Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Role of Macduff in Macbeth

Dan O'Herlihy as Macduff in the 1948
film adaptation
If Macbeth is the villain of the piece, which, of course, isn't technically true - but, for the sake of argument, if Macbeth is the 'bad guy', Macduff is, unquestionably, the 'good guy'.  Yet, for a good chunk of the play…In fact, for almost all of the play, Macduff doesn’t seem to have a very big role. This is mostly because, unlike many of Shakespeare’s ‘great’ characters, he doesn’t say much.

His presence, albeit economic with words, is more keenly felt when watching the play or a screen adaptation. You could describe him as one of those strong, silent types. 

However, conversely, Macduff is extremely expressive when it comes to things that have affected him deeply, such as the murder of Duncan and slaughter of his family. So, he’s a rather odd mix of pragmatism and deep emotion.

In fact, strangely, he seems to be the only man in the play who does not feel a sense of shame or embarrassment when it comes to grieving and demonstrating emotion.

How Does Macduff Feel About Duncan?

The first we hear from Macduff is when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle and is sent to rouse Duncan. 
Terence Bayler as Macduff in the 1971 film adaptation
He swiftly returns, having found the king’s bloodied body. “O horror, horror, horror!/Tongue nor heart/Cannot conceive nor name thee!” 

He goes on to speak of his dismay, claiming that the others who enter Duncan’s bedchamber will ‘lose their sight’ when they set eyes on his corpse.

He’s obviously distraught and yet, in the ensuing confusion, he is the only one who has the presence of mind to ask Macbeth why he has so quickly ‘offed’ the two grooms, who slept outside Duncan’s door.

He is also, among the mêlée, the first one to run to Lady Macbeth’s assistance. 

Of course, he’s wrong in assuming that she is a weak little thing, who needs to be protected from the evils of the world, but it’s worth noting that he seems to be the only character who is not either losing his head or thinking solely of himself.

Charles Kimble as Macduff
circa 1840

Macduff: The Man of Action

One of the delightful things about Macduff is that he is a man of action, rather than a man of words. 

This serves a purpose for Shakespeare, in that, when Macduff speaks to Ross about the situation in Scotland, he is able to get some exposition handled neatly and quickly.

Rather than sitting around whining about things, though, Macduff swiftly decides to take action. 

Against the wishes of his wife, who believes that he’s signing his own death warrant, he heads to England to help Malcolm raise an army against the tyrant Macbeth.

The Family Man

Perhaps the most revealing moment, in terms of Macduff’s character, is when he is told of the murder of his family. He is clearly distressed and demonstrates a moving mixture of tenderness towards his children and disbelief at the thought of their deaths. “All my pretty ones?/Did you say all?” And it’s surprising how much emotion is expressed in so few words (not something you’d usually associate with Shakespeare).

But, of course, he doesn’t wallow in grief for long. In fact, the second line he speaks after Ross, reluctantly, delivers the news is, “And I must be from thence!” Determined to avenge the murders of his loved ones, he is even more keenly resolved in his mission to take down Macbeth.

By killing Macduff's family, Macbeth sealed his fate
good 'n' proper.

Would he have done so if his wife and children had lived? Probably. But as soon as Macbeth ordered the slaughter of Macduff’s household, it became a dead cert.

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