William Shakespeare
Contributed by Sharon Fleming
Act 1 Scene 4

At the court of King Duncan, a message arrives at the throne regarding the execution of the Thane of Cawdor. The king formally delivers appreciation to both Banquo and Macbeth for their bravery on the battlefield. Then King Duncan announces that his son, Malcolm, will be his heir. Macbeth feels disappointed because he thought he was next in line to succeed the king, per the witches’ prophecy.


This scene’s dramatic twists and turns serve multiple purposes. First, they illustrate the nature of the relationship between King Duncan and Macbeth. In addition, the outcomes of the scene catalyze Macbeth's future actions. King Duncan has a strong reaction to news of the Thane of Cawdor’s execution. The king regrets that he did not foresee his betrayal, saying, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” He means it is impossible to determine someone’s intentions based on his or her appearance. Since there is no way King Duncan could have anticipated the Thane of Cawdor’s treachery, he remains vulnerable to future attacks.

King Duncan’s speech makes clear the fact that he has started viewing Macbeth as a potential successor. The king says, to Macbeth, that he has “begun to plant thee, and will labor / to make [Macbeth] full of growing” (28-29). Although King Duncan has already selected Malcolm as his successor, he envisions Macbeth fitting into undefined future roles. At this point, Banquo joins the dialogue. He too asks King Duncan if he could be allowed to grow in his favor. As a promise, he says that he would return the “harvest” to King Duncan. This statement recalls his previous inquiry to “investigate the seeds of time / And say which one will develop, and which won’t” (I:3, 58-59). Banquo’s talk of seeds and the harvest symbolize his progeny’s ascent to the throne, as the witches foretold it.

Shakespeare uses a plethora of imagery regarding the natural environment in this scene. He frequently uses the terms “plant,” “grow,” and “harvest.” This imagery — present throughout the speeches of Banquo, Macbeth, and King Duncan — reinforces the play’s dramatic irony and foreshadowing of future events. All the while, Macbeth attempts to hide his frustration at the thought that King Duncan has settled on Malcolm his heir.

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