In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, soon after the title character takes the throne, the thanes realize he is a tyrant who has brought famine and death to their country (III.vi.24-49). The Scots and English promptly restore Malcolm, heir of Duncan, as King of Scotland. The people are happy with the decision, but Shakespeare gives significant reason to doubt the longevity of Malcolm’s reign. His Malcolm is a naive youth who lacks courage, judgment, wisdom, military prowess, and the support of his brother, Donalbain, and he will eventually lose the crown to the sons of Banquo.
Malcolm first shows his timidity when he flees to England after the murder of Duncan (I.iv.35-40; II.iii.98-102). Malcolm and Donalbain abandon Scotland just when it needs them the most (II.ii.120-126, 136-147). In so doing, the brothers cede Macbeth the throne and the moral high ground. The Scottish nobility turn on the brothers and blame them for the murder of Duncan (II.iv.24-35; III.i.29-32). Malcolm and Donalbain’s cowardly actions in the face of danger belie that they do not have much more fortitude than Macbeth.
Malcolm’s desertion of the throne is not the only example of his poor judgment; he also shows significant naiveté in his misjudgments of Macduff. Macduff is an honest thane who cares so much for Scotland that he abandons his wife and children to pursue Malcolm in England, but Malcolm mistakes him for a potential enemy and decides to test his loyalty first (IV.iii.1-49). The prince incites a homicidal rage in Macduff by pretending to be a totally corrupt person who will ruin the country (IV.iii.50-114). When he is sure that Macduff is truly a good man, Malcolm recants his statements (IV.iii.115-137). Macduff is completely flustered: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once ’tis hard to reconcile” (IV.iii.138-139). Malcolm again displays his verdancy when he chides Macduff for mourning the total slaughter of the house of Fife (IV.iii.213-219). Malcolm tells the thane that a real man would turn his sadness into rage, to which Macduff replies, “I shall do so; but I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.220-221). Malcolm shows that he has learned this lesson when he mourns young Siward’s death (V.viii.50-51). Nevertheless, the pressures of royalty are many, and Malcolm is too far behind and doesn’t have time to catch up.
Malcolm dethrones Macbeth, but he certainly does not make his name feared on the battlefield. Despite possessing an obvious advantage in size, skill, and morale, Malcolm resorts to smoke and mirrors for his battle with Macbeth’s army (V.ii; V.iii.7-10; V.iii.13; V.iv.1-8, 11-14; V.vii.1-4). He orders each soldier to cut down wood from Birnam Forest and hold it in front of them to shield their army from view (V.iv.4-8). The other generals do not comment on the order, emphasizing its negligible impact on the battle (V.iv.8-10). Malcolm’s idea is a clever vehicle to fulfill the witches’ prophecies but a poor strategic decision (IV.i.90-100). He adds to the burden of soldiers who have marched all the way from England, and by using scorched-earth tactics in his own kingdom, he is essentially harming himself (IV.iii.236-240; V.ii.1-5). Malcolm’s performance in battle shows his weakness as a general, a mortal defect in a country where noblemen revolt even against old and well-established kings like Duncan (I.ii.48-65).
If Scotland were a peaceful country, Malcolm might have time to learn on the job; unfortunately, Donalbain’s absence from the attack on Macbeth suggests that Malcolm will not have peace for long (V.ii.7-8). The brothers have already shown their relative disregard for family ties through their impassive acceptance of Duncan’s death, so the temptation of the throne may drive Donalbain to fight his own brother for the crown (II.ii.120-126, 136-147). Shakespeare does not this rift between the brothers. It may prove to be the source of Malcolm’s demise.
Shakespeare does elaborate about how or when Duncan’s sons lose the throne, but he insinuates that they will. The witches prophesy that Banquo, not Malcolm, will beget a long line of kings who will hold the treble scepter over England, Scotland, and Ireland (I.i.67-68; IV.i.101-124). The veracity of the witches’ other prophecies is a hope to Banquo and a gall to Macbeth, and the escape of Fleance, death of Macbeth, and weakness of Malcolm make possible the fruition of the oracle (III.i.1-10, 48-82; III.iii.18-22; V.viii.27-34). The failure of Malcolm’s rule is a foregone conclusion; the forces of history will resolve the time and the means.
In his first speech to his new subjects, Malcolm promises gifts for all his supporters and the creation of a new office, the earlship, to symbolize the reforms that he will institute in Scotland (V.viii.60-75). Yet, as Macbeth himself admits, “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus” is the most pressing concern for a monarch (III.i.48). Malcolm’s ascension to the throne provides an upbeat ending to the play, but this resolution is undermined by the doubts already forming around Malcolm. The witches have foretold that his line will fail, and his brother, Donalbain, may already be plotting a revolt of his own. Scotland will need a strong leader to fend off these assaults, and Malcolm appears to lack these traits. He runs in the face of danger, doubts the loyalty of his followers, and lacks the wisdom and strategic genius a strong leader needs. Shakespeare wishes Malcolm well, but he knows the young king will not succeed. Malcolm is not the savior of Scotland; he is a bridge between Duncan and Banquo’s descendants, who will eventually take the crown and conquer all the British Isles.