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The Character of Macduff

Kenneth Deighton.

Throughout the play Macduff shows himself to be possessed of great energy. Except when deeply moved, he is a man of very few words. He frequently acts impulsively; but he is thoroughly honest, has great depth of feeling, and is a true patriot.

1. His Honesty.

At first he firmly believes that Duncan's attendants, suborned by Malcolm and Donalbain, have committed the murder, and he does not hesitate in letting his opinion be known.

Macd. "They were suborn'd:
Malcolm and Donalbain, the king's two sons
Are stol'n away and fled; which puts upon them
Suspicion of the deed." II. iv. 24-26.

This freely expressed opinion may, in some degree, account for the reception he afterwards meets with from Malcolm in England. Though he speaks in this manner, yet we may infer from his subsequent conduct that he had also strong suspicions of Macbeth. The slaying of the grooms was a shock to him.

He does not go to the coronation, neither will he visit the King even when he receives a direct invitation to do so:

Len. "Sent he to Macduff?
Lord. He did: and with an absolute 'Sir, not I,'
The cloudy messenger turns me his back,
And hums, as who would say, 'You'll rue the time
That clogs me with this answer.'" III. vi. 39-43.

2. His Impulsiveness.

That he is impulsive, acts on the spur of the moment and without any consideration for the results, is clearly shown in his flight into England. Up to this point he has been careful in all his proceedings. Now, without the slightest warning, he leaves his wife and little ones at the mercy of Macbeth. It is very difficult to account for his conduct in this matter. By some it has been ascribed to cowardice; but his actions, especially towards the end of the play, prove him to be anything but cowardly. His wife does not understand his conduct:

Lady Macd. "Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes, His mansion and his titles in a place
From whence himself does fly? He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl." IV. ii. 5-11.

Perhaps he suddenly discovers that unless he takes to immediate flight his life is in great danger. The exigencies of his case prevent him taking his wife and children with him. He will not be able to protect them even if he remains; but by obtaining help from England he may be able to rescue them, as well as others of his fatherland, from the hands of the usurper. At the time of his flight he has not the slightest idea that Macbeth will be so cruel as to put his family to the sword.

3. His Patriotism.

When he reaches England, he finds that his greatest obstacle is Malcolm. This prince has become very suspicious, and looks upon him as a spy. He protests the honesty of his intentions, and that he is not treacherous; but it is all to no purpose. His genuine outburst of grief for his country, handed over to tyranny, raises some doubt in the mind of Malcolm. The latter then puts him to a severe test. Malcolm declares himself to be a monster from whom any country would be thankful to escape.

"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. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth." IV. iii. 91-99.

He is completely unnerved at this list of horrors, and he gives up all hope for his country:

"Fare thee well!
These evils thou repeat'st upon thyself
Have banished me from Scotland. My breast, Thy hope ends here!" IV. iii. 111-114.

This genuine show of patriotism disarms Malcolm's suspicions, and henceforward they work together for the rescue of their country.

4. His Affection.

The outburst of his emotion on the receipt of the news of the massacre of his family proves that he was not devoid of natural affection.

Macd. "He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Malc. Dispute it like a man.
Macd. I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me." IV. iii 217-22.3.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: With an Introduction and Notes. Ed. Kenneth Deighton. London: Macmillan and Company. 1896. Shakespeare Online. 10 Sept. 2013. < >.


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