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Macduff, Thane of Fife
Dan O'Herlihy as Macduff in Orson Welles' controversial film adaptation Macbeth (1948)
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Macbeth
Date Uncertain, c.1603-1607
Source Holinshed's Chronicles
Family Lady Macduff, wife
Role Protagonist
Represents moral order
Slays Macbeth
Quote Despair thy charm, / And let the angel whom thou still hast served / Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped. (5.8)

Macduff is a fictional character in Shakespeare's Macbeth (c.1603-1607). He suspects Macbeth of regicide and kills him off-stage in the final act. Macduff's origin lies in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), a history of England, Scotland and Ireland. Shakespeare faithfully follows Holinshed in fashioning Macduff for the theatre. He is the main antagonist in the play.



Shakespeare based Macbeth upon the narratives of King Duff and King Duncan in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). Macduff first appears in Holinshed's narrative of King Duncan after Macbeth has killed the monarch and reigned as King of Scotland for 10 years. When Macbeth then calls upon his nobles to contribute to the construction of Dunsinane castle, Macduff avoids the summons. Macbeth becomes suspicious. Macduff leaves Scotland for England to prod Duncan's son Malcolm into taking the Scottish throne by force. Meanwhile, Macbeth murders Macduff's family. Malcolm, Macduff, and the English forces march on Macbeth, and Macduff kills him.[1] Shakespeare follows Holinshed's account of Macduff closely, with his only deviations being Macduff's discovery of Duncan's body in 2.3., and Macduff's brief conference with Ross in 2.4.

Historically, the Clan MacDuff was the most powerful family in Fife in the medieval ages.[2] The ruins of Macduff's Castle lie in East Wemyss cemetery.

Role in the play

Macduff first appears in Act 2, Scene 3, where he discovers the corpse of King Duncan in Macbeth's castle. He suspects Macbeth of regicide. Macbeth is crowned King of Scotland, and, in order to further secure the throne, begins murdering those he cannot trust. Macduff flees Scotland for England to persuade King Duncan's son Malcolm to take the Scottish throne by force and restore the land to health and peace. In the meantime, Macbeth murders Macduff's wife and children. Malcolm and Macduff march north and assault Macbeth's stronghold with their English forces. Macduff encounters Macbeth and engages him in furious combat but Macduff gains the advantage and kills him off-stage.

The longest scene in the play is the conference between Macduff and Malcolm in England (4.3). The scene is considered by one scholar to "mark the pause before the storm" and that "no dramatic theme remains except the great avengement...the storm clouds gather, and this long scene fills the period",[3] and was composed in part by Shakespeare to give Richard Burbage a pause before Macbeth's final scenes. Shakespeare faithfully followed Holinshed's narrative in constructing the scene.

Macduff and morality

Along with his role as a parallel figure to protagonist Macbeth, the character of Macduff serves the text as a case study for overlapping theories of morality. In one vein, Macduff promotes truth and cuts through the treacherous secrecy of companion characters. For example, Macduff announces three different deaths. First, Macduff announces the death of Duncan. Then, he announces the death of his own family. Finally, he announces the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This role makes him the fourth most important character in Macbeth after Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan. It emphasises his dedication to truth over falsehood.

Macbeth, as a complete text, is widely read as an expression of the protagonist's internal moral state. As a supporting character, Macduff's role is an example of morality that contrasts directly with the protagonist's immorality, integrity that contrasts with moral subversion.[4] Macduff's character receives some of the greatest emotional "jolts" of the play, especially when he learns of the death of his family. Macduff's integrity contrasts with Macbeth's, charting the protagonist's steady deterioration from worshiped warrior to lying murderer.

Macduff also plays a moral part as he is alert to fellow characters' consciences. His knocking at the gate (2.3) arouses Macbeth's conscience, as well as the porter. Macduff first sees the deceased Duncan when standing side-by-side with Macbeth. Here, they are illustrated as moral foils. Macduff, as the play's "central eye", sees straight to the heart of the deception Macbeth lays out. Macduff is therefore considered a moral character, in that he adheres to his own values instead of succumbing to Macbeth's.

Macduff may also be read as a precursor for existentialist philosophy.[5] Macduff's flight from Scotland is a "spiritual reawakening", with spirituality based always around the truth, whatever it may be or bring. Not satisfied with obscurity, Macduff always reexamines his values. In deciding to leave his family, Macduff deserts those values and pays for it. Because he accepts responsibility for his decision to leave his family for political exploration, Macduff echoes sentiments of later writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who claim that morality may only be judged to the extent that a person takes responsibility for his or her actions. In this way, Macduff is also considered to be moral.[5]

Grounds exist which also call Macduff's morality into question. In his interview with Malcolm, Macduff seems to be pliant when it comes to the possession and acceptance of vices.[4] He is a witness to and instigator of death. He abandons his family for country. When Malcolm urges Macduff to follow a narrowly masculine code of morality and avenge his family's murderers, Macduff refuses and instead appeals to humanity. Macduff may represent a humanistic alternative to stringent constructions of morality, exhibiting a flexibility that ignores absolute moral judgments for a sympathetic yet compromised moral code.[4]

Macduff and the Witches' Prophecy

One of the main contributing factors to Macbeth's hubris is his belief that he is invincible. Indeed, the witches have assured him that he cannot be vanquished by anyone "of woman born". Macbeth interprets that to mean everyone. In the climactic confrontation with Macduff, therefore, Macbeth is stunned to learn that Macduff was not, in the literal sense, "of woman born". (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 8)


Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;

I bear a charmed life, which must not yield

To one of woman born.


Despair thy charm,

And let the angel whom thou still hast served,

Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb,

Untimely ripp'd.


  • Petronella, Vincent F. "The Role of Macduff in Macbeth."
  1. ^ Bevington, David and William Shakespeare. Four Tragedies Bantam, 1988.
  2. ^ Official Scottish Clans and Families [1].
  3. ^ Coles, David. "Shakespeare Studies: Macbeth"
  4. ^ a b c Horwich, Richard. "Integrity in Macbeth: The Search for the 'Single State of Man.'"
  5. ^ a b Hennedy, John F. "Macduff's Dilemma: Anticipation of Existentialist Ethics in Macbeth."

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