Why doesn't Macbeth kill Banquo himself?

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Macbeth is now king, the most powerful person in the land, so it is not hard for him to find henchmen willing to kill an underling for him. He knew he had to kill the anointed king, Duncan, himself, but Banquo is a different story. He knows that even if his hired assassins try to betray him, it will be his word against theirs, and his will be believed: he is the king.

Macbeth also has good reason not to wish to be associated with the murder or near the crime, as he is already under suspicion for having murdered Duncan. He doesn't want to take the risk of being accused of his friend's murder.

Finally, although Macbeth's heart is hardening, it is not hardened all the way through yet, as we understand when his guilt is so great after ordering Banquo's murder that he believes he sees Banquo's ghost. Banquo has been his long time friend and comrade in arms. To murder him himself is more, at this point, than Macbeth can do. He has already had the horrible and shattering experience of killing Duncan: we can only imagine he doesn't want to undergo anything like that again if he can avoid it.

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Macbeth doesn't kill Banquo because he's smart enough to realize that if Duncan, Macbeth's relative, turns up dead in Macbeth's house—greatly benefiting Macbeth himself—and then Banquo, Macbeth's friend, turns up dead anywhere Macbeth routinely visits, it is going to look pretty fishy. People will likely begin to realize that these deaths of those closest to Macbeth are not coincidental. If Macbeth has Banquo killed far from Macbeth's own home, somewhere on the road, then it could be more easily made to look like Macbeth has nothing to do with it. He tells the murderers he hires that the murder

[...] must be done tonight
And something from the palace; always thought
That I require a clearness. (3.2.150-152)

In other words, Macbeth wants to take precautions so that he is kept clear of any blame, so that he is not suspected of being involved. Hiring murderers to take care of it while Banquo is away from Macbeth's home is probably the best way to do this (although, it doesn't work and people begin to put it together that Macbeth is responsible for both murders anyway).

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Shakespeare was trying to maintain some degree of audience sympathy for Macbeth because this was his tragic hero. He had to put some distance between Macbeth and the murders for the audience to maintain any sympathy for him. We feel little enough sympathy for Macbeth in the end as it is. The only good thing to be said about him is that he is extremely courageous. He even challenges Fate itself and goes down fighting Fate, which he ultimately finds to be invincible.

Furthermore, Macbeth has had enough of cold-blooded murder when he kills Duncan in his sleep, as we can see in the aftermath. In Act II, Scene 2, when his wife tells him he must go back to Duncan's chamber and smear the faces of the drugged grooms with blood from the two daggers, he replies, "I'll go no more: I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on't again I dare not."

So his wife has to take the daggers and go back to do the grisly job for him. She is one of the first to do his dirty work. When Macbeth thinks of killing Banquo, it is natural for him to find someone else to do it. He doesn't mind killing men in battle, but he doesn't like committing villainous murders. We can say that for him, too that he is not much good as a murderer. He delegates Banquo's and Fleance's murders to two men who are joined by a third murderer just before the assault takes place. Later when he has a number of soldiers slaughter Macduff's family and everyone else in Macduff's castle, Macbeth is getting someone else to do his dirty work. This is partly because he is squeamish about the criminal kind of killing, and also because Shakespeare didn't want to make Macbeth look any worse than he already does. We are supposed to feel some pity for Macbeth at the end, when he is all alone and everybody hates him, and he is totally depressed.

Additionally, Macbeth becomes king almost immediately after Duncan's assassination. As king, Macbeth has more power. He can kill anybody he wants to, but he has to be concerned about public opinion. When he has Banquo killed at some distance from his castle, he makes sure he has a good alibi. He is hosting a big banquet. How could he have killed Banquo and tried to kill Fleance?

Macbeth might have another reason for not planning to kill Banquo himself. Banquo is a warrior. He would not be as easy to kill as an old man sound asleep in his bed. Macbeth might feel that he would need help. After all, there are two people involved: Banquo and his son Fleance. Fleance might get away while he was fighting with the boy's father, which is pretty much what happens. Banquo and his son may stay at Dunsinane for another night, but we can be sure Banquo would be wide awake and have his door securely bolted and barricaded. We see in Act II, Scene 1 that Banquo keeps his sword with him while he is in Macbeth's castle. Early in the scene, he tells Fleance:

Hold, take my sword.

He does this because Shakespeare wanted to show his audience that he has a sword. When Macbeth enters, Banquo says,

Give me my sword!

Banquo knows he is in danger because he knows Macbeth cannot like the idea of Banquo's descendants forming a long line of Scottish monarchs. Banquo is also sure Macbeth killed Duncan, even though Macbeth managed to pin the blame on Malcolm and Donalbain. Banquo knows Macbeth is a very dangerous man, and he doesn't like being a guest in his castle.

Shakespeare may not have wanted to write yet another murder scene in which Macbeth goes creeping down the corridors in the dark. It would be too repetitive. The playwright had wrung about as much emotion out of the first murder as he could expect to get. He needed some variety. A writer has to keep changing things in order to hold the interest of the audience.

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