Banquo is an often misunderstood and forgotten character in the play Macbeth. His fleeting appearances and premature murder at the request of Macbeth, have led many to label him as a mere victim of the ambition and cruelty of others. However, in reality he is not only a victim of Macbeth’s state sanctioned terror but a victim of the witches and ultimately his own implicit thirst for power.
Our initial impressions of Banquo is one of a man who’s moral status is clearly noble and virtuous. He shares with Macbeth the traits of bravery, courage and loyalty. Banquo’s physical prowess on the battlefield is acknowledged and celebrated among his peers and superiors. Duncan refers to his captain as “Noble Banquo” and proclaims that “hast no less deserved” the accolades which are bestowed upon Macbeth. Banquo, a warrior “so valiant” is initially skeptical when he first encounters the witches. He is intrigued, but not entranced by the witches and is primarily concerned with their validity rather than their prophecies. He scorns the creatures who are “so withered and so wild in their attire” and who “should be women” but yet are warped messengers of evil.
Banquo’s psyche, while far from being transformed into that of a callous murderer such as Macbeth, does undergo ever so subtle changes as he listens to the witches poisonous promises. Recognising that his “partners rapt”, Banquo urges the witches to speak to him as he does “neither beg nor fear” their power. After hearing the witches claim that he will be “lesser than Macbeth and greater”, Banquo questions himself whether he had “eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner”. Through his simple curiosity and inquisitive nature, Banquo has at this early stage allowed the “three weird sisters” to plant the seeds of ambition in his mind. Despite the fact no major change in Banquo is visible at this stage, the influence of the witches; a catalyst for evil, has entered his mind.
The first signs of legitimate change in Banquo occur as the witches prophecy begins to come to fruition for his contemporary, Macbeth. Seeing Macbeth being granted the title “Thane of Cawdor”, Banquo begins to question “can the devil speak true?”. Despite his warning to Macbeth that “oftentimes to win us to our harm the instruments of darkness tell us truths”, Banquo himself is no longer a neutral skeptic. The allure of possibly being able to “beget kings”, is taking it’s toll on Banquo. The fantasy of lavish power, glory and ultimately selfish indulgence prove far too tantalising to ignore.
The subtle, implicit alteration heightens as he ponders his future further. While speaking to Macbeth a naive Banquo, unaware of his friends future duplicity, confesses that a “heavy summons lies like lead upon” him. He recalls how he “dreamt last night” about the three witches. This gives us, as the audience an appreciation of the inner turmoil Banquo is suffering from as he attempts to counterbalance his loyalty with his ambition. The most blatant evidence of his inner struggle is where he admits that the witches “have shown some truth” to Macbeth and dares to imagine whether he shall be so lucky.
The malign influence of the witches and therefore moral decay through ambiguity are complete in the aftermath of the vicious murder of Duncan. Despite scolding Lady Macbeth for her self-absorbed reaction to the murder, saying it would be “too cruel anywhere”, Banquo feels no real remorse at the regicide. He may claim to be fully against “treasonous malice” and having his “bosom franchised” but he allows the coup d’état to occur right before his eyes. The ultimate betrayal of his former values are saved for the coronation of Macbeth. He knows Macbeth “playd’st most foully” for the kingship. Yet, the promise that he “should be the root and father of many kings” proves too much to resist. Rather then speak the truth he merely resigns himself to ignore the facts that lie obviously before him and simply “hush” himself. This cold and calculated strategy of benign subservience shows how much the once carefree warrior has become a power-hungry political tactician.
Unlike Macbeth, it can be argued that Banquo was corrupted first and foremost by the witches. Macbeth used the witches as a means to legitimise his craving for power. Conversely, Banquo was fooled and deceived by the witches to create his own downfall. The skill of Shakespeare as a writer shines through as his choice to Banquo a lengthy period of little or no dialogue, symbolises the inner struggles that occurring in Banquo’s mind. Banquo’s lack of cunning and savvy highlight how originally he was once an exemplar art warrior. He fails to see the paranoia of Macbeth who believes the witches have helped him place a “fruitless crown” upon his head. Macbeth fears the prophecy given to Banquo as it may mean that his descendants will directly usurp the throne from him. His “fears in Banquo stick deep” and in turn leads to his prearranged murder. Perhaps Banquo who “hast no less deserved” acclaim and honour, deserved to be king rather then Macbeth?
In summation, it is evident that Banquo underwent rapid and wholesale changes in personality due to the prophetic observations of the witches. In a play where “fair is foul and foul is fair”, a “good and virtuous nature” truly did “recoil under an imperial charge”. This is what happened to Banquo, his clarity of mind and his virtue became clouded and obscured. Courage and loyalty were replaced by silence and scheming.