Banquo is a character in William Shakespeare's 1606 play "Macbeth". Banquo is at first a friend to Macbeth, and they are together when they meet the Three Witches. After prophesying that Macbeth will become king, the witches tell Banquo that he will not be king himself, but that his descendants will be. Later, Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat to his lust for power and has him murdered; Banquo's son Fleance, however, escapes. Banquo's ghost returns in a later scene, causing Macbeth to react with alarm.

Shakespeare borrowed the character of Banquo from "Holinshed's Chronicles", a history of Britain published by Raphael Holinshed in 1587. In "Chronicles", however, Banquo is an accomplice to Macbeth in the murder of the king, rather than a loyal subject of the king who is seen as an enemy by Macbeth. Shakespeare may have changed this aspect of his character in order to please King James I, who was said to be a descendant of the real Banquo.

Banquo is often interpreted as a foil and a contrast to Macbeth, resisting evil where Macbeth embraces it. Sometimes, however, his motives are unclear and some critics question his purity. He does nothing to accuse Macbeth of murdering the king, even though he has reason to believe Macbeth is responsible. This can be interpreted as Banquo being a silent accomplice to Macbeth's early crimes. Banquo also tells his son at one point that he is having dark dreams, leading some scholars to wonder whether he has dreamed of killing Macbeth in order to take the throne and fulfill the Witches' prophecy. The character has been played by a variety of actors on the stage and on film, including Canada Lee, Minoru Chiaki, and Martin Shaw. Performances of the play on film and television have used a variety of means to portray his role as a ghost, taking advantage of camera tricks and special effects to heighten the supernatural feel of the play.


Banquo was an historical figure portrayed in "Holinshed's Chronicles" (1587), a history of the British monarchy which Shakespeare referred to in many of his history plays. In the "Chronicles", Banquo is an accomplice in Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. He also plays an important part in ensuring that Macbeth, not Malcolm, takes the throne in the coup that follows. In Shakespeare's day, Banquo was thought to be a direct ancestor of the Stuart King James I. However, Banquo's Stuart descent was disproven in the 19th century, when it was discovered that the Fitzalans actually descended from a Breton family. [Palmer, J. Foster. "The Celt in Power: Tudor and Cromwell" "Transactions of the Royal Historical Society." 1886 Vol. 3 pgs. 343–370] Whether or not Banquo, Thane of the Scottish province of Lochaber, actually existed remains in doubt. However, his name is still spoken in the area around Fort William, Scotland, and a path lined with beech trees near Torcastle is called Banquo's Walk. [cite web|url=|title= So, You're Going to Scotland|accessdate= 2008-02-23|publisher= Clan Cameron Online]

The Banquo portrayed in historical sources is significantly different from the Banquo created by Shakespeare. Critics have proposed several reasons for this change. First, to portray the king's ancestor as a murderer would have been risky. Second, Shakespeare may have altered Banquo's character simply because there was no dramatic need for another accomplice to the murder; there was, however, a need to provide a dramatic contrast to Macbeth—a role which many scholars argue is filled by Banquo.Nagarajan, S. "A Note on Banquo." "Shakespeare Quarterly." (Oct 1956) 7.4 pgs. 371–376] Other authors of the time who wrote about Banquo, such as Jean de Schelandre in his "Stuartide", also changed history by portraying Banquo as a noble man rather than a murderer, probably for the same reasons. [Maskell, D. W. "The Transformation of History into Epic: The 'Stuartide' (1611) of Jean de Schelandre." "The Modern Language Review." (Jan 1971) 66.1 pgs. 53–65.] In any case, Shakespeare manages to separate Banquo from the king's murder by making it a secret of which Banquo is totally unaware. Banquo's association with the coup, however, is harder to define. Some scholars have argued that Banquo's loyalty to Macbeth over Malcolm after Duncan's death makes him a darker character. Daniel Amneus argues that the "greater honor" Duncan mentions Macbeth as possessing is Macbeth's title as Prince of Cumberland. If Macbeth is Prince of Cumberland, rather than Malcolm, then Macbeth would be next in line to the throne and no coup would be needed, effectively removing this ambiguity from Banquo's character. [Barroll, J. Shakespeare Studies. New York: Burt Franklin, 1978. ISBN 0891020845 pp. 223–230]

Role in the play

Banquo is in a third of the play's scenes, as both a human and a ghost. As significant he is to the plot, however, he has fewer lines than the relatively insignificant Ross, a Scottish nobleman who survives the play.Braunmuller, A. R. "Introduction". "Macbeth". A. R. Braunmuller, ed. "The New Cambridge Skaespeare". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. p. 266.] At the beginning, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, and Banquo lead Duncan's army, bravely fighting side by side. Banquo is with Macbeth when they encounter the Three Witches who predict that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and then king. Banquo asks them if they are real and challenges them to predict his future. The witches state that Banquo will never himself take the throne, but will beget a line of kings. Banquo remains skeptical after the incident, asking if evil can ever speak the truth. After Macbeth receives the title of Cawdor, Banquo warns him that wickedness will offer men a small hopeful truth only in order to catch them in a deadly trap.

