What is the purpose or role of Lady Macduff in Macbeth?
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It appears that the prime reason for Lady Macduff being included in the play is to paint a human face on yet another victim of Macbeth as his acts of evil become even more blatant and heinous. Lady Macduff only appears in Act IV scene 2 of the play, and it is clear from this that she is but a minor character. She does not exist in her own right so much as serving to present us with a sympathetic figure that automatically makes us judge Macbeth and his act of slaughtering the Macduff household all the more harshly. Note how Lady Macduff is presented as a figure that we will feel sympathy for. She starts off by talking about how she has been deserted by her husband and how it has left her eldest son "fatherless." Her words also implicitly gives judgement on her husband and how he has left her and his family defenceless:
Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes,
His mansion, and his titles, in a place
From whence himself does fly?
It is highlighted how with Macduff's removal to England, Lady Macduff and his children are left in a very vulnerable position. Lastly, the playful dialogue between Lady Macduff and her son shows us her love for her children and a touching domestic scene, that is all too cruelly interrupted.
Thus Lady Macduff exists to show how Macbeth's evil has escalated. He started off by killing Duncan in secret, then arranging for murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance in secret, and now he has moved to openly slaughtering whole households of defenceless women and children. Lady Macduff is presented in such a way as to make us feel sympathy for her and her plight, and this acts as a moral commentary on the central character of Macbeth.
Lady Macduff appears in only one scene in Macbeth. She is seen in conversation with Ross and when Ross departs, she and her son keep talking until the muderers break in to kill the boy and to pursue the mother to death.
Lady Macduff is presented as a wife and a mother, a wife who is annoyed over her husband's apparently irresponsible desertion of the family, and a mother who is cocerned about her son's safety in the absence of the father. She is an obvious foil to the other Lady in the play, Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macduff is a typical home-maker, a woman not much aware of the realities in the world of political power and ambition. She loves her husband and children and claims to have been taken care of by her husband. She accuses Macduff for having now neglected his family obligations, for having deserted his family in the face of impending dangers.
Shakespeare does not provide any special clue as to how the character of Lady Macduff be acted out. The situation and the dialogues should be enough for the actor to conceive her role.
She is a loving, caring, a bit sentimental woman who stands farthest from the strong-willed Lady Macbeth.
Shakespeare liked to have a variety of characters in his plays. In Macbeth he has one very strong female role in Lady Macbeth, but there are no other good female parts. The three witches are putatively female but supernatural creatures and not real women. Banquo says to them, in one of the rare touches of humor in this grim play:
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
Shakespeare may have invented a scene for Lady Macduff to try to give his play a little more balance or variety. The audience has to be able to tell characters apart as they come and go on the stage, and this is a major reason that plays typically feature young and old, male and female, and contrasting types. The scene in which Lady Macduff appears is not really necessary, since Macduff is informed that his castle was stormed and his whole family slaughtered.
Shakespeare must have had permanent members of his troupe who specialized in female roles and may have wanted to give one of them something to do. Shakespeare was not only a writer but an actor, a director, a producer, and a co-owner of the theater. The same youth who played Lady Macduff may have changed clothes and appeared as the Messenger who reports to Macbeth in Act 5:
As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.
In many of Shakespeare's other plays it is obvious that he liked plots that would include a variety of characters, especially including females. In King Lear he has three strong roles for Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. In Othello he has three good parts for Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. In Hamlet he has good roles for Gertrude and Ophelia. Even in Julius Caesar he includes roles from Calpurnia and Portia in order to keep his play from seeming like nothing but a lot of middle-aged men strutting around in togas and hard to tell one from the other. In As You Like It, Shakespeare has good roles for Rosalind, Celia, Phebe and Audrey.
This is called "orchestration." In a modern play like A Streetcar Named Desire, you can see how the author developed a plot that would offer good parts for a variety of characters--Stanley and Stella Kowalski, Blanche du Bois, and Harold Mitchell.
In Macbeth, however, although he had one powerful female role, the play was otherwise overfreighted with military men. Perhaps too much importance has been attributed to Lady Macduff. She may exist in the play mainly to add just another female role and provide a little visual and even audio variation. There is also a brief role for the Gentlewoman in Act 5, Scene 1. This "woman" may be the lad who played Lady Macduff earlier, now dressed in a different garb.
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