Examining the Thanes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

In total there are eight Thanes featured in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Each Thane is the governor of a particular region of Scotland. The Thanes are all noblemen beneath an elected kingship (King Duncan). The following summaries attempt to trace the actions of the Thanes in an effort to better understand their moral characters and political motivations.

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is the victorious Thane of Glamis who defeats the Celtic rebels led by Macdonwald (from the western isles of “Kernes and Gallowglasses”) in alliance with the Viking Norsemen, led by Sweyn Forkbeard, from a northern attack in which King Duncan’s son, Malcolm, was captured. Meanwhile, to the southeast in Fife, the Norsemen also made a pact with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor (whose proper name is not ever given). News of this quashed rebellion is delivered to King Duncan by the Thanes Rosse and Angus -but the king orders the Thane of Cawdor to be executed and his thaneship given to Macbeth (not to either Rosse or Angus who put down the rebellion in Fife). Thus, Macbeth becomes both Thane of Glamis and Cawdor prior to assassinating the king and taking his throne.

Banquo is a friend of Macbeth and Thane of Lobacher, a region of northwestern Scotland (curiously, he is rarely referred to by his thaneship in the play). When the three ‘weird sisters’ or witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo, Macbeth is immediately struck by faith in the prophecies (“If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me, without my stir”) while Banquo remains cautious (“Bit ’tis strange: and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of Darkness tell us truths; win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence”). He, alone, senses the ominous danger of King Duncan’s celebratory visit to Macbeth’s castle, and he makes his “allegiance clear.” On the morning after, he marshalls the group of thanes to “question this most bloody piece of work to know it further” while the late King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee in fear of unjust retribution (Malcolm to England, Donalbain to Ireland).

Privately, Banquo fears that Macbeth “play’d most foully” for his kingship, but publicly to Macbeth he claims to be “for ever knit” to his duties to Macbeth. Banquo and his son Fleance ride out from the castle together, even as Macbeth requests they return for a somber dinner in the evening. While out riding, three murderers are sent by Macbeth to kill Banquo. His dying words call for Fleance to avenge his death against the “treachery” of Macbeth, a “slave.” Banquo’s son, Fleance, escapes the murderers and is never heard from again in the play, however we are led to believe he returns and sires a line of future kings, per the prophecy and also James I’s belief that he was a descendent of Banquo. In some film and stage re-enactments, Fleance is shown returning at the end.

Banquo’s ghost appears later in the evening, haunting Macbeth in his seat at the table during dinner.

Macduff is the Thane of Fife, whose region was assaulted by the Norsemen at the beginning of the play. If Banquo is the character with whom we most sympathize, Macduff is the heroic character we respect the most.

Macduff first appears in Act II, scene 3. He and fellow Thane, Lenox, arrive banging on Macbeth’s castle doors, scolding the Porter for taking so long to answer the door after a night of carousing. Macduff is the representatives of order, tradition, and stability in the play. Macduff comes to Macbeth’s castle early in response to the king’s call for an early awakening. Macduff is the first to discover the “horror” of the king’s death in his bedchamber -an act which he calls a “most sacrilegious Murther” inside the “Lord’s anointed temple.” When he first sees Lady Macbeth, he assumes she has the “gentle: heart of a woman and he says “’tis not for you to hear what I can speak.” The group briefly decides to put on a robe of “manly readiness” and Macbeth tells them that he killed the killers (King Duncan’s attendants) and Lady Macbeth faints. Following these events, Macbeth quickly rushes to scone to anoint himself as king.

However, Macduff happens upon Thane of Rosse who is with an older man, whom the Thane of Rosse refers to as “father.” Macduff and Rosse briefly discuss the strange events, and that Malcolm and Donalbain are blamed for the murder. Rosse says he will attend the coronation ceremony of Macbeth at scone, while Macduff skips it and heads for Fife (Macduff’s thaneship). Later, after being crowned king, word arrives to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Rosse arrives in Fife to comfort Macduff’s family (Rosse has only just recently witnessed Macbeth’s descent into madness as he sees the ghost of Banquo at his feast). Lady Macduff bemoans her husband as a “traitor” and questions why he left them -out of “fear” or “wisdom?” Macduff’s character highlights the distinctions between the city (polis) and household. The household requires a certain degree of honesty and truth-telling, whereas the city depends upon a certain noble un-truth which allows its citizens to believe in its cause. Macduff has broken the former, but he upholds the latter. In a way, he sacrifices his household for the good of the city. Lady Macduff have a fascinating interchange about how they will live like birds, fending for themselves, and Lady Macduff announces she will find a new husband because Macduff is a traitor who should be hanged. Their son has a memorably philosophic mind -he entraps Lady Macduff in a Socratic mind trick regarding liars and swearers that only ends when she accuses him of being a “poor prattler.” Moments later, an anonymous messenger warns Lady Macduff of her impending doom and to fly their castle with great haste, but he is too late. Murderers sent by Macbeth arrive in Fife. They accuse Macduff of being a “traitor” and then kill Macduff’s son when he shouts at them for being liars, apparently he did not accept his mother’s previous definition of Macduff as a traitor (Macduff’s son is one of the few characters who is killed onstage -an unusual note for a play with such a vast amount of bloodshed). Lady Macduff runs offstage while being pursued by the murderers -we are led to believe she is killed.

