How does Shakespeare develop Macduff in Act 5?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Shakespeare develops Macduff by showing that he is quick thinking and brave when confronting Macbeth in battle.

Macduff is an interesting character.  He is not hot-headed, and doesn’t want power.  Leading up to the battle, he explains that he is interested in fighting Macbeth and Macbeth only.

That way the noise is. Tyrant, show thy face!

If thou beest slain and with no stroke of mine,

My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still. (Act 5, Scene 7)

To Macduff, there are two things that are important.  He wants to get revenge for his family’s death at Macbeth’s hands, and he wants to stop Macbeth’s bloody reign.  His goal is to find Macbeth on the battlefield and defeat him.

Macbeth’s response to Macduff is touched by the prophecy, but Macduff has no way of knowing that.  He sees Macbeth as a bloody tyrant who needs to be stopped.  He keeps a cool head throughout the encounter, reacting to Macbeth’s reaction to him.  He greets him in battle as “hell hound.” 

At first, Macbeth is not alarmed.  Remember, he thinks that no man of woman born can hurt him.  Macduff thinks quickly, finding a way to get Macbeth off balance.

MACBETH:

…I bear a charmed life, which must not yield(15)

To one of woman born.

MACDUFF:

Despair thy charm,

And let the angel whom thou still hast served

Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb

Untimely ripp'd.(20) (Act 5, Scene 8)

If you think about it, this was a brilliant response.  Who would think about this?!  Most people would not come up with such a quick and devastating response to put Macbeth off guard.  First of all, what a bizarre thing for someone to say to you in the heat of battle. “You can’t hurt me, I bear a charmed life!  No man born of woman can defeat me!”  That’s crazy talk. 

The only way to fight crazy talk is with crazy talk.  Whether or not Macduff knows that Macbeth has been consorting with witches and hearing prophecies, he comes up with an absolutely brilliant response to Macbeth’s pronouncement that he can’t be defeated.  He basically says, “No man born of woman can defeat you?  Okay, I wasn’t born of a woman!”  Macbeth has absolutely no response to that.  He is deflated.  Whether or not this is true or not doesn’t really matter.  Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.  Either way, it quickly and completely destroyed Macbeth’s confidence.

Macbeth says “I'll not fight with thee.”  Macduff’s response is that this is fine with him.

MACDUFF:

Then yield thee, coward,

And live to be the show and gaze o’ the time.

We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,

Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,(30)

“Here may you see the tyrant.” (Act 5, Scene 8)

In the end, Macduff cuts off Macbeth’s head, and the tyranny of Macbeth is ended.  It is all because of Macduff’s quick thinking.  For Macduff, who did not want power, it is fine to hand over the reigns of the kingdom to young Malcolm and take a step back.

In this act, Shakespeare develops Macduff's character quite well.  We learn that he is brave, quick-thinking, and strong.  He does want revenge, but not in a bloodthirsty way.  He wanted to avenge his family, but he did not allow it to cloud his judgement.  He kept a cool head the entire time, and he emerged victorious.  He was actually very goal oriented.  He wanted to take out Macbeth, and he did.

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