It is best to look at minor characters mainly in terms of their dramatic function: how they motivate and interact with the main characters, and how they shed light on them through this interaction and techniques such as contrast. It would be inadvisable to choose a minor character as the main focus of an essay, unless a question specifically called for this, but including one or more for purposes of comparison with a major character could be very worthwhile.
Banquo's dramatic function is to provide an effective foil for Macbeth. He proves that the temptations of the witches may be successfully resisted and that Macbeth therefore acts from free will. Equal in status to Macbeth as a commander, and similarly ambitious (note how he prompts the witches to tell his fortune too), Banquo expresses unshakeable moral principles and an ability to tell right from wrong. He warns Macbeth the witches may be 'instruments of darkness' and not be trusted. When Macbeth hints that they might plot together, Banquo states firmly he will keep his 'allegiance clear'. After Duncan's body is discovered, he publicly declares: 'In the great hand of God I stand' and resolves to fight against 'treasonous malice'. King James claimed Banquo as his ancestor, and Shakespeare makes the characterisation appropriately flattering. It is Macbeth himself, in a torment of jealousy, who lists the fine personal qualities which make up Banquo's 'royalty of nature'. This resentment of Banquo's natural superiority, together with jealousy of his destiny as a 'father of kings', motivates Macbeth to further evil deeds in the second half of the play.
Duncan is the king of Scotland at the start of the play. He provides one of the many examples of kingship. He is noble and untainted by corruption: Macbeth admits Duncan 'hath been so clear in his great office, his virtues will plead like angels'. However, his flaw is to be too trusting. He realises he has made an error with the treacherous Thane of Cawdor: 'he was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust'. This line is followed by one of the visual ironies of the play, indicated by the stage direction, 'Enter Macbeth'. Duncan makes the same mistake again, which not only costs him his life but lands his country in the hands of an evil tyrant and the horrors of civil war.
In dramatic terms, Malcolm provides the motivation for Macbeth's descent into evil. When Duncan proclaims Malcolm 'Prince of Cumberland' and therefore his heir, this is a step which Macbeth believes he has to 'o'erleap' by murder. At the start of the play, Malcolm seems a nonentity: the Captain had to save him from being taken prisoner in the battle against the Norwegians, and he simply flees after Duncan's murder. However, he comes to provide the template of the perfect king in the play. In his dialogue with Macduff in Act Four Scene 3, he shows his understanding of kingship by enumerating a list of the 'king-becoming graces'. Moreover, he lacks his father's gullibility, shrewdly testing Macduff's loyalty by pretending to have vices which he later retracts. Despite his youth, his fitness to be king is evident in his humanity (shown by his sympathy for Macduff in his bereavement), and in his military acumen, advancing on Macbeth's castle with the camouflage of branches to disguise the size of the army. His leadership is confident and inspiring. The consideration he shows to his supporters at the end and his acknowledgement of God's help convince us he will bring lasting peace and order to his country.
1. The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable figures in the play. How does Shakespeare characterize the witches? What is their thematic significance?
2. Compare and contrast Macbeth, Macduff, and Banquo. How are they alike? How are they different? Is it possible to argue that Macbeth is the play’s villain and Macduff or Banquo its hero, or is the matter more complicated than that?
3. Discuss the role that blood plays in Macbeth, particularly immediately following Duncan’s murder and late in the play. What does it symbolize for Macbeth and his wife?
4. Discuss Macbeth’s visions and hallucinations. What role do they play in the development of his character?
5. Is Macbeth a moral play? Is justice served at the end of the play? Defend your answer.
6. Discuss Shakespeare’s use of the technique of elision, in which certain key events take place offstage. Why do you think he uses this technique?
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Macbeth (No Fear Shakespeare)
Macbeth (SparkNotes Literature Guide Series)