Why Did Macbeth Kill Macduff's Family

Why does Macbeth have Macduff's family murdered?

Macbeth has Macduff's family murdered because he believes Macduff is a threat to his throne. The witches told Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” and when Macbeth learns that Macduff has gone to England to help Malcolm (Duncan’s son) rally an army to return to Scotland and defeat Macbeth, he hires murderers to kill Macduff’s family, thinking that this will cause Macduff to submit out of fear and grief.

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From the moment that Macduff sees King Duncan's bloody body lying dead in Macbeth's castle in act 2, scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff suspects that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were involved in Duncan's murder. Macbeth soon senses that Macduff suspects him of the murder, and an uneasy relationship between the two men begins.

When Macduff fails to attend Macbeth's coronation (2.4.47), and Macduff also declines to attend Macbeth's coronation banquet (3.4.156–157)—even though all of the Lords and Thanes of Scotland were in attendance, including the ghost of Banquo—Macbeth is certain that Macduff has become his enemy.

The appearance of Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's coronation feast unnerves Macbeth, and Macbeth decides to visit the witches who first prophesied that he "shalt be King hereafter!" (1.3.53) and demand that they tell him what the future holds for him now that he's become king.

Macbeth goes to the witches, who produce four apparitions for Macbeth, and the first thing that the first apparition says to Macbeth is "Beware Macduff" (4.1.78–79). Macbeth already knew this, and demands to know more. The second apparitions tells Macbeth that "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.89–90).

Macbeth interprets this to mean that Macduff, being born of a woman just like everyone else, can't harm him. However, Macbeth fails to realize that what the second apparition tells him doesn't necessarily negate what the first apparition tells him.

Nevertheless, to ease his fears about Macduff, Macbeth decides to have him killed.

MACBETH. Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee?
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live (4.1.92–94).

After the witches disappear from the scene, Lennox arrives to tell Macbeth that "Macduff is fled to England" (4.1.158). This means that not only has Macduff gone to the country of England to join with Duncan's son, Malcolm, but also that Macduff has gone to the English king to ask for help in fighting against Macbeth.

Macbeth is upset with himself for not acting against Macduff sooner, so he resolves that in the future he won't hesitate to act as soon as the need arises.

MACBETH. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand (4.1.163–165).

Macbeth also decides to attack Macduff's castle and kill Macduff's family and anyone else in Macduff's ancestral line.

MACBETH. The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife; give to the edge o’ the sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line (4.1.167–170).

Macbeth's intent seems to be to destroy Macduff and weaken his resolve against Macbeth by murdering Macduff's family and seizing all of Macduff's lands and property. If Macbeth's intent was to frighten Macduff and cause Macduff to resign himself to Macbeth's rule, Macbeth failed miserably.

Macduff returns from England with Malcolm, leading an army against Macbeth. Macbeth meets Macduff on the battlefield, and Macbeth unfortunately reminds Macduff of the death of this wife and children. This only heightens Macduff's need to avenge his family's murder.

It's Macbeth's resolve that's weakened when Macduff tells him that he was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd" (5.8.19–20), and Macduff, "being of no woman born," kills Macbeth.

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As Macbeth descends into insanity he becomes utterly obsessed with eliminating any threats to his power.  In determining which threats to heed Macbeth becomes enthralled with all of the ideas that the witches give to him, believing that all of the their prophetic warnings will come true.  It is clear that Macbeth seeks to eliminate threats to his own power due to the fact that he first murders Banquo and his children in order to ensure that Banquo's children will not pose a threat to Macbeth's rule (or that of his familial line).  Moreover, in heeding the witches prophecy (who warn him of Macduff), Macbeth is required to take action against Macduff.  When the murderers arrive to Lady Macduff's hiding place, they seek to find Macduff himself, perhaps not fully aware that he has fled, and instead find the family there.  They kill the family in part to eliminate the threat to Macbeth, but also to send the message to Macduff that they will not fear him and that they believe him to be a traitor.  Ironically, it is in this moment that Macbeth seals his own fate.  By murdering Macduff's family he ensures that Macduff will retaliate and instigate an insurgency against him, ultimately concluding in Macbeth's downfall.  This is the final act in the course of events that guarantees Macbeth's eventual death.  

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Macbeth is sinking deeper into insanity. He is all consumed with doing whatever it takes to keep his crown. After he sees the witches again, he fears that Macduff poses the biggest threat to him. The witches warn Macbeth.

"Beware Macduff, beware the Thane of fire. The power of man, for none born of woman, shall harm Macbeth"

This frightens Macbeth so he wants to get rid of the threat. Macduff is in England helping Malcolm build an army. Malcolm is the son of Duncan, who Macbeth killed. Macbeth knows that Macduff's loyalties don't lie with him, and this makes him angry. He sends his murderers to kill Macduff's family. Macduff's wife is angry that her husband has left her and their children and tells her son that he is dead. A messenger shows up to try to warn her to take her children and leave, but she doesn't. She tells him:

"Whither should I fly? I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world; where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly: Why then, alas, do I put up that womanly defense, to say I have done no harm?"

Lady Macduff won't leave and in the end she and her children and servants are all killed. Macbeth thinks that, by the witches warning, Macduff was born by some supernatural force, however he was born by a cesarean section, so he was born by not supernatural deeds, but is the downfall of Macbeth after all.

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Macbeth has two reasons for having Macduff's wife and children murdered. The first is to enact revenge against Macduff, who has fled to England to join Duncan's son Malcolm and assist in raising an army to attack Scotland and place Malcolm on the throne. The second reason is to make an example of Macduff and discourage other men from deserting him. In Act 4. Scene 1, Macbeth says:

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 typical behavior for a tyrant. It is the sort of terrorism Adolf Hitler employed during World War II when officers and enlisted men believed that the war was lost and were turning against him. Macbeth can no longer count on loyalty or patriotism and feels he must rule by fear.

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