Banquo is a character in William Shakespeare's 1606 play Macbeth. Banquo is at first a friend to Macbeth, and they are together when they meet the Three Witches. After prophesying that Macbeth will become king, the witches tell Banquo that he will not be king himself, but that his descendants will be. Later, Macbeth sees Banquo as a threat to his lust for power and has him murdered; Banquo's son Fleance, however, escapes. Banquo's ghost returns in a later scene, causing Macbeth to react with alarm.
Shakespeare borrowed the character of Banquo from Holinshed's Chronicles, a history of Britain published by Raphael Holinshed in 1587. In Chronicles, however, Banquo is an accomplice to Macbeth in the murder of the king, rather than a loyal subject of the king who is seen as an enemy by Macbeth. Shakespeare may have changed this aspect of his character in order to please King James I, who was said to be a descendant of the real Banquo.
Banquo is often interpreted as a foil and a contrast to Macbeth, resisting evil where Macbeth embraces it. Sometimes, however, his motives are unclear and some critics question his purity. He does nothing to accuse Macbeth of murdering the king, even though he has reason to believe Macbeth is responsible. This can be interpreted as Banquo being a silent accomplice to Macbeth's early crimes. Banquo also tells his son at one point that he is having dark dreams, leading some scholars to wonder whether he has dreamed of killing Macbeth in order to take the throne and fulfill the Witches' prophecy. The character has been played by a variety of actors on the stage and on film, including Canada Lee, Minoru Chiaki, and Martin Shaw. Performances of the play on film and television have used a variety of means to portray his role as a ghost, taking advantage of camera tricks and special effects to heighten the supernatural feel of the play.
The Banquo portrayed in historical sources is significantly different from the Banquo created by Shakespeare. Critics have proposed several reasons for this change. First, to portray the king's ancestor as a murderer would have been risky. Second, Shakespeare may have altered Banquo's character simply because there was no dramatic need for another accomplice to the murder; there was, however, a need to provide a dramatic contrast to Macbeth—a role which many scholars argue is filled by Banquo. Other authors of the time who wrote about Banquo, such as Jean de Schelandre in his Stuartide, also changed history by portraying Banquo as a noble man rather than a murderer, probably for the same reasons. In any case, Shakespeare manages to separate Banquo from the king's murder by making it a secret of which Banquo is totally unaware. Banquo's association with the coup, however, is harder to define. Some scholars have argued that Banquo's loyalty to Macbeth over Malcolm after Duncan's death makes him a darker character. Daniel Amneus argues that the "greater honor" Duncan mentions Macbeth as possessing is Macbeth's title as Prince of Cumberland. If Macbeth is Prince of Cumberland, rather than Malcolm, then Macbeth would be next in line to the throne and no coup would be needed, effectively removing this ambiguity from Banquo's character.
When Macbeth kills the king to take the throne, Banquo, the only one aware of his encounter with the witches, reserves judgment for God, unsure whether Macbeth is a killer or not. (Though he does muse in a soliloquy that "I fear / Thou play'dst most foully for 't".) He offers his respects to the new King Macbeth and pledges loyalty. Later, however, disturbed that Banquo's descendants and not his own will rule Scotland, Macbeth sends murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. During the melee, however, Fleance escapes. The ghost of Banquo later returns to haunt Macbeth at a banquet in Act Three, Scene Four. A terrified Macbeth sees him, while the apparition is invisible to his guests. He appears again to Macbeth in a vision granted by the Three Witches, wherein Macbeth sees a long line of kings related to Banquo.
In Act Two, Scene One, Banquo meets his son Fleance and asks him to take both his sword and his dagger ("Hold, take my sword ... Take thee that too."). He also explains that he has been having trouble sleeping due to "cursed thoughts that nature / gives way to in repose!" On Macbeth's approach, however, he demands the sword returned to him quickly. Scholars have interpreted this to mean that Banquo has been dreaming of murdering the king as Macbeth's accomplice in order to take the throne for his own family, as the Three Witches prophesied to him. His good nature is so revolted by these thoughts that he gives his sword and dagger to Fleance to be sure they do not come true, but is so nervous at Macbeth's approach that he demands them back. Other scholars have responded that Banquo's dreams have less to do with killing the king and more to do with Macbeth. They argue that Banquo is merely setting aside his sword for the night, when Macbeth approaches. Banquo, having had dreams about Macbeth's deeds, takes back his sword as a precaution in this case.
Macbeth eventually sees that Banquo can no longer be trusted to aid him in his evil, and considers his friend a threat to his newly acquired throne. Thus he has him murdered. Banquo's ability to live on in different ways is another oppositional force, in this case to Macbeth's impending death. His spirit lives on in Fleance, his son, and in his ghostly presence at the banquet.
Banquo's other appearance as a ghost during the banquet scene serves as an indicator of Macbeth's conscience returning to plague his thoughts. Banquo's triumph over death appears symbolically, insofar as he literally takes Macbeth's seat during the feast. Shocked, Macbeth uses words appropriate to the metaphor of usurpation, describing Banquo as "crowned" with wounds. The spirit drains Macbeth's manhood along with the blood from his cheeks; as soon as it vanishes, Macbeth announces: "Why, so; being gone, / I am a man again."
Like the vision of Banquo's lineage, the banquet scene has also been the subject of criticism. Critics have questioned whether not one, but perhaps two ghosts appeared in this scene: Banquo and Duncan. Scholars arguing that Duncan attends the banquet state that Macbeth's lines to the Ghost could apply equally well to the slain king. "Thou canst not say I did it", for example, can mean that Macbeth is not the man who actually killed Banquo, or it can mean that Duncan, who was asleep when Macbeth killed him, cannot claim to have seen his killer. To add to the confusion, some lines Macbeth directs to the ghost, such as "Thy bones are marrowless", cannot rightly be said of Banquo, who has only recently died.
Scholars also heavily debate whether Macbeth's vision of Banquo is real or a delusion. Macbeth had already seen a delusion before killing Duncan: a knife hovering in the air. Several performances of the play have even ignored the stage direction to have the Ghost of Banquo enter at all, heightening the sense that Macbeth is growing mad, since the audience cannot see what he claims to see. Scholars opposing this view claim that while the dagger is unusual, ghosts of murdered victims are more believable, having a basis in the audience's superstitions. Spirits in other Shakespeare plays – notably Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream – exist in ambiguous forms, occasionally even calling into question their own presence.
Stage directors, unaided by post-production effects and camera tricks, have used other methods to depict the ghost. In the late nineteenth century, elaborate productions of the play staged by Henry Irving employed a wide variety of approaches for this task. In 1877 a green silhouette was used to create a ghostlike image; ten years later a trick chair was used to allow an actor to appear in the middle of the scene, and then again from the midst of the audience. In 1895 a shaft of blue light served to indicate the presence of Banquo's spirit. In 1933 a Russian director named Theodore Komisarjevsky staged a modern retelling of the play (Banquo and Macbeth were told of their future through palmistry); he used Macbeth's shadow as the ghost.
Film adaptations have approached Banquo's character in a variety of ways. In 1936 Orson Welles helped produce an African-American cast of the play, including Canada Lee in the role of Banquo. Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation Throne of Blood makes the character into Capitan Miki, slain by Macbeth's equivalent (Captain Washizu) when his wife explains that she is with child. News of Miki's death does not reach Washizu until after he has seen the ghost in the banquet scene. In Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation, Banquo is played by acclaimed stage actor Martin Shaw, in a style reminiscent of earlier stage performances.