Macbeth (mak-BEHTH), thane of Glamis, later thane of Cawdor and king of Scotland. A brave and successful military leader, and potentially a good and great man, he wins general admiration as well as the particular gratitude of King Duncan, his kinsman. Meeting the Three Weird Sisters, he succumbs to their tempting prophecies, but he also needs the urging of his wife to become a traitor, a murderer, and a usurper. He is gifted, or cursed, with a powerful and vivid imagination and with fiery, poetic language. Gaining power, he grows more ruthless, until finally he loses even the vestiges of humanity. He dies desperately, cheated by the ambiguous prophecies, in full realization of the worthlessness of the fruits of his ambition.
Lady Macbeth, the strong-willed, persuasive, and charming wife of Macbeth. Ambitious for her husband’s glory, she finds herself unable to kill King Duncan in his sleep because he resembles her father. As Macbeth becomes more inhuman, she becomes remorseful and breaks under the strain. In her sleepwalking, she relives the events of the night of the king’s murder and tries to wash her hands clean of imaginary bloodstains.
Banquo (BAN-kwoh), Macbeth’s fellow commander. A man of noble character, seemingly unmoved by the prophecy of the Three Weird Sisters that he will beget kings, he is not completely innocent. He does not disclose his suspicions of Macbeth, and he accepts a place in Macbeth’s court. After being murdered by Macbeth’s assassins, Banquo appears at a ceremonial banquet. His blood-spattered ghost, visible only to Macbeth, unnerves the king completely. In the final vision shown to Macbeth by the Three Weird Sisters, Banquo and his line of kings appear.
The Three Weird Sisters
The Three Weird Sisters, three witches, sinister hags who seem more closely allied to the Norns or Fates than to conventional witches. They make prophetic statements to Macbeth that are true but deceptive. Their prophecy of his becoming thane of Cawdor is fulfilled immediately, tempting him to take direct action to carry out the second prophecy, that he shall be king. They lull him into false security by telling him that he has nothing to fear until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and that he cannot be killed by any man born of woman.
Macduff (mak-DUHF), thane of Fife. He and Lennox arrive at Macbeth’s castle just after the murder of King Duncan, and Macduff discovers the body. A brave but prudent man, he flees Scotland and offers his help to Malcolm. Underestimating the villainy of Macbeth’s character, he is thunderstruck at hearing of the atrocious murder of his wife and children. He becomes a steel-hearted avenger. Before killing Macbeth, he deprives him of his last symbol of security, for as a cesarean child he was not actually born of woman. He presents Macbeth’s head to Malcolm and proclaims the young prince king of Scotland.
Duncan, the king of Scotland. Gentle and trusting, he shows great kindness to Macbeth. His murder by Macbeth is therefore almost incredibly fiendish.
Malcolm (MAL-kuhm), King Duncan’s eldest son. Far more cautious and shrewd than his father, he leaves for England to escape possible assassination. He is reluctant to give his trust to Macduff but finally, realizing his loyalty, accepts his aid in taking the throne of Scotland.
Donalbain (DON-ahl-bahn), King Duncan’s younger son. After consulting with Malcolm, he agrees to take a separate path, going to Ireland so that the potential heirs to the throne would not be accessible to a common assassination.
Fleance (FLEE-ahns), the son of Banquo. He escapes the murderers who kill his father and lives to haunt Macbeth with the Three Weird Sisters’ prophecy that kings will spring from Banquo’s line.
Ross, a nobleman of Scotland. He is Duncan’s messenger to Macbeth, bringing him word of his new title, thane of Cawdor. He also bears news to his kinswoman, Lady Macduff, of her husband’s departure from Scotland. His third office as messenger is to carry word to Macduff of the destruction of his entire family. He fights in Malcolm’s army against Macbeth.
Lennox, a nobleman of Scotland. He is Macduff’s companion when the latter brings the message to King Duncan at Macbeth’s castle. He also deserts Macbeth and joins forces with Malcolm.