Next, we encounter Macduff in a room of the castle in England speaking with the Epicurean and licentious son of the late king Duncan, Malcolm. While Malcolm suggests they find a “shady” spot to “weep our sad bosoms” Macduff encourages him to toughen up and “hold fast the mortal sword…like good men bestride our downfall birthdom.” Malcolm tests Macduff, but Macduff reassures him he is not “treacherous” -even a “good or virtuous nature” may recoil when placed in governance. Next, Malcolm offers some highly revealing insights into his character to Macduff -not unlike a confession. However, he exposes himself too openly to Macduff who decries him unfit to govern. in a “noble passion.” A doctor enters and delivers news of Edward the Confessor’s supposed miraculous “Evil” Christian powers people with relics.

Suddenly, Thane Rosse enters with news that Scotland has descended into madness and violence. Curiously, Macduff asks if his family has been attacked by Macbeth -he almost seems to expect the death of his household- but Rosse left before their slaughter. He pauses a moment, and then reveals that Macduff’s whole family and household was killed. Macduff responds with a strangely muted response. The group departs and charges on Scotland along with Siward of England.

In the onslaught against Macbeth’s castle, Macduff hunts down Macbeth because he is haunted by the “ghosts” of his family, much in the same way that Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo. Perhaps Macduff holds guilt for his dereliction of his household. However, like an ‘industrious soldier’ he hunts down Macbeth, and Macduff reveals to Macbeth that he was ‘untimely ripp’d’ from his mother’s womb, thus he was not technically ‘born of woman’ per Macbeth’s fateful prophecy. In the end, it is Macduff who kills Macbeth, thus curing Scotland of its poison (note the many doctor characters and references to medicine, illness, curing, and brainsickness throughout the play). It is Macduff who places Macbeth’s head on a pike and hails Malcolm as the new king.

Thane Lenox’s region is undetermined (perhaps it is a reference to the “Lennox” region of Scotland). He first appears in Act I scene 2, guiding Duncan through the battlefield to learn of the two-front war that has been successfully ended. Lenox appears again in Act II scene 3 with Macduff when they arrive at Macbeth’s castle to discover the death of Duncan and his attendants. We understand he is “young.”

At Macbeth’s chaotic dinner, it is Lenox who mentions the somber memory of Banquo that causes Macbeth to imagine the ghost of Banquo -a meal which Lenox later calls “the tyrant’s feast.”

In Act III scene 6, Lenox has an unusual conversation with an anonymous “Lord” where they discuss the “disgrace” that has become Macbeth. In referring to himself, Lenox suggests that “some holy angel” should fly to England to deliver Macduff a message. However, in the following scene he informs Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England.

Lenox appears again in the closing battle sequence when all the Thanes join in a compact with England against Macbeth.

Thane Rosse represents the northern “Ross” region of Scotland. He first appears alongside Angus, delivering news to King Duncan of the defeat on the eastern front against the Norsemen (as well as the Thane of Cawdor complicity). Rosse and Lenox deliver the news to Macbeth that he has been appointed the new Thane of Cawdor.

Rosse is present the morning of Duncan’s death and he foretells of Macbeth’s accession to the crown. Unlike Macduff, Rosse attends the coronation of Macbeth. Later, at the feast, he notes Macbeth’s strange disposition. Rosse goes to comfort Macduff’s family when he unexpectedly flees to England. Rosse speaks with an old man and is warned to be cautious in uncertain times. When Rosse also goes to England, he declines to tell Macduff that his whole family has been murdered until Rosse is assured that an invasion of Scotland is imminent. He is present for the final battle against Macbeth and delivers news to Siward that his son has been killed.

Rosse is an ambiguous thane, who prefers to side with the winning team, rather than stand on principal (like Macduff).

The other three Thanes -Angus, Menteth, and Cathness- play a muted, minor role in the play. Angus joins Rosse in delivering news of Norway to Duncan at the beginning, and he also is one of the four Thanes who joins the invading forces of Malcolm.

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