Thane of Cawdor: Meaning in Macbeth & Overview

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  • 0:01 Plot of Macbeth
  • 2:26 Duality - the Thane of…
  • 3:51 Definition of Thane
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

This lesson provides a brief summary of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. It also provides a description of the meaning of Macbeth's title, Thane of Cawdor.

Plot of Macbeth?

Macbeth is a war hero. He's the owner of a spotless reputation and an undying gratitude of his King and country. Until the simple title Thane of Cawdor causes him to throw it all away and become Shakespeare's bloodiest tyrant and most conniving villain, leaving us to wonder how a man so 'full o' the milk of human kindness' became a man whose hands were so covered in blood they could never be wiped clean.

Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth, follows the story of a Thane who eventually becomes King of Scotland. Macbeth seemingly had no ambitions toward the throne until he heard it prophesied by three witches that he would eventually become Thane of Cawdor and after that King. When the current Thane of Cawdor is arrested (and later executed) for treason, Macbeth is given the title Thane of Cawdor. The fact that the witches were correct in this prophecy jump starts his ambition. And spurred on by the even more ambitious Lady Macbeth, he sets his sights on the throne of Scotland.

His ascension to the throne is bloody. He murders King Duncan - who is a guest in Macbeth's castle - while he is sleeping. Then, he murders the King's guards as part of his plot to frame them for the King's murder. Once he actually becomes King, thanks to Duncan's sons Donalbain and Malcolm fleeing the country, his rule is filled with corruption. He hires murderers to kill his friend Banquo and Banquo's son Fleance. His only motive for the murder is that the witches prophesied that Banquo would beget kings. Macbeth feels he must not let that happen.

Because of Macbeth's corrupt activities, Macduff, Malcolm, and several other members of the nobility turn against him and a Civil War begins in Scotland. As punishment for fleeing Scotland, Macbeth commits his most heinous crime. He sends his hired murderers to kill Macduff's wife, Lady Macduff, and all of their children. When the news reaches Macduff, he reacts with some of the most emotional lines of the play, 'All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?' As the war reaches a fever pitch, Lady Macbeth - having gone insane with guilt - kills herself, and Macbeth is killed in battle by Macduff soon after. After Macbeth's death, Malcolm, the oldest son of King Duncan, is crowned King of Scotland.

Duality: The Thane of Glamis vs. The Thane of Cawdor

Macbeth is filled with references to foulness and fairness existing together. In fact, Macbeth's very first line of the play is, 'So foul and fair a day I have not seen'. This is appropriate since we will see two versions of Macbeth in the play: the fair, Thane of Glamis version of Macbeth, who is a good man and a war hero, and the foul, Thane of Cawdor Macbeth, who is a murderer and a tyrant.

When the play begins, Macbeth holds the title of Thane of Glamis, and he doesn't seem unhappy about it. He is skeptical of the witches and their prophecy that he will become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland:

'I know I am thane of Glamis;

But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,

A prosperous gentleman; and to be king

Stands not within the prospect of belief.'

But when Ross appears and addresses Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, everything changes. This is a major turning point in the play because it is the first fulfilled prophecy, 'All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor', which ignites Macbeth's ambition and his epic downfall. Seeing one of the witches' prophecies come true causes Macbeth to become obsessed with their other prophecy, 'All hail, Macbeth, that shall be king hereafter'.

After Macbeth kills King Duncan, he alludes to this duality saying:

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