'Macbeth' Characters

Thanes, Kings, and Witches in 11th-century Scotland

The characters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are, in large part, Scottish noblemen and thanes that Shakespeare lifted from Holinshed’s Chronicles. In the tragedy, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s ruthless ambition contrasts with the moral righteousness of King Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff. The Three Witches, evil characters at first glance, act both as agents and witnesses of fate, setting the actions in motion.

Macbeth

The thane of Glamis at the beginning of the play, Macbeth is the protagonist of the eponymous tragedy. He is initially presented as a Scottish nobleman and a valiant warrior, but his thirst for power and subsequent fear lead to his undoing. After he and Banquo listen to a prophecy delivered by the Three Witches, who proclaim him thane of Cawdor and, subsequently, king, he becomes corrupt.

Macbeth's wife persuades him to kill Duncan, the king of the Scots, during a visit to their castle in Inverness. He proceeds with the plan despite his doubts and fears and becomes king. However, his actions cause him to fall into a state of constant paranoia, to the point that he has his ally Banquo and MacDuff's family murdered. After seeking the witches' advice, they tell him that no man “of woman born” will ever be able to slay him. He is eventually beheaded by Macduff, who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.”

Macbeth’s characterization can be described as anti-heroic: on one hand, he behaves like a ruthless tyrant, on the other, he does show remorse.

Lady Macbeth

Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth, is a driving force in the play. She first appears on stage reading a letter from her husband, who details the prophecy delivered by the witches predicting that he would become king of Scotland. She thinks her husband’s nature is “too full o' the milk of human kindness” (act I, scene 5) and belittles his manhood. As a consequence, she pushes her husband to murder King Duncan and do whatever it takes to be crowned king of the Scots. 

The deed leaves Macbeth so shaken that she has to take command, telling him how to lay out the crime scene and what to do with the daggers. Then, she mostly recedes as Macbeth turns into a paranoid tyrant, if not to remark to their guests that his hallucinations are nothing but a longtime ailment. However, in act V, she becomes unraveled, too, having succumbed to delusions, hallucinations, and sleepwalking. Eventually, she dies, presumably by suicide. 

Banquo

A foil to Macbeth, Banquo starts off as an ally—both are generals under King Duncan’s rule— and they meet the Three Witches together. After prophesying that Macbeth will become king, the witches tell Banquo that he will not be king himself, but that his descendants will be. While Macbeth is enthralled by the prophecy, Banquo dismisses it, and, overall, displays a pious attitude—by praying to heaven for help, for example—as opposed to Macbeth’s attraction to darkness. After the king’s murder, Macbeth starts seeing Banquo as a threat to his kingdom and and has him killed. 

Banquo's ghost returns in a later scene, causing Macbeth to react with alarm during a public feast, which Lady Macbeth chalks up to a long-term mental ailment. When Macbeth returns to the witches in act IV, they show him an apparition of eight kings all bearing a strong resemblance to Banquo, one of them holding a mirror. The scene carries deep significance: King James, on the throne when Macbeth was written, was believed to be a descendant from Banquo, separated from him by nine generations.

Three Witches

The Three Witches are the first characters to appear on stage, as they announce their agreement to meet with Macbeth. Soon after, they greet Macbeth and his companion Banquo with a prophecy: that the former shall be king, and the latter shall generate a line of kings. The witches' prophecies have a great influence on Macbeth, who decides to usurp the throne of Scotland.

Then, sought by Macbeth in act IV, the Witches follow Hecate’s orders and conjure visions for Macbeth that announce his impending demise, ending with a procession of kings bearing a strong resemblance to Banquo.

Although during Shakespeare’s time witches were seen as worse than rebels, as political and spiritual traitors, in the play they’re amusing and confusing figures. It’s also unclear whether they control fate, or whether they are merely its agents.

Macduff

Macduff, the thane of Fife, also acts as a foil to Macbeth. He discovers the corpse of the murdered King Duncan in Macbeth’s castle and raises the alarm. He immediately suspects Macbeth of regicide, so he does not attend the crowning ceremony and instead flees to England to join Malcolm, King Duncan’s eldest son, to convince him to return to Scotland and reclaim the throne. Macbeth wants him murdered, but the hired assassins take his wife and his young children instead. Eventually, Macduff manages to slay Macbeth. Even though nobody “of woman born” could murder him, Macduff was actually born via caesarean section, which made him the exception to the witches’ prophecies.

Duncan

The King of Scotland, he symbolizes moral order within the play, whose values are destroyed and restored as the tragedy progresses. While trusting and generous in nature (his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d’I 7.17–19) especially towards Macbeth, he is firm in his punishment of the original thane of Cawdor. 

Malcolm

Duncan’s eldest son, he flees to England when he finds out his father was murdered. This makes him look guilty, but in reality he sought to avoid becoming another target. At the end of the play, he is crowned king of Scotland.

Fleance

Banquo’s son, he is ambushed by Macbeth’s assassins alongside his father, but manages to escape. Even though he does not become king at the end of the play, we know that the current English monarchy during Shakespeare’s time descends from Banquo.