How does Macduff serve as a foil to Macbeth?

Macduff serves as a foil to Macbeth by highlighting Macbeth's wicked, bloodthirsty actions and his disloyalty to king and country. In contrast to Macbeth, Macduff demonstrates true honor, loyalty, and honesty.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In literature, a foil is a character with qualities that contrast with those of a main character. These contrasts typically highlight the main character's strengths or weaknesses, particularly as those traits contribute to plot development.

Macduff serves as a foil to Macbeth in several ways. First, unlike Macbeth , he...

Get
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In literature, a foil is a character with qualities that contrast with those of a main character. These contrasts typically highlight the main character's strengths or weaknesses, particularly as those traits contribute to plot development.

Macduff serves as a foil to Macbeth in several ways. First, unlike Macbeth, he is a loyal and honest man, particularly when it comes to his king. It is Macduff who finds Duncan's body, and when he sees his king's bloody remains, he is so horrified that he can barely string words together:

Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee (2.3.67).

He remarks that the act of murdering a king is sacrilegious, since kings are ordained by God. Macduff's loyal reaction to Duncan's death thus serves to further emphasize the wickedness of Macbeth's murderous acts, demonstrating that Macbeth has not only acted selfishly—he has acted against God.

Act 4, scene 3, highlights Macduff's integrity. Macduff seeks out Duncan's son Malcolm, whom he believes to be the rightful ruler, to overthrow the tyrannical Macbeth. Malcolm, however, is unsure of Macduff's allegiances, and so he "tests" him, claiming that while Macbeth is bad ruler, he might prove even worse. As Malcolm details his various (pretend) vices, Macduff grows disgusted, and exclaims that Malcolm's wicked nature makes him unfit to rule:

Fit to govern?
No, not to live.—O nation miserable,
With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered,
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again,
Since that the truest issue of thy throne
By his own interdiction stands accursed,
And does blaspheme his breed?

Macduff's horrified reaction proves that his intentions are honorable, prompting Malcolm to reveal his deception and agree to work with Macduff. Notably, while Macbeth is perfectly willing to commit treacherous acts to maintain power and satisfy his ambition, Macduff refuses to compromise his honor by swearing loyalty to an unworthy ruler. In refusing to support Malcolm—even though he is the rightful heir to the throne— Macduff displays a strength of character that is noticeably absent in Macbeth.

Ultimately, then, in showing how an honorable nobleman ought to act, Macduff makes Macbeth look even more selfish and weak in comparison. When news reaches Macduff that Macbeth has murdered his family, their role as foils and rivals is cemented, and a final battle between the two of them becomes inevitable.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on