Malcolm, whilst liberating the throne of Scotland from a tyrant, may not display all the qualities that would be considered by an early modern audience as necessary in a monarch.
The first doubts fall over Malcolm in Act 2, Scene 3, following the murder of his father, King Duncan, by Macbeth. Both Malcolm and his brother Donalbain flee from the scene of the crime, suspecting that they will be blamed for their father’s murder. The line “let us not be dainty of leave-taking”, delivered by Malcolm to his brother, suggests that he has no real sense of who has murdered his father, or who will now take the throne, but instead considers only his own interests. It is unlikely that Malcolm could have resisted Macbeth after the murder – the latter would no doubt have been determined to poison the minds of the Scottish nobility against him – but as the God-given heir to the throne he should surely have stood and defended his right to the crown. In fact, Malcolm’s flight from Macbeth’s castle only strengthens Macbeth’s hand; Macbeth is, of course, keen to encourage the idea that the son, then Duke of Cumberland, and his father’s elected heir, was plotting against his father. In any case the kingdom of Scotland is abandoned by Malcolm to the whims of the bloody tyrant Macbeth.
On the other hand Malcolm, having fled to England, works hard to raise an army to take back the throne that is rightfully his. This noble action while in exile might be regarded as expunging the cowardice that he demonstrated in fleeing the kingdom in the first place. The Malcolm that we glimpse in England is often shown to be noble in nature: he “delight[s]/No less in truth than life” (IV.iii.129-130). Moreover, we are told by Malcolm’s doctor that
…there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure…
…but at his touch,…
They presently amend. (IV.iii.141-145)
Malcolm, it seems, heals these ailing men with a healing “touch”: this miraculous power was believed to the gift of monarchs until the 18th century (and “The Royal Touch” was certainly practiced by King James I). This reference in the play to Malcolm’s health-giving powers was no doubt included by Shakespeare as a moment that would have likely appealed to the King (it is certainly a moment that has no real relationship to the play’s central plot). Malcolm’s kindness – indeed his supernatural compassion – is established in this scene and his contrast to the bloody tyrant Macbeth is very notable. Macbeth, conversely, is not trusted by his subjects, and does not trust them (in the Polanski film version of the play the murderers despatched to kill Banquo, Fleance and Macduff’s family are themselves shadowed and eventually killed by the evil Lennox). Macbeth’s tyrannical instincts are to spy on his chosen instruments of murder and Malcolm’s benevolence, a study in contrast, sheds light on the central character’s villainy.
Shakespeare also portrays Malcolm as a worthy King in Act 5, Scene 4 when he attacks Macbeth’s army under “drum and colours” (V.iv.SD). These “colours”, significantly, would presumably include both Scottish and English flags – a foreshadowing of the way in which the two Kingdoms would later be united under James I. It can be assumed that the uniting of the two countries against Macbeth is a noble achievement for Malcolm, and the image of the flags together would not only flatter the reigning monarch, but also demonstrate that Malcolm shared with James this kingly power to unite the two different peoples in a worthy cause.
Malcolm demonstrates great confidence, too, in his own ability to overthrow the seemingly invulnerable tyrant Macbeth. This self-confidence is reflected in Malcolm’s use of the royal “we” in Act 5, Scene 6 when he states “we/Shall take upon’s what else to do” (V.vi.4-5). We have to remind ourselves that Malcolm is not on the throne at this point. He certainly sounds like a King: the language that he employs here suggests that he is the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland and that God will deliver him to the throne as it is his by right.
In his final speech in the play Malcolm shows that he cares for Scotland and his subjects. He states that he has rid the country of its tyrant usurper and that he will restore the nation to health. This “new Scotland” is reflected in the fact that the “thanes and kinsman,/Henceforth be earls…” (V.ix.29-30) which emphasises the change from the old regime and it again links Malcolm to the reigning monarch in Shakespeare’s time, James I, who did the same when he became King of England and Ireland. This shift is the symbolic action that suggests Malcolm’s earlier cowardly action after his father’s death has been atoned for. The people of Scotland have been liberated from Macbeth’s reign of terror by a Christian King who seems determined to put his own personal stamp on the nation’s future.
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