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Act I, Scene 4
This scene takes place at King Duncan's palace at Forres. The king has arrived with his oldest son Malcolm, his youngest son Donaldbain, the nobleman Lennox, and other attendants. Duncan asks if Cawdor's execution has taken place. Malcolm replies that he has been told that Cawdor confessed his treasons, begged forgiveness, and died honorably. Duncan calls him a gentleman "on whom I built an absolute trust," much as he trusts Macbeth. That irony is underlined by the King's spoken insight that you cannot know a man's construction by looking at his face; in other words, appearance is not always reality. When Macbeth and Banquo arrive with Ross and Angus, Duncan greets the new Thane of Cawdor as "worthiest cousin" and thanks both him and Banquo for their loyal service. He says to Macbeth, "I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make thee full of growing." The king then promises to reward Banquo in a similar manner to Macbeth.
Duncan then thickens the plot by naming Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland and the heir to the throne. In a spoken aside, Macbeth bemoans that this action lies in his way and then hopes that no one sees his "black and deep desires." Since Duncan is coming to visit Macbeth at Inverness, he knows that an opportunity presents itself, and time is of the essence in order to plan for the king's undoing. Macbeth takes leave to go and tell his wife the news of the royal visit (and to plot with her against Duncan). After his departure, the king continues his praise of the new thane ironically saying he is a " peerless kinsman". (It is true that Macbeth is like no other!)
The mood of this scene is sharply different than the previous one on the somber heath. The king is in his palace, surrounded by his kin and nobles. He is obviously delighted with Macbeth's victory, which has put him in high spirits. Even the news of Cawdor's execution has a positive impact, since he has died with dignity, asking for the king's pardon of his treason. (Macbeth's later execution will not carry such dignity.) The king openly states how hard it is to recognize a traitor, ironic words spoken right before Macbeth enters the palace. The words are made even more meaningful when the kind king calls Macbeth "worthiest cousin" and heaps praise upon this seemingly loyal servant. Macbeth's ironic answer to Duncan is that "our duties are to your throne," words spoken by a man who does not understand real duty at all.
The king then announces that his oldest son Malcolm has been named Prince of Cumberland and successor to the throne. This should be a joyous announcement for all, for it will insure that Scotland will have a smooth transition, but it is horrifying news to Macbeth. Malcolm is now a real stumbling block to his plan to gain the crown. In his aside, he acknowledges that he has evil desires which he must hide. His thoughts are made to seem even darker in contrast to the kindness and joy displayed by the good king throughout the scene. With dark thoughts in mind, Macbeth leaves to go to Inverness and prepare for the king's visit (and murder).