeth has bad dreams and sleepless nights. He's in such bad shape that he even envies King Duncan: "Duncan is in his grave; / After life's fitful fever he sleeps well" (3.2.22-23). At the beginning of the same scene, Lady Macbeth expresses a similar idea.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




Lennox sarcastically comments that "The gracious Duncan / Was pitied of Macbeth: marry, he was dead" (3.6.4). This bitter joke describes both Macbeth's facade -- that he was sorry for King Duncan -- and the truth about Macbeth, which was that he was sorry for King Duncan only after he killed him.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




After Malcolm says what a devilish king he will be, Macduff exclaims, "Thy royal father / Was a most sainted king" (4.3.108-109). At the moment, Macduff is utterly disgusted with Malcolm. What Macduff doesn't know is that Malcolm is lying about himself in order to test Macduff's honor.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




As Lady Macbeth's waiting gentlewoman and a doctor observe, the lady walks and talks in her sleep. She rubs her hands together, as though she is trying to wash them. As it turns out, it is King Duncan's blood she is trying to wash away. She continues to "wash" her hands until she is interrupted by the memory of the bell that she herself rang to summon her husband to the murder of King Duncan:
Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?--Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him?    (5.1.35-40)
Lady Macbeth had thought that once her husband was king, it wouldn't matter who knew that they murdered King Duncan, because no one would be able to challenge Macbeth's power as king, to "call our power to account." Yet the old man had a lot of blood, and she can still see it on her hands, reminding her of her guilt. His blood is pursuing her in another way, too, although she may not know it. A man's "blood" is his family, and Malcolm, who is of King Duncan's blood, is now marching with ten thousand English soldiers to call Macbeth to account.

A little later Lady Macbeth thinks she is talking to her husband, and she says, "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale.--I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave" (5.1.62-64). Here two memories have fused. One memory is of the time just after the murder of King Duncan, and the other is of the appearance of Banquo's Ghost. On both occasions, she had to talk her husband out of a kind of trance.      [Detailed Scene Summary]




When the forces opposing Macbeth arrive at Birnam wood, before Macbeth's castle, Malcolm says, "Cousins, I hope the days are near at hand / That chambers will be safe," and Menteith replies, "We doubt it nothing" (5.4.1-2). Malcolm is referring to the murder of King Duncan in his bedchamber, and they are both expressing confidence that their side will win.      [Detailed Scene Summary]