Macduff, the thane of Fife, is a Scottish nobleman. He travels with Duncan to Macbeth’s castle, and with Lennox, arrives the morning after the king has been murdered to awaken Duncan, but instead finds him dead. Macduff announces to the gathered nobleman, including the king’s sons, that Duncan has been killed.
Macduff’s words in the next scene are considered significant by some observers who argue that Macduff is the first character to suggest his suspicion regarding Macbeth’s ascension to the throne. Macduff tells Rosse that he will not be attending Macbeth’s coronation but will instead be returning home to Fife. After Rosse states that he will be going to the coronation, Macduff replies: “Well, may you see things well done there: adieu, / Lest our old robes dit easier than our new” (II.iv.37-8). Additionally, Macduff is not present at the banquet during which Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. This absence is noted by Macbeth directly after the banquet, at which time Macbeth vows to see the weird sisters again. When he does, the apparition they conjure tells him to beware the thane of Fife; and just after the witches vanish, Lennox approaches with the news that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth then vows to have Macduff’s family killed.
Meanwhile, Macduff has met with Malcolm in England. The two return to Scotland, having gathered an army with which to challenge Macbeth. At this time, Macduff learns of his family’s death. Although many readers view Macduff, and Malcolm as well, as Scotland’s saviors, Macduff is often harshly criticized for deserting his family. At the same time, critics have praised Macduff for not being ashamed to show his emotion when he learns that his family has been murdered.
In V.viii, Macduff and Macbeth confront each other. Macbeth appears to be convinced by the witches’ prophesy that “none of woman born” can harm him. When he reveals this to Macduff, Macduff replies that he wasn’t born of woman; rather, he was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d” (V.viii.15-16). Macduff then kills and beheads Macbeth, clearing the way for Malcolm’s ascension to the throne.
Macduff slays Macbeth and is in this functional sense the hero of the play. Macduff recognizes that Macbeth is behind the death of Duncan after Banquo is also slain, and he appoints himself to head the legitimate cause of the king’s eldest son, Malcolm. It is interesting to consider how Macduff deals with the guilt that he feels over his indirect role in causing the slaughter of his family by Macbeth’s henchmen. He first remonstrates with himself, acknowledging that he has been sinful in the sense that his innocent wife and children were slain for his opposition to Macbeth. Urged by Malcolm to “dispute it like a man” (IV.iii.219), Macduff agrees on the need to exact vengeance upon Macbeth, but tells the prince, “I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.220-221). In this natural frame of action, Macduff is able to move toward the final confrontation with Macbeth in a deliberate and highly focused manner, refusing to strike down the reluctant soldiers in Macbeth’s force and seeking his revenge on Macbeth alone.