Lady Macduff, a victim of Macbeth’s most horrible atrocity. She is human and pathetic.
Macduff’s son, a brave and precocious child. He faces Macbeth’s hired murderers without flinching and dies calling to his mother to save herself.
Siward (SEE-wurd), the earl of Northumberland, the general of the English forces supporting Malcolm. He is the type of the noble father accepting stoically the death of a heroic son.
Young Siward, the general’s courageous son. He dies fighting Macbeth hand to hand.
A Scottish doctor
A Scottish doctor, called in to minister to Lady Macbeth. He witnesses her sleepwalking in which she relives the night of the murder.
A gentlewoman, an attendant to Lady Macbeth. She is with the doctor and observes Lady Macbeth during the sleepwalking scene.
A sergeant (also called captain in the folio text), a wounded survivor of the battle at the beginning of the play. He reports to King Duncan the heroism of Macbeth and Banquo.
A porter, a comical drunkard. Roused by the knocking on the castle door, he pretends to be the gatekeeper of Hell and imagines various candidates clamoring for admission. The audience, knowing of Duncan’s murder, can realize how ironically near the truth is the idea of the castle as Hell.
Hecate (HEHK-eh-tee), the patroness of the Witches. It is generally accepted among Shakespearean scholars that Hecate is an addition to the play by another author, perhaps Thomas Middleton.
A messenger, who brings word that Birnam Wood apparently is moving. His message destroys one of Macbeth’s illusions of safety.
Seyton, an officer attending Macbeth. He brings word of Lady Macbeth’s death.
Caithness, Scottish noblemen who join Malcolm against Macbeth.
Read an in-depth analysis of Macbeth.
Read an in-depth analysis of Lady Macbeth.
Read an in-depth analysis of The Three Witches.
Banquo - The brave, noble general whose children, according to the witches’ prophecy, will inherit the Scottish throne. Like Macbeth, Banquo thinks ambitious thoughts, but he does not translate those thoughts into action. In a sense, Banquo’s character stands as a rebuke to Macbeth, since he represents the path Macbeth chose not to take: a path in which ambition need not lead to betrayal and murder. Appropriately, then, it is Banquo’s ghost—and not Duncan’s—that haunts Macbeth. In addition to embodying Macbeth’s guilt for killing Banquo, the ghost also reminds Macbeth that he did not emulate Banquo’s reaction to the witches’ prophecy.
King Duncan - The good King of Scotland whom Macbeth, in his ambition for the crown, murders. Duncan is the model of a virtuous, benevolent, and farsighted ruler. His death symbolizes the destruction of an order in Scotland that can be restored only when Duncan’s line, in the person of Malcolm, once more occupies the throne.
Macduff - A Scottish nobleman hostile to Macbeth’s kingship from the start. He eventually becomes a leader of the crusade to unseat Macbeth. The crusade’s mission is to place the rightful king, Malcolm, on the throne, but Macduff also desires vengeance for Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s wife and young son.
Hecate - The goddess of witchcraft, who helps the three witches work their mischief on Macbeth.
Fleance - Banquo’s son, who survives Macbeth’s attempt to murder him. At the end of the play, Fleance’s whereabouts are unknown. Presumably, he may come to rule Scotland, fulfilling the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s sons will sit on the Scottish throne.
Lennox - A Scottish nobleman.
Ross - A Scottish nobleman.
The Murderers - A group of ruffians conscripted by Macbeth to murder Banquo, Fleance (whom they fail to kill), and Macduff’s wife and children.
Porter - The drunken doorman of Macbeth’s castle.
Lady Macduff - Macduff’s wife. The scene in her castle provides our only glimpse of a domestic realm other than that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. She and her home serve as contrasts to Lady Macbeth and the hellish world of Inverness.
Donalbain - Duncan’s son and Malcolm’s younger brother.