He’s the reason I became an English teacher and I want to share my adoration of him with as many students as possible.
I once had a student tell me that school were asking her to write an essay on Banquo in Macbeth and my initial reaction was that he wasn’t that important. He dies in Act 3 so he doesn’t have a massive influence on the play. That was my first response, but then I decided to give it some thought.
So, I developed this theory:
In the time of Macbeth, feudal Scotland, a man’s life was quite restricted: he had to obey his father, follow his king, marry whoever was politically convenient, and raise his kids (whatever they were like). The one person Macbeth could choose was his best friend. That makes Banquo the most important person in Macbeth’s life, the most liked. Having him killed is therefore Macbeth’s worst action. Killing Duncan is impersonal as he just kills whoever happens to be king currently, but taking out Banquo is really awful as he’s his best friend.
What’s worse is that Macbeth doesn’t even kill Banquo himself, as we know he is capable of with his excellent fighting, cutting an enemy ‘from knave to chaps’, and murdering Duncan in his sleep. Sending murderers to do kill Banquo and his innocent son is very low and disrespectful as, if he is to benefit from the death, Macbeth should at least show enough respect to be the agent of it himself. The fact that he won’t swing the sword himself can show two things: a lack of respect for Banquo, Macbeth’s fear that he could not do it or would fail against his friend.
Macbeth also has not included Lady Macbeth in this plan, so it shows a real departure for him from previous behaviour. Perhaps this is where he really loses control over his mind and descends tragically. I would argue that seeing Banquo’s ghost at the feast is Macbeth’s conscience playing tricks on him. His guilt takes the form of Banquo because murdering him is his very worst crime. The fact that Lady Macbeth cannot see the ghost is because she played no part in his murder and the space between the couple (previously ‘dearest partner[s]’) becomes very clear to the audience. So, killing Banquo marks the beginning of Macbeth’s real crimes that go beyond just making himself king, and thusly are unnecessary and unforgiveable.
This, along with the fact that Banquo is the rightful founder of a ruling dynasty culminating in James VI & I, make Banquo the central character of the whole play. He is far from an irrelevance.
So, with just a bit of thinking, an argument can be produced about pretty much anything to do with Shakespeare and that’s why I love studying him so much. If you want to find out why what Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago matters today, drop me a message and I’ll do my best to find an answer with you – we’ll have a lovely time!