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Who are the most important characters in Macbeth, and what are their motivations? From Macbeth to Macduff, Banquo to Lady Macbeth - learn more about them all with our character guides.
The first mention of Macbeth’s name comes from the witches. There is something within him that they sense even before he is aware of it himself, but the next reference speaks of his bravery in battle, a valued follower of Duncan, who will be promoted to Thane of Cawdor. However, the horrific violence with which Macbeth killed the rebel Macdonald –“unseamed him from the nave to the chaps” – prepares us for his bloody passage through the play. The effect upon him of the witches’ prophecies is profound. Once he hears that the title Thane of Cawdor has been awarded to him, his thoughts gravitate towards “the imperial theme,” of becoming king. He begins to “yield to that suggestion,/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,” since the only way to attain the crown is to kill the king, this is something he must do himself. The action comes from him; the witches merely planted the seed.
Macbeth has his doubts. He hesitates to commit so gross a crime, but the promptings of his wife persuade him. Even then he almost bungles the “cover-up” by retaining the bloody daggers, relying on her to “smear/ The sleepy grooms with blood.” Macbeth’s state of mind is shown by his hallucination of the murder weapon. Later, when he has Banquo murdered, he imagines he sees the bloody ghost in his seat. This reveals his deepest fears: to stay on the throne there is always someone else who must be killed – Banquo, Macduff – but the witches prophesied that Banquo’s children would be kings hereafter, not Macbeth’s.
His towering ambition never brings him any satisfaction or peace of mind. He knows that “blood will have blood,” and he is locked into a cycle of violence that can only end with his own death. When the invulnerability that the witches seem to have predicted, proves illusory, and when he hears of his wife’s death, he falls into a deep despair, calling life “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.” But even then he has enough courage to face his own death.
Lady Macbeth has not been involved in the opening scenes of the play. We first see her reading a letter from her husband which recounts his meeting with the witches. Her immediate reaction to this is shocking as she desires her husband to murder Duncan but fears he is too full of kindness. When she hears that Duncan is coming that night to the Macbeths’ castle, she shows at once that she has the required ruthlessness. The feminine image of a mother’s milk, with all it says about a fundamental human bond, is violated when she asks the spirits [and she hasn’t met the weird sisters] to “Come to my woman’s breasts/ And take my milk for gall.” That which gives life – a mother’s milk – becomes bitter and poisonous. She asks to be “unsexed”, to “Stop up the access and passage to remorse.”
She seems more monstrous than her husband, and it’s no surprise when she is the main motivator behind the plot to murder the king. When Macbeth says “We will proceed no further in this business,” she taunts his manhood, saying “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” She further subverts a woman’s maternal role by stating, with a kind of perverted pride, that she would have rather “plucked my nipple from [a baby’s] boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out,” than have broken her word as she sees Macbeth threatening to do. Through a combination of sexual pressure, and a violent rejection of the traditional image of the female, she gets her way, even suggesting how she will drug Duncan’s two chamberlains, leaving an unguarded king at their mercy.
When Macbeth emerges, stupefied, from the king’s chamber with the “bloody daggers” still in his hand, lamenting the fact that “Macbeth does murder sleep”, it is Lady Macbeth who takes charge. “Infirm of purpose!” she exclaims, “Give me the daggers,” and she returns the murder weapons to the chamber, smearing the faces of the grooms to incriminate them. She tells Macbeth “The sleeping and the dead/ Are but as pictures;” – they cannot harm you. And in words that will return to haunt her, she states casually “A little water clears us of this deed.”
When we next see Lady Macbeth in Act Three, it is evident that she is no longer in her husband’s confidence. It is Macbeth who has determined that Banquo must also be killed, in flat contradiction of her comment that “what’s done, is done.” He tells her to “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck”, an affectionate term, but one that places her in a subservient role.
She does not know of his plan to murder Banquo, and she does not see his ghost when Macbeth is appalled by the “horrible shadow” that returns to haunt him at the feast. She tries unsuccessfully to reassure the guests but the whole thing breaks down. She cannot hide from public gaze the spectacle of her husband’s guilt.
