Saturday, 1 June 2013

A2 English Literature: Banquo in Macbeth

Banquo seems to be to Macbeth what Henry Clerval is to Victor in Frankenstein... except Victor doesn't kill Clerval. Except he kind of does inadvertently. But that's not the point...

Banquo is sometimes overlooked because people tend to focus more on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. However, in a question about good v. evil in the play, it is interesting to note that alongside Duncan, Banquo is presented as a kind and virtuous character. This also leads to interpretations that Macbeth and Banquo are gothic doubles of the same character.

Contextually, you could argue that the only reason that Banquo is presented so virtuously is because he was allegedly loosely related to James I, who was the king at the time of writing and who was a big fan of Shakespeare's stuff.

We first meet Banquo in act one scene three, alongside Macbeth. Immediately the difference between the two characters is obvious when they are confronted by the witches. Banquo appears cool and collected, challenging them ("You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.") and shrugging off their prophecy, while noticing how Macbeth is "rapt withal" at the witches' prophecy. Banquo also says the line "why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?" The fact that Banquo is echoing Macbeth's first line, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen", may suggest that he represents one side of Macbeth - the 'fair' side. Is Banquo fair whilst Macbeth is foul?

Also, once the witches have disappeared and Angus and Ross turn up, Banquo speaks aside to the audience upon learning that Macbeth has been appointed as the Thane of Cawdor. He questions, "what, can the Devil speak true?" By immediately referring to the witches as being associated with the devil, Banquo appears to be distancing himself from such 'evil' and thus appears to be distancing himself from Macbeth, who was so taken with the prophecy.

Banquo also appears to be more wary, cautious and perhaps sensible than Macbeth. Macbeth appears instantly taken with the notion that he is destined to be king, whereas Banquo warns him that sometimes "the instruments of darkness tell us truths". Banquo is immediately set up as the opposite of Macbeth; he is loyal, kind and rational - Macbeth, on the other hand, appears to be immediately taken with the "supernatural soliciting".

Banquo also says to Ross and Angus, "New honours come upon him, / Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould / But with the aid of use." This clothing imagery echoes Macbeth's previous line, "why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?" It suggests that Banquo is already aware that Macbeth's new title doesn't sit well with him.

Banquo also appears alongside Duncan in act one scene six, where both of them admire the castle of Macbeth, basically chatting about how lovely and homely it looks. This brings the use of setting into the theme of deception, and Lady Macbeth's arrival and duplicitous language sets the Macbeths up against Banquo and Duncan; the two virtuous characters are the ones being tricked.

The beginning of act two sees Banquo alongside his son Fleance. As if we didn't think he was lovely enough already, he's now being presented as a doting father. This normal family dynamic juxtaposes the dysfunctional Macbeths (which sounds like a sitcom). Fleance is also "holding a burning torch" in this scene, which may be symbolic of he and Banquo bringing light (goodness, clarity, rationality) to darkness (supernatural, evil, irrationality).

Banquo uses religious imagery such as "there's husbandry in heaven" to set him up as a benevolent character, which contrasts with Macbeth's plan to violate the divine right of kings by murdering Duncan. He later pops up in act two scene three with another reference to God: "In the great hand of God I stand". He also mentions a "diamond" in this scene; diamonds were seen at the time to be talismans against witchcraft.

Macbeth also blatantly lies to Banquo in this scene, saying "I think not of them" when asked about the witches. Does Shakespeare use Banquo as a narrative device for the reader/audience to learn of Macbeth's gradual descent into tyranny and duplicity?

Banquo is also present at the beginning of act three, and once again makes reference to the "so foul and fair a day I have not seen" quotation by saying, "I fear / Thou play'dst most foully for't". He is suggesting that Macbeth may have achieved his goal through foul aims. He then entertains the idea of being the father of kings, if only for a moment - "If there come truth from them ... may they not be my oracles as well, / And set me up in hope? But hush, no more." It's only human, I suppose. This is still a relatively selfless desire of Banquo, too - he's interested in the fact that his sons will be kings.

Banquo's duties to the king appear as strong as ever: "Let your Highness / Command upon me, to the which my duties / Are with a most indissoluble tie / For ever knit." This juxtaposes Macbeth's loyalty to the divine right of kings, which is a bit sketchy to say the least.

Then, when Banquo leaves, the audience truly realises the extent of Macbeth's ambition, as he entertains the idea of 'removing' Banquo, to put it nicely. He says to the two murderers that Banquo is their enemy and "so he is mine", and appears focused on the "seeds of Banquo kings!"

Then, in the act that many would pinpoint as the moment where Macbeth loses most of the audience's sympathy, he tells the murderers to "leave no rubs or botches in the work, / Fleance his son, that keeps him company, / Whose absence is no less material to me / Than his father's, must embrace the fate / Of that dark hour." The scene ends with a rhyming couplet of: "Banquo, thy soul's flight, / If it find Heaven, must find it out tonight." This rhyming couplet suggests a sense of confirmation and finality - Macbeth is no longer um-ing and ah-ing over what he wants to do; he's going to have Banquo and Fleance murdered, no matter what.

In act three scene three, as the murderers attack Banquo and Fleance, it is important to note that one of the murderers "strike out the torch". The light that accompanies Banquo and his son has been extinguished - they have been defeated at the hands of Macbeth. And even as Banquo is struck down, his only concern is for his son: "Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!"

Then we see Banquo as a ghost in the next scene - or, rather, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost. This ghost is often interpreted to be a manifestation of Macbeth's guilt as opposed to any real supernatural ghost. Macbeth has now killed the two most virtuous characters of the play, one of whom he called a "friend" earlier in the play. When comparing this to his earlier scenes with Banquo, we are made aware of the shocking extent of his descent into tyranny.

No comments:

Post a Comment