Banquo, the Hero of Shakespeare's Macbeth
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Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth is not able to inspire the reader with the characters of the Macbeths. But it is able to give good example with the character of Banquo, who, as most heroes, dies an early death.
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson says that the ghost of murdered Banquo has the greatest emotional impact on Macbeth of any adverse experience:
He is confident enough, even after the commission of the crime, to put his faith in the Senecan maxim, per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter, "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill." After he has been shaken by the appearance of the ghost of Banquo, he reflects,
For mine own good
All causes must give way. I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er;
and this is as near as he ever comes to repentance. (71)
Fanny Kemble in "Lady Macbeth" contests the opinion that the ghost of Banquo is seen at the same time by Lady Macbeth:
Taking the view I do of Lay Macbeth's character, I cannot accept the idea (held, I believe, by her great representative, Mrs. Siddons) that in the banquet scene the ghost of Banquo, which appears to Macbeth, is seen at the same time by his wife, but that, in consequence of her greater command over herself, she not only exhibits no sign of perceiving the apparition, but can, with its hideous form and gesture within a few fee of her, rail at Macbeth in that language of scathing irony . . . (117)
Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare comment that Banquo is a force of good in the play, set in opposition to Macbeth:
Banquo, the loyal soldier, praying for restraint against evil thoughts which enter his mind as they had entered Macbeth's, but which work no evil there, is set over against Macbeth, as virtue is set over against disloyalty. (792)
In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye explains the rationale behind Banquo's ghost in this play:
Except for the episode of Hercules leaving Antony, where mysterious music is heard again, there is nothing really supernatural in Shakespeare's tragedies that is not connected with the murder of the order-figures.
In Macbeth we have Banquo's ghost instead of Duncan's, partly because of the emphasis on the repose that Duncan has gained by getting murdered, and partly because the line of the reigning monarch descends from Banquo. (24)
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three Witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious and contradictory "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." King Duncan learns that "brave Macbeth" and Banquo are bravely resisting the "Norweyan banners" and the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. When these forces are vanquished, Duncan bids Ross to greet Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Before this happens, however, Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Banquo also receives a prophecy from the witches: "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none." Futilely Banquo cautions his fellow captain, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths." Banquo manifests his sensitivity to the spiritual world, his concern about leading a moral life and resisting temptation. But Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies.
Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." Lady Macbeth will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. On that fateful night, Banquo has a strange sense of foreboding:
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose! (2.1)
Banquo's spiritual awareness and sensitivity make him a recipient of portents, it would seem. Meanwhile, Macbeth feels the pressure of the impending "bloody business" and thereby has a vision of the murder instrument:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1)
In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Immediately he is stricken with guilt as he exclaims, looking on his hands, to his wife, "This is a sorry sight," and "I had most need of blessing."
Soon Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office. Then in soliloquy Macbeth gives the rationale behind his planned murder of Banquo:
For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings! (3.1)
Meanwhile the queen is lamenting the state of "doubtful joy" in which the royal couple is living. Both she and he are nightly afflicted by "terrible dreams," and his mind is "full of scorpions," so that the king thinks it "better be with the dead."
In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head", but Fleance escapes, causing the king to complain: "But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears." At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. When Banquo's ghost disappears, Macbeth with jolly words toasts the health and happiness of everyone; but when the spirit reappears, the king is once again agitated:
Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with! (3.4)
The frightening experience with Banquo's ghost forces Macbeth to once again seek the counsel of the witches. When the "midnight hags" utter their incantation,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)
Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. Banquo's lineage remains in the royal lineup. Macbeth resolves:
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1)
He sends murderers to eliminate Macduff's family, which he considers a threat. Meanwhile in England, Malcolm and Macduff are preparing to retake the kingdom. These two are most like Banquo in their honesty, resoluteness, lack of fear, and sensitivity to moral issues. Malcolm confesses his moral shortcomings to test Macduff's loyalty:
But I have none: the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. (4.3)
And Macduff defends the moral integrity of Malcolm's lineage:
Thy royal father
Was a most sainted king: the queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she lived. Fare thee well! (4.3)
At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts to the relentless pace of ongoing time.
As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the English general acknowledges how time will reveal all:
The time approaches
That will with due decision make us know
What we shall say we have and what we owe. (5.4)
When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king guiltily confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return with the head of Macbeth. Malcolm declares his intention of facing the future as king of Scotland with the help of God. If Banquo had been listened to at the initial encounter with the weird sisters, then his co-captain Macbeth would never have turned away from God in his actions.
In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack explains how the Bard upgraded the Holinshed version of Banquo:
His [King James] family, the Stuarts, claimed descent from Banquo, and it is perhaps on this account that Shakespeare departs from Holinshed, in whose narrative Banquo is Macbeth's accomplice in the assassination of Duncan, to insist on his "royalty of nature" and the "dauntless temper of his mind" (3.1.50). Many critics see a notable compliment to James in the dumb show of kings descending from Banquo ("What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?" (186)
Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants that Banquo is "a man to be feared" by Macbeth:
Besides Lady Macbeth, the one who knows how much Macbeth is acting is Banquo. In the scene where Banquo is starting for his afternoon ride, the conversation between the new King and his "chief guest" is artificial on both sides. In pretending that he is about to seek advice from Banquo, Macbeth [. . .] is relying on the security of his office to prevent a contradiction from Banquo. A few lines farther on he says that his fears in Banquo sink deep.
In the long soliloquy, beginning "To be thus is nothing," he reflects that Banquo would dare a great deal, and yet his daring is accompanied by a certain wisdom that would guide him to act safely. So he is a man to be feared. (56-57)
In Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley discusses Banquo shortly before his murder:
[. . .] like Banquo, who, in the tense hour before the murder, expresses in more forceful form the idea of evil speculation and possibility as ranging in the mind:
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose. II.i.7-9
At such a moment the activities of the mind become almost palpable and express themselves in bodily form, as they do in the other two mind tragedies. In the speech which he imagines the thoughts that may come to him when he goes to rest, Banquo hands his sword to his son Fleance, and then - with a dream-like precision - hands over his belt with its dagger too:
Hold, take my sword. There's husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out. Take thee that too. (188-89)
Lily B. Campbell in her volume of criticism, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion, discusses how fear enters the life of Banquo with the murder of Duncan and his two attendants:
And as Lady Macbeth is helped from the room, we see fear working in the others. Banquo admits that fears and scruples shake them all, even while he proclaims his enmity to treason. But Banquo fears rightly the anger or hatred of the Macbeth who has power to do him harm. (222)
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy explains the main interest in the character of Banquo:
The main interest of the character of Banquo arises from the changes that take place in him, and from the influence of the witches upon him. And it is curious that Shakespeare's intention here is so frequently missed. Banquo being at first strongly contrasted with Macbeth, as an innocent man with a guilty, it seems to be supposed that this contrast must be continued to his death; while, in reality, though it is never removed, it is gradually diminished. Banquo in fact may be described much more truly than Macbeth as the victim of the Witches. (348)
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.
Clark, W.G. and Aldis Wright, eds. Introduction. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n. d.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.
Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
Kemble, Fanny. "Lady Macbeth." Macmillan's Magazine, 17 (February 1868), p. 354-61. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. http://chemicool.com/Shakespeare/macbeth/full.html, no lin.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.