In Shakespeare's Macbeth, how does the killing of Banquo compare and/or contrast with the murder of Duncan? What change in Macbeth's character do any differences  emphasize?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The planned killings of Duncan and Banquo in Shakespeare’s Macbeth differ in significant ways. These differences emphasize various changes in Macbeth’s character. Particularly different are the ways Macbeth contemplates the killings.  Among the differences are the following:

  • When contemplating the killing of Duncan, Macbeth is full of hesitation, ambivalence, and doubt, as when he says that the king is present at his house

. . . in double trust:

First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,

Strong both against the deed [that is, the murder]; then, as his host

Who should against his murderer shut the door,

Not bear the knife myself .  (1.7.12-16)

However, when plotting Banquo’s killing, Macbeth shows very little hesitation at all (3.1.48-140).

  • When contemplating the murder of Duncan, Macbeth has to be urged on by his wife (1.7.31-82), but when contemplating the murder of Banquo, Macbeth acts without her prompting (3.1.48-140).
  • When Lady Macbeth tries to persuade Macbeth to go through with the killing of Duncan, she implies that he is not truly a man if he will not commit the deed (1.7.47-49). When Macbeth urges the “two murderers” to assassinate Banquo, he uses much the same argument:

Now if you have a station in the file

Not i’ the worst rank of manhood, say’t . . . . (3.1.102-04)

Macbeth, in other words, has come very much to resemble his wife, at least as she behaved in Act 1, scene 7. He is now cunning, ruthless, manipulative, and determined, and he is also effective in the way he plays on the feelings of others. Thus he urges the murderers to kill Banquo by telling them that Banquo’s death is in their own self-interests:

. . . I will put that business in your bosoms

Whose execution takes your enemy off,

Grapples you to the heart and love of us . . . (3.1.104-06)

Lady Macbeth had used similar arguments when trying to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan (1.7.41-45).

  • Even after he had earlier decided to kill Duncan, Macbeth had still referred to the murder as “this terrible feat” (1.7.80). Later, however, when urging the murderers to kill Banquo, he shows no such qualms (3.1.104-07).
  • In the discussions preceding the death of Duncan, Lady Macbeth was the one who formulated concrete, specific plans (1.7.61-72); in the discussions preceding the killing of Banquo, it is Macbeth who formulates the specific plans (3.1.128-39).

In short, before the killing of Banquo, Macbeth’s moral character has greatly deteriorated. He is not the man of troubled conscience he had been before the murder of Duncan. Instead, he is now more obviously evil and vicious.