Banquo’s Character in Shakepeare’s Macbeth

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Macbeth is perhaps William Shakespeare’s finest but shortest tragedy.  Its core theme is regicide and its dire consequences. The play starts with three witches giving pronouncements on Macbeth and Banquo’s fate. The witches declare that Macbeth will become “Thane of Cawdor” and then, future king.  Banquo will not be king himself but he will father the descendants of kings. Immediately after the witches vanished,  a messenger arrive and announces that Macbeth is indeed chosen to be the newly installed “Thane of Cawdor”, fulfilling the first prophecy.

This inflames Macbeth’s desire to become the king eventually.  Macbeth tells his wife, Lady Macbeth about the prophecies. Lady Macbeth plots to kill the king so the prediction will come true. Macbeth is, at first, averse to the regicide plan but Lady Macbeth challenged his manhood.

Macbeth kills King Duncan and becomes king of Scotland. Wary about the prophecy on Banquo and kins, he had his friend ambushed. Banquo dies but his son Fleance is able to escape.

Macbeth seeks the advice of three witches who told him three things: “beware Macduff”, “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and he will “never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him”.

Macduff, with cohorts Malcolm, Englishman Siward, led an army against Dunsinane Castle. While in Birnam Wood, the soldiers are told to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers, making true the Witches’ third prophecy.

A battle ensues. Macbeth brags that he does not fear Macduff, for he cannot be killed by any man born of woman. Macduff says that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” (i.e., born by Caesarean section)-and is therefore not “of woman born.” Macbeth dies.
Macduff is installed King of Scotland. Banquo’s descendants succeed Macduff.

Banquo’s Character

Banquo is a very interesting character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  In the play, he is depicted as a person capable of ambition but does not resort to unscrupulous means to get there.  He provides a breath of fresh air to the gloominess that seems to permeate the entire story. 
Banquo’s character seems intended to show a direct contrast to Macbeth.  He represents the path Macbeth deviates from: a path not characterized by betrayal and murder. This is probably the reason why in the latter part of the story, it is Banquo’s ghost and not King Duncan’s who haunts Macbeth.  Banquo’s innocence reminds Macbeth’s of his crimes. 

Banquo is cautious by nature. He is skeptical right from the start. When the witches first appear, he taunts them: “Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate.” (Act I, Scene iii, lines 61-62). Even after the first prediction that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor comes true, Banquo was still hesitant and cautious.   He warns Macbeth not to be convinced of small truths and overlook more important matters. He thinks the witches are evil and are doing tricks on them.

Banquo is depicted as someone who exercises self-control. He does not support evil while Macbeth falls prey to it.  This may appear to be Banquo’s essential traits but his motives though seem, at certain points, unclear.  For instance, after they met the witches, Banquo thinks that the Witches are evil, “What, can the devil speak true?” He also warns Macbeth. “And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths …” Yet, later in Act II, Sc.i, Banquo is not as unperturbed as it seems as he turns out to be struggling with temptations too, “…merciful powers Restrain me in the cursed thoughts that nature Gives ways to in repose”. 

The biggest difference between Banquo’s reactions to the prophecies with that of Macbeth is Banquo’s evil thoughts manifest in dreams while Macbeth’s evil plots occupy even his waking moments, consuming him. 

After King Duncan was murdered in his sleep, Banquo assumes leadership and calls for an investigation. He states that he is on the side of right, “In the great hand of God I stand and” yet (Act III, Sc.i)in soliloquy, Banquo realises that Macbeth has been responsible for Duncan’s murder “…and I fear Thou play’dst most foully for ‘t”.

Yet, he does not center the investigation on Macbeth and does nothing to accuse his friend of murdering the King.  He has reason to believe that Macbeth is behind the crime because the latter has the motives due to the witches’ prophecy.

Why doesn’t he act based on his suspicions and reveal what he suspects? Probably, he just doing his part to ensure that the Witches’ predictions come true – that from his lineage will emerge a future king. Deep down, he is really hoping that the oracle is true and that the future generation of his bloodline will secure the leadership.  At this point, it is easy to see that Banquo has yielded to temptation. Banquo’s seeming indifference to King Duncan’s murder is likely to indicate that he is a silent accomplice to Macbeth’s crime.

At one part of the play after Duncan’s death, Banquo also tells his son that he is having dark dreams.  This also elicited the curiosity of some scholars who are left wondering if his dark dreams meant it occur to him to kill Macbeth so the Witches’ prophecy will come true.  The idea is not farfetched considering he admitted in dwelling on the predictions. And he is already half-guilty to the crime being the silent witness to Duncan’s murder.  He succumbs to the temptation already by keeping mum. 

The succeeding events which led to Banquo’s death in the hands of the very person he protected, Macbeth, is said to be his punishment for believing evil will triumph. He seems to acquiesce to the idea that destiny can be attain through evil means thru his inaction and silence.

Banquo may seem generous and honorable but he is not above reproach. He can be capable of selfishness to advance his personal interests too.  Beneath the godly exterior could lay a weakness. Banquo portrays an ironic display of courage and cowardice, truth and half-truths, strength and weakness, and a power play between integrity and selfishness.

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