When Macbeth kills the king to take the throne, Banquo, the only one aware of his encounter with the witches, reserves judgment for God, unsure whether Macbeth is a killer or not. (Though he does muse in a soliloquy that "I fear / Thou play'dst most foully for 't".) ["Macbeth" 3.1] He offers his respects to the new King Macbeth and pledges loyalty. Later, however, disturbed that Banquo's descendants and not his own will rule Scotland, Macbeth sends murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. During the melee, however, Fleance escapes. The ghost of Banquo later returns to haunt Macbeth at a banquet in Act Three, Scene Four. A terrified Macbeth sees him, while the apparition is invisible to his guests. He appears again to Macbeth in a vision granted by the Three Witches, wherein Macbeth sees a long line of kings related to Banquo.


Foil to Macbeth

Many scholars see Banquo as a foil and a contrast to Macbeth. Macbeth, for example, eagerly accepts the Three Witches' prophecy as true and seeks to help it along. Banquo, on the other hand, doubts the prophecies and the intentions of these seemingly evil creatures. Whereas Macbeth places his hope in the prediction that he will be king, Banquo argues that evil only offers gifts which lead to betrayal and destruction. Banquo steadily resists the temptations of evil within the play, praying to heaven for help, while Macbeth seeks the gifts of Darkness, and prays that evil powers will aid him. This is visible in Act Two; after Banquo sees Duncan to bed, he says: "There's husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out"."Macbeth" 2.1] This premonition of the coming darkness is repeated just before he is killed: "it will be rain to-night", ["Macbeth" 3.3] Banquo tells his son Fleance. [Watson, Robert N. "'Thriftless Ambition,' Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of "Macbeth". "William Shakespeare's Macbeth". Harold Bloom, Ed. "Modern Critical Interpretations". New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. pp. 133–168.]

In Act Two, Scene One, Banquo meets his son Fleance and asks him to take both his sword and his dagger ("Hold, take my sword ... Take thee that too."). He also explains that he has been having trouble sleeping due to "cursed thoughts that nature / gives way to in repose!" On Macbeth's approach, however, he demands the sword returned to him quickly. Scholars have interpreted this to mean that Banquo has been dreaming of murdering the king as Macbeth's accomplice in order to take the throne for his own family, as the Three Witches prophesied to him. His good nature is so revolted by these thoughts that he gives his sword and dagger to Fleance to be sure they do not come true, but is so nervous at Macbeth's approach that he demands them back. [Westbrook, Perry D. "A Note on 'Macbeth,' Act II, Scene 1." "College English." (Jan 1946) 7.4 pgs. 219–220.] Other scholars have responded that Banquo's dreams have less to do with killing the king and more to do with Macbeth. They argue that Banquo is merely setting aside his sword for the night, when Macbeth approaches. Banquo, having had dreams about Macbeth's deeds, takes back his sword as a precaution in this case. [Henneberger, Olive. "Banquo, Loyal Subject." "College English." (Oct 1946) 8.1 pgs. 18–22]

Macbeth eventually sees that Banquo can no longer be trusted to aid him in his evil, and considers his friend a threat to his newly acquired throne. Thus he has him murdered. Banquo's ability to live on in different ways is another oppositional force, in this case to Macbeth's impending death. His spirit lives on in Fleance, his son, and in his ghostly presence at the banquet. [Calderwood, James L. "If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action". Amhert, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. p. 96–97.]

Ghost scenes

When Macbeth returns to the witches later in the play, they show him an apparation of the murdered Banquo, along with eight of his descendants. The scene carries deep significance: King James, on the throne when "Macbeth" was written, was separated from Banquo by nine generations. What Shakespeare writes here thus amounts to a strong support of James' right to the throne by lineage, and for audiences of Shakespeare's day, a very real fulfillment of the witches' prophecy to Banquo that his sons would take the throne. [Williams, George Walton. "'Macbeth': King James's Play." "South Atlantic Review." (May 1982) 47.2 pgs. 12–21.] This apparition is also deeply unsettling to Macbeth, who not only wants the throne for himself, but also desires to father a line of kings. [Crawford, A. W. "The Apparitions in Macbeth, Part II." "Modern Language Notes." (Nov 1924) 39.7 pgs. 383–388.]

