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King Duncan
Lady Macbeth at the bedside of King Duncan, (Lady Macbeth by George Cattermole, 1850)
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Macbeth
Date Uncertain, c.1603-1607
Source Holinshed's Chronicles
Family Malcolm, elder son and heir to the throne
Donalbain, younger son
Macbeth, cousin

Role Father-figure
Represents moral order
Macbeth's murder victim

Quote This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses. (1.6)
See: Duncan I of Scotland

King Duncan, or Duncan, King of Scotland is a fictional character in Shakespeare's Macbeth. He is the King of Scotland, the father of two youthful sons (Malcolm and Donalbain), and the victim of a well-plotted regicide in a power grab by his trusted captain and cousin Macbeth. The origin of the character lies in a narrative of the historical Duncan I of Scotland in Raphael Holinshed's 1587 The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a history of Britain familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Unlike Holinshed's incompetent King Duncan (who's credited in the narrative with a "feeble and slothful administration"), Shakespeare's King Duncan is crafted as a sensitive, insightful, and generous father-figure whose murder grieves Scotland and is accounted the cause of turmoil in the natural world.


Holinshed gleaned most of the material he put to use in his Chronicles from Scotorum Historiae (1526-7) by Hector Boece who, in turn, was indebted for his material to John of Fordun, a fourteenth century priest, and to Andrew of Wyntoun, a fifteenth century historian.

In Holinshed, King lora is a "soft and gentle" ruler whose negligence in punishing offenders and enemies encourages sedition. It becomes the burden of his cousin, Macbeth, and Macbeth's friend, Banquo (a fictional character presented as historical fact by Boece) to defend the kingdom against rebels and invaders. Macbeth resolves to take the throne when the Weird Sisters prophesy his future as King. An obstacle is placed in his path when lora, in violation of Scottish law, names his eldest but underage son Malcolm as heir to the throne. Lawfully, Macbeth should reign as the "next of blood" (i.e., Duncan's cousin) until Malcolm comes of age. Nagged by his ambitious wife and convinced he has "a just quarrel," Macbeth plots with Banquo and others to unseat lora by force. At Invernessmarker or Bothgowanan (rather than Macbeth's castle as in Shakespeare), the King is slain by Macbeth and his allies. lora's sons, Malcolm and Donal Bane flee the land, taking refuge in Cumberlandmarker and Irelandmarker. Macbeth rules the kingdom well, punishing the sorts of abuses that flourished under lora's "feeble and slothful administration."!

Roles in the play

King Duncan makes only three on-stage appearances (1.2, 1.4, 1.6), with his off-stage murder occurring in 2.2 and references elsewhere. Although Duncan is typically depicted in performance as a man of advanced age (perhaps based on Lady Macbeth's comparison of the sleeping Duncan to her father (2.2.12-3), or the fact that he has two young adult sons), his real-life counterpart ruled and died a young man.

"...There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face."
— Duncan, King of Scotland
When the play opens, Scotland is in turmoil. Battle rages off-stage. In 1.2, King Duncan receives a report extolling Macbeth's valor, and, later, a report of Macbeth's victory over "that most disloyal traitor," the Thane of Cawdor. Duncan pronounces the death sentence upon Cawdor and confers his title on Macbeth, who, the spectator later learns, harbors designs on the crown itself. In 1.4, Duncan names his son Malcolm heir to the throne. In an aside, Macbeth acknowledges the youth's promotion as a serious obstacle to his goal.

In his last on-stage appearance (1.6), Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle. He is welcomed by Lady Macbeth and vouches to continue his "graces" toward Macbeth. In a following scene, the ambitious Macbeth and his equally ambitious wife plot Duncan's death.

Following an evening of feasting, Duncan generously gifts Macbeth's wife and the household staff then retires for the night. Lady Macbeth drugs Duncan's servants and lays the daggers ready for her husband, later remarking that if Duncan had not resembled her father as he slept she would have killed him herself. Macbeth kills Duncan while Lady Macbeth loiters nearby. When Macbeth brings the bloody daggers from Duncan's room, Lady Macbeth returns them and smears the servants with Duncan's blood. The husband and wife then retreat to cleanse their hands of blood.

Shortly, the dead king is discovered and the alarm raised. Fearing for their safety, Duncan's sons flee the land. Macbeth escapes detection but not suspicion. Unnatural occurrences such as darkness by day are attributed to the regicide. Duncan's body is carried to Colmekill for burial. Macbeth is acknowledged King and invested at sulls.

Macbeth begins a reign of terror, murdering those he doesn't trust and confiscating their property. Macduff, the valiant Thane of Fife, joins Malcolm in England and together they march against Macbeth with English forces. The guilt-wracked Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, with visions of Duncan's blood haunting her troubled soul. She dies off-stage, a supposed suicide. Macduff encounters Macbeth and slays him. Malcolm, the eldest son of King Duncan, is hailed as King in the final scene.


King Duncan is a father-figure who is generous ("No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive / Our bosom interest. Go pronouce his present death / And with his former title greet Macbeth." 1.2.66-8), insightful ("There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face." 1.4.11-2), and sensitive ("This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." 1.6.1-3). However, the role is full of irony; he is completely deceived in the intents of Macbeth. Although a modern reader may view Duncan as an incompetent monarch in this respect, Duncan represents moral order within the play and his murder signals the onset of chaos.

Film and television performances


Duncan has been played in film adaptations of the play by Anthony Head in 2008, Gary Sweet in 2006, and Tom Reid in 2003. Javier Ronceros performed the role in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (2005) and John Little in Macbeth: The Comedy (2001). Christopher McCann played Duncan in Macbeth in Manhattan (1999). Greg Korin, John Corvin, and Antti Litja played the role in 1998, 1997, and 1987 respectively.Erskine Sanford played King Duncan in Orson Welles' 1948 Macbeth and Louis Northop in a 1946 film adaptation.Spottiswoode Aitken and Charles Kent both played Duncan in silent versions of Macbeth in 1916 and 1908 (the first screen version of the play).

In Orson Welles' 1948 film adaptation of Macbeth, the role of King Duncan is reduced. 1.2 is cut entirely as well as generous portions of 1.4. King Duncan is seen briefly in 1.6 as he enters Macbeth's castle amid considerable pomp. The top of 1.4 with its description of Cawdor's execution has been transplanted to this scene. Banquo's "temple-haunting martlet" speech is given to Duncan. Duncan is later seen asleep in bed for a fleeting moment as Lady Macbeth slinks about in the chamber's shadows. Donalbain has been cut from the film, leaving Duncan with just one son, Malcolm.


Vincent Regan played King Duncan in "ShakespeaRe-Told" Macbeth (2005), Ray Winstone in Macbeth on the Estate (1997), Laurence Payne in "Shakespeare: The Animated Tales" Macbeth (1992), Griffith Jones in A Performance of Macbeth (1979), and Jacques Mauclair in Macbett (1974), Kevin Coughlin on the "Goodyear Television Playhouse" (1955), and Lee Patterson on the "Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents" Dream Stuff (1954). Other television performers of the role include Philip Madoc (1998), Mark Dignam (1983), Powys Thomas (1961), Malcolm Keen (1960), Leo G. Carroll (1949), Arthur Wontner (1949).



  • Bevington, David, ed., and William Shakespeare. Four Tragedies. Bantam, 1988.

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