Act IV – Scenes.ii and iii
At Macduff’s castle in Fife, Lady Macduff and her son
remain, despite advice from the Thane of Ross to escape.
The young son shows courage when he learns of his father’s defection. Macbeth’s henchmen arrive at the castle and they brutally kill Lady Macduff and then her child.
In Scene.iii, which takes place in England, Malcolm (Duncan’s son) is not
convinced regarding Macduff’s loyalty and so he questions him. Macduff loses his temper, cursing the untitled tyrant Macbeth. Malcolm is convinced of Macduff’s loyalty.
The Thane of Ross appears with the sad news of the slaughter of Macduff’s
family. This makes him determined to embark on a personal quest for revenge.
The audience also learns that the English King, Edward the Confessor, will
aid Malcolm in his endeavor.
The audience may wonder why Macduff deserted his family
and went south.
Perhaps they argued about where their loyalties should lie. In any event, the matter is not clear. The upshot is that Macduff’s family is slaughtered and any thoughts Macduff had concerning split loyalties are now resolved.
Lady Macduff believes that she will be safe, because by staying in Scotland
she indicates that she has allegiance to Macbeth. She must think that Macbeth possesses honor, but she is gravely mistaken. Lady Macduff clearly does not see what is going to happen, but the audience
knows, for they were given an insight into Macbeth’s plans in the previous scene. Will she take Ross’ advice and flee, or will she be murdered?
Shakespeare heightens the sense of urgency in this scene by punctuating the
dialogue with the entrance of messengers.
The theme of loyalty continues in Scene.iii where Malcolm tests Macduff’s
allegiance. He is eventually convinced, and Malcolm warmly welcomes Macduff into the struggle against the tyrant Macbeth. Macduff is torn by terrible grief and swears a personal revenge on Macbeth.
One can almost look at the beginning of Scene.iii as a test for the stern job that lies ahead of Macduff. He clearly passes this.
Macduff must have felt that it was more important to defend the whole nation
of Scotland rather than just his family.
Towards the end of this scene Malcolm receives support from Edward the
Confessor. The English King had a reputation of being able to cure the sick. He was regarded as a good and kindly King, who used supernatural forces for the benefit of his people.
Malcolm and his followers are, therefore, on the side of good, whilst
Macbeth consorts with the devil.
The Thane of Ross also gives news concerning Scotland, saying that it is
full of sick people, saying
“Alas poor country,
where sighs and groans and shrieks that rent the air
are made, not mark’d: where violent sorrow seems a modern ecstasy: the dead
The reference to the King of England indicates that Malcolm is the only one
that can cure all Scotland’s ills, which emanate from the King.
Macduff feels guilty at leaving his wife and children to be slaughtered like
poor chickens by the fell swoop of a bird of prey.
As seen elsewhere, Macduff becomes the play’s avenging hero, thus setting
the scene for the final acts of the play.