Macbeth character
John Langford Pritchard as Macduff, depicted by Richard James Lane in 1838
Created byWilliam Shakespeare
In-universe information
AliasThane of Fife
AffiliationKing Duncan
King Malcolm
SpouseLady Macduff; deceased
ChildrenYoung Macduff, son; deceased
Unnamed children; deceased

Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, is a character and the main antagonist in William Shakespeare's Macbeth (c.1603–1607) that is loosely based on history. Macduff, a legendary hero, plays a pivotal role in the play: he suspects Macbeth of regicide and eventually kills Macbeth in the final act. He can be seen as the avenging hero who helps save Scotland from Macbeth's tyranny in the play.

The character is first known from Chronica Gentis Scotorum (late 14th century) and Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland (early 15th century). Shakespeare drew mostly from Holinshed's Chronicles (1587).

Although characterised sporadically throughout the play, Macduff serves as a foil to Macbeth and a figure of morality.


The overall plot that would serve as the basis for Macbeth is first seen in the writings of two chroniclers of Scottish history, John of Fordun, whose prose Chronica Gentis Scotorum was begun about 1363, and Andrew of Wyntoun's Scots verse Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, written no earlier than 1420. These served as the basis for the account given in Holinshed's Chronicles (1587), on whose narratives of King Duff and King Duncan Shakespeare in part based Macbeth.

Historically, Duff was a 10th century King of Alba. In John of Fordun's work, the reign of Duff is portrayed as having suffered from pervasive witchcraft. The Orygynale Cronykil suggests that Duff was murdered. Due to the Irish use of tanistry, Duff's immediate descendants did not become rulers of Alba, and instead became mormaers of Fife. Their clan – the Clan MacDuff – remained the most powerful family in Fife in the Middle Ages.[1] The ruins of Macduff's Castle lie in the village of East Wemyss next to the cemetery.

In Holinshed's narrative, attributes of King Duff are transposed onto the MacDuff mormaer from Macbeth's era. Macduff first appears in Holinshed's narrative of King Duncan after Macbeth has killed the latter and reigned as King of Scotland for 10 years. When Macbeth calls upon his nobles to contribute to the construction of Dunsinane castle, Macduff avoids the summons, arousing Macbeth's suspicions. Macduff leaves Scotland for England to prod Duncan's son, Malcolm III of Scotland, 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.[2] Shakespeare follows Holinshed's account of Macduff closely, with his only deviations being Macduff's discovery of Duncan's body in act 2 sc. 3, and Macduff's brief conference with Ross in act 2 sc. 4.

Role in the play

Macduff first speaks in the play in act 2, scene 3 to the drunken porter to report to his duty of awaking King Duncan when he is sleeping for the night at Macbeth's castle. When he discovers the corpse of King Duncan (murdered by Macbeth, but it appears that nearby guards are guilty since Lady Macbeth put his knife by them and smeared them with Duncan's blood), he raises an alarm, informing the castle that the king has been murdered. Macduff begins to suspect Macbeth of regicide when Macbeth says, "O, yet I do repent me of my fury / That I did kill them" (2.3.124–125). Macduff's name does not appear in this scene; rather, Banquo refers to him as "Dear Duff" (2.3.105).

In 2.4 Macbeth has left for Scone, the ancient royal city where Scottish kings were crowned. Macduff, meanwhile, meets with Ross and an Old Man. He reveals that he will not be attending the coronation of Macbeth and will instead return to his home in Fife. However, Macduff flees to England to join Malcolm, the slain King Duncan's elder son, and convinces him to return to Scotland and claim the throne.

Macbeth, meanwhile, visits the Three Witches again after the spectre of Banquo appears at the royal banquet. The Witches warn Macbeth to "beware Macduff, beware the Thane of Fife" (4.1.81–82). However, they inform Macbeth that "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" (4.1.91–92) — leading one to infer that no human could possibly defeat Macbeth. Macbeth, fearing for his position as King of Scotland, learns soon afterward that Macduff has fled to England to try to raise an army against him and orders the deaths of Macduff's wife, children and relatives. Macduff, who is still in England, learns of his family's deaths through Ross, another Scottish thane. He joins Malcolm, and they return to Scotland with their English allies to face Macbeth at Dunsinane Castle.

