Lord Macduff, the Thane of Fife, is a character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c.1603-1607). Macduff plays a pivotal role in the play: he suspects Macbeth of regicide and eventually kills Macbeth in the final act. He can be seen as the avenging hero who helps save Scotland from Macbeth’s tyranny.
But “lead on, Macduff!” is an incorrect quotation. The actual words are “lay on, Macduff!” The phrase is now often used humorously when asking someone to lead you to a place.
The original phrase “lay on” means to make a vigorous attack. Macbeth refuses to yield to Macduff, declaring:
I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’
Historically, the Clan MacDuff was the most powerful family in Fife in the medieval ages. The ruins of Macduff’s Castle lie in East Wemyss cemetery.
The incorrect quotation has been around for a long time. For example, in 1898, a drunk was arrested in London misquoting the phrase. He was fined 7 shillings, in default of ten days imprisonment.
Can you imagine being fined or sent to prison for misquoting someone’s writing? Shakespeare must have had a lot of pull!
In King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard, (1885), when told to be prepared to enter the Place of Death, Captain Good tells Gagool, “Lead on MacDuff.”
In Punch of 1867, the narrator in conversation with Punch extols him to tell of the reason for his visit with the words: “That’s the style. Lead on Macduff!”
So, although it may be a misquotation, “Lead on, MacDuff!” has been around for at least 160 years.