Banquo's other appearance as a ghost during the banquet scene serves as an indicator of Macbeth's conscience returning to plague his thoughts. Banquo's triumph over death appears symbolically, insofar as he literally takes Macbeth's seat during the feast. Shocked, Macbeth uses words appropriate to the metaphor of usurpation, describing Banquo as "crowned" with wounds. The spirit drains Macbeth's manhood along with the blood from his cheeks; as soon as it vanishes, Macbeth announces: "Why, so; being gone, / I am a man again.""Macbeth" 3.4] Calderwood, James L. "If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action". Amhert, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. p. 22 and 126–129.]

Like the vision of Banquo's lineage, the banquet scene has also been the subject of criticism. Critics have questioned whether not one, but perhaps two ghosts appeared in this scene: Banquo and Duncan. Scholars arguing that Duncan attends the banquet state that Macbeth's lines to the Ghost could apply equally well to the slain king. "Thou canst not say I did it", for example, can mean that Macbeth is not the man who actually killed Banquo, or it can mean that Duncan, who was asleep when Macbeth killed him, cannot claim to have seen his killer. To add to the confusion, some lines Macbeth directs to the ghost, such as "Thy bones are marrowless", cannot rightly be said of Banquo, who has only recently died.William Shakespeare. Macbeth. City: Classic Books, 2007. pp. 167–9 ISBN 0742652831]

Scholars also heavily debate whether Macbeth's vision of Banquo is real or a delusion. Macbeth had already seen a delusion before killing Duncan: a knife hovering in the air. Several performances of the play have even ignored the stage direction to have the Ghost of Banquo enter at all, heightening the sense that Macbeth is growing mad, since the audience cannot see what he claims to see. Scholars opposing this view claim that while the dagger is unusual, ghosts of murdered victims are more believable, having a basis in the audience's superstitions. Spirits in other Shakespeare plays – notably "Hamlet" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" – exist in ambiguous forms, occasionally even calling into question their own presence. [Bradley, Andrew. Shakespearean Tragedy. City: Adamant Media Corporation, 2003. pp. 492-3. ISBN 1421208490]

Performances and interpretations

Banquo's role, especially in the banquet ghost scene, has been subject to a variety of interpretations and mediums. Shakespeare's text states: "Enter Ghost of Banquo, and sits in Macbeth's place." Several television versions have altered this slightly, having Banquo appear suddenly in the chair, rather than walking onstage and into it. Special effects and camera tricks also allow producers to make the ghost disappear and reappear, highlighting the fact that "only" Macbeth can see it. [Jones, Claude E. "The Imperial Theme: 'Macbeth' on Television." "The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television." (Apr 1955) 9.3 pp. 292–298.]

Stage directors, unaided by post-production effects and camera tricks, have used other methods to depict the ghost. In the late nineteenth century, elaborate productions of the play staged by Henry Irving employed a wide variety of approaches for this task. In 1877 a green silhouette was used to create a ghostlike image; ten years later a trick chair was used to allow an actor to appear in the middle of the scene, and then again from the midst of the audience. In 1895 a shaft of blue light served to indicate the presence of Banquo's spirit. In 1933 a Russian director named Theodore Komisarjevsky staged a modern retelling of the play (Banquo and Macbeth were told of their future through palmistry); he used Macbeth's shadow as the ghost.Barnet, Sylvan. "Macbeth" on Stage and Screen". "Macbeth". Sylvan Barnet, Ed. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1963. pp. 186–200.]

Film adaptations have approached Banquo's character in a variety of ways. In 1936 Orson Welles helped produce an African-American cast of the play, including Canada Lee in the role of Banquo. Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation "Throne of Blood" makes the character into Capitan Miki, slain by Macbeth's equivalent (Captain Washizu) when his wife explains that she is with child. News of Miki's death does not reach Washizu until after he has seen the ghost in the banquet scene. In Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation, Banquo is played by acclaimed stage actor Martin Shaw, in a style reminiscent of earlier stage performances.Braunmuller, A. R. "Introduction". "Macbeth". A. R. Braunmuller, ed. "The New Cambridge Skaespeare". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pp. 85–86.]


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