After Macbeth slays the young Siward, Macduff charges into the main castle and confronts Macbeth. Although Macbeth believes that he cannot be killed by any man born of a woman, he soon learns that Macduff was "from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped" (Act V Scene 8 lines 2493/2494) — meaning that Macduff was born by caesarean section. The two fight, and Macduff slays Macbeth offstage. Macduff ultimately presents Macbeth's head to Malcolm, hailing him as king and calling on the other thanes to declare their allegiance with him (5.11.20–25).


Macduff as a foil to Macbeth

As a supporting character, Macduff serves as a foil to Macbeth; his integrity directly contrasts with Macbeth's moral perversion.[3] The play positions the characters of Macduff and Macbeth as holy versus evil

The contrast between Macduff and Macbeth is accentuated by their approaches to death. Macduff, hearing of his family’s death, reacts with a tortured grief. His words, "But I must also feel it as a man" (4.3.223), indicate a capacity for emotional sensitivity. While Macbeth and Lady Macbeth insist that manhood implies a denial of feeling (1.7.45–57), Macduff insists that emotional depth and sensitivity are part of what it means to be a man. This interpretation is supported by Macduff’s reaction upon his discovery of Duncan’s corpse and the echo of Macduff’s words when Macbeth responds to the news of Lady Macbeth’s death. Macduff struggles to find the words to express his rage and anguish, crying, "O horror, horror, horror" (2.3.59). In some stage interpretations, Macduff’s character transitions from a state of shock to one of frenzied alarm.[4] This contrasts starkly with Macbeth’s famous response to the announcement of his wife’s death: "She should have died hereafter / There would have been a time for such a word / Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" (5.5.17–19). Macbeth’s words seem to express a brutal indifference–she would have died anyway–and perhaps even suggest that he has lost the capacity to feel.

Macduff as a moral figure

Although Macduff comes to represent a type of "goodness" in the dark world of Macbeth, Shakespeare also allows for some instability in his character. This becomes most evident in 4.3, when Macduff joins Malcolm in England. In this scene, the play has moved from the tumult in Scotland to England. In the exchange between the two Scotsmen, Malcolm is clearly in control and forces Macduff to examine and reconcile with himself his own moral code. In a moment of dramatic irony, Macduff begins the conversation urging Malcolm to fight for Scotland rather than to grieve, not knowing that Malcolm has already arranged for English military support (4.3.134–136). Malcolm manipulates Macduff, questioning his loyalty, facilitating his emotional responses, and testing to see how much Macduff’s, and perhaps the audience’s, morality can ultimately be compromised. Malcolm portrays Macbeth as a tyrant, but he positions himself, too, as someone morally repulsive.[4] He describes his own voluptuousness–the bottomless "cistern of [his] lust" (4.3.64)–and "staunchless avarice" (4.3.79). Macduff must decide whether he can accept Malcolm as an alternative to Macbeth. But Macduff cannot accept Malcolm's presentation of himself "Fit to Govern! No, not to live." (4.3.103–104). So Malcolm recognises he can trust Macduff and comes clean "abjure[d] / The taints and blames I laid upon myself, / For strangers to my nature"(4.3.125–127). This shows that rather than speaking truthfully about himself, Malcolm was simply testing Macduff to see where Macduff's loyalties were.

Macduff may also be read as a precursor for ethical philosophy.[5] Macduff's flight from Scotland is a "spiritual reawakening", with spirituality based on the truth, regardless of what it may be. Macduff constantly re-examines his values. In deciding to leave his family, Macduff deserts those values and pays bitterly for it. Macduff echoes sentiments of writers such as Plato and the later Thomas Hobbes, who claim that morality may only be judged to the extent that a person takes responsibility for his or her actions. Thus, because he accepts the burden of his decision to leave his family for political exploration, Macduff's actions can be justified.[5]


  1. ^ "Official Scottish clans and families". Archived from the original on 2 November 2019.
  2. ^ Shakespeare, William (1988). Bevington, David (ed.). Four Tragedies. Bantam Books.
  3. ^ Horwich, Richard. "Integrity in Macbeth: The Search for the 'Single State of Man.'"
  4. ^ a b Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Macbeth. University of California Press, 1978.
  5. ^ a b Hennedy, John F. "Macduff's Dilemma: Anticipation of Existentialist Ethics in Macbeth."