It is that guilt which destroys her. The woman who thought washing off the blood would be enough, is now seen wandering the castle at night, in a deranged state, obsessively scrubbing her hands, only to cry “Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” This brilliant physical image of psychological damage marks her last appearance. Hearing of her death prompts Macbeth to famously (and despairingly) remark that “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.”
The play opens with the three witches, and their eerie malevolence pervades the drama. They are usually referred to as the Weird Sisters, and “weird”, or as it was once spelt “wyrd”, is an old English word meaning fate. Through their influence over Macbeth, the train of events is set in motion – Duncan’s murder, Macbeth becoming king, his eventual destruction and his failure to secure the line of succession – by which all their prophecies are proven true. This does not, however, mean that the witches make things happen. It is Macbeth, under the powerful influence of his wife, who takes the daggers and murders Duncan.
Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience a sense of affinity with the witches. The witches know Macbeth is coming, they know where to meet him, and he immediately echoes their words – “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” The “spirits” that Lady Macbeth calls on to “unsex” her, are clearly identifiable with the witches. Once Macbeth discovers that he is (as they prophesied) Thane of Cawdor, his mind begins to move in the witches’ direction, and, learning that Duncan has appointed a successor, he asks “Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (Many, many commas) These desires may have been kindled by the witches, but it’s his own free choice to pursue the plan of murdering the king.
Later, after he has had Banquo murdered, and he has seen his former friend’s ghost at the feast, Macbeth returns to the witches, looking for further reassurance. He thinks he has got it when they tell him to “beware Macduff,” but “none of woman born? Shall harm Macbeth.” And he’s safe till Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane. This makes him seem invulnerable, but once again, through human agency, the apparently impossible comes true.
Banquo too asks for prophecies from the witches. They reply in characteristically paradoxical fashion. He will be “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.” Thus Banquo will be murdered by Macbeth’s command, but his children will be kings of Scotland. Macbeth takes particular note of these predictions, while Banquo warns him that “to win us to our harm/ The instruments of darkness tell us truths.” Macbeth does not heed the warning, and Banquo sees that he has achieved “all/ As the weird woman promised, and I fear/ Thou played’st most foully for it.” Banquo sees that Macbeth took action to achieve what was promised. Banquo’s own fate is more passive – he will be ambushed and murdered. But because his son, Fleance, escapes, the witches’ prophecy that “Thou shall get [father] kings, though thou be none,” comes true, exactly as Macbeth feared.
Banquo then can be seen as an alternative to Macbeth. He too receives predictions from the witches. But he at once asks Macbeth “have we eaten of the insane root,/ That takes the reason prisoner?” He never allows his “reason” to be taken prisoner. Knowing that Macbeth has “played’st most foully” for the throne, he is content to let events take their course, asking “May they not be my oracles as well/ And set me up in hope?”
What Banquo does not imagine is that his own friend will destroy him. Unlike Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, he remains in Scotland and is easy prey for the monster Macbeth has now become. However, Banquo was right to take comfort from the words of the witches: his son, Fleance, “the best half of our affair”, escapes. James I, English king when the play was written [he was also James VI of Scotland], took pride in his family’s supposed descent from the real-life Banquo. So Banquo’s line did indeed “stretch out to the crack of doom.”
Macduff does not become king at the end of the play, but it is Macduff who Macbeth identifies as his principal and most dangerous enemy – and it is Macduff who kills him. The long third scene of Act Four, shows Malcolm, who will succeed to the throne at the end of the play, testing Macduff to see if he has ambitions of his own. Macduff passes the test, only to hear the appalling news that “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes/ Savagely slaughtered.” Macduff too has underestimated the depravity of his foe. He leaves his family behind - in his wife’s bitter words, “his babes,/ His mansion, and his titles in a place/ From whence himself does fly.”
This terrible miscalculation ensures that Macbeth should indeed, as the witches warn him, “beware Macduff.” And it is Macduff, who “was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped,” and therefore not technically “born of woman”, who returns to the stage in the final scene, carrying Macbeth’s head!