How is Macbeth's decision to kill Macduff's family different from his decisions to murder Duncan and Banquo?

Expert Answers

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

In act 4, scene 1, Macbeth hears that Macduff has fled and is sorry he didn't kill him when he had the chance. He states that from now on, the very moment he has a thought, he will act on it. In fact, he says, he will immediately have Macduff's...

Unlock
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 act 4, scene 1, Macbeth hears that Macduff has fled and is sorry he didn't kill him when he had the chance. He states that from now on, the very moment he has a thought, he will act on it. In fact, he says, he will immediately have Macduff's wife and children killed—which he does.

This is a contrast to the thought he expends on killing Duncan. He agonizes over that decision and rightly anticipates that he will be forever living in bloodshed once he starts down that bloody path. He even second-guesses himself and decides not to act, until his wife goads him into it.

He acts faster with Banquo, but not without forethought. He has the motive of Banquo knowing too much (he heard the witches' prophecies too), and he rightfully suspects that Banquo fears he is behind Duncan's death. He is also angry that he himself has taken on all the risk and guilt—and already is unhappy wearing the crown that he thought would make his dreams come true—and yet Banquo's children, he believes, will reap the rewards. He has good reason to kill Banquo, from his point of view.

The killing of a helpless woman and her children is a new low and an act of impulse, as Macbeth himself states when he says the "firstlings" (first thoughts) of his heart with be the first acts of his hand:

The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge o' th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line.
This is a descent into tyranny, a picture of what tyrants do: they act on the impulses of the moment without sober contemplation. Throughout his oeuvre, Shakespeare shows he has far more respect for leaders who think before they act. Macbeth, in contrast, shows he is totally hardened with this declaration privileging impulse.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Macbeth kills King Duncan, his purpose is to take the throne for himself. He wants to be king, and Duncan is the only obstacle in his way. Similarly, when Macbeth kills Banquo, his purpose is to protect his crown. As we learned in act I, scene III, Banquo's sons are destined to be kings. In order to prevent this from happening, Macbeth hires assassins who kill Banquo and try (but fail) to kill Fleance.

In contrast, the murder of Macduff's family serves no purpose. In act IV, scene I, it is made clear to Macbeth that Macduff poses no threat to his crown. The second apparition tells Macbeth that "none of woman born" can harm him, leading Macbeth to declare that he does not fear Macduff:

Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee?

The only reason that Macbeth kills Macduff's family is because he can. Instead of having a political purpose, like the other murders, it is rooted in Macbeth's growing tyranny.

The murder of Macduff's family is, therefore, a turning point for Macbeth, demonstrating that he is becoming increasingly paranoid and increasingly cruel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and the ordered murder of Fleance (who is a child) serve strategical purposes.  Duncan is killed so Macbeth can take his place, Banquo knows about the witches' predictions so therefore is a threat to Macbeth, and Fleance is in line for the throne, if the witches' predictions are to be believed.

The murder of Macduff's family has no strategic purpose.  Macduff is not in line for the throne, or at least there are numerous people in front of him, and much less are any of his heirs.  Macbeth is even assured in Act 4.1 that Macduff is no threat to him, though the messages are contradictory--one message is that he should beware of Macduff, while another tells him no man born of woman can harm him.  And Macduff is safe in England, where Macbeth can't get at him.  Again, no strategic purpose exists.

When Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff's family, he is lashing out, throwing a horrific temper tantrum, if you will.  He can't get at Macduff, so he kills his family instead.  Psychologically, he is getting at Macduff the only way he can.   

This makes these murders even more terrible and more horrific than the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and the ordered murder of Fleance. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would argue that this decision differs from the others in that it is much more brutal and much less justifiable.  Killing Duncan and (trying to) kill Banquo somehow does not seem so bad.

When Macbeth makes the decisions to kill the two men, it seems more okay to me for a couple of reasons.  First, they are grown men.  Second, killing them has a direct bearing on Macbeth being king.  By contrast, killing Macduff's family seems much more horrible for the opposite reasons.  These are women and children and their lives do not directly affect Macbeth's chances.  He is killing them to protect a dynasty -- so that they will not be kings after him.

So it really seems to me to be much less "necessary" to kill them -- it shows that he's getting more bloodthirsty and power hungry.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team