Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 4
On his way from the castle, the Thane of Ross encounters an Old Man, who confirms the widespread reports of disruption in the natural world. Macduff appears with fresh news that Duncan is buried, that his sons have fled, and that the kingship has passed to Macbeth. The opening prophecies of the Witches have been completed.
Like the Witches, the Old Man is a traditional figure in many works of literature. In contrast to the Witches' vision of what will be, the old man exemplifies the certainty of what has been: The notion of age, tradition and natural continuity, as well as wisdom are all bound up in this single figure. In words that recall those of the much younger Lennox in the previous scene, the old man describes how the world that he knows and trusts has been turned on its head. All the named events are not simply natural disasters; they are reversals of the expected natural order: Daylight has been replaced by night; a falcon (a bird of prey) has been killed by an owl, a much smaller creature; and the horses of the king's stables are said to have eaten each other.
The entry of Macduff allows Shakespeare to consolidate the first half of the play and to confirm that Macbeth has been named king and has already gone to Scone, the traditional place of coronation for Scottish kings, to be crowned. The imagery of this scene acts partly as a bridge between the first half of the play and the second. It recalls the first soliloquy of Lady Macbeth in Act I, Scene 5 ("Come, you Spirits"), and it foreshadows the language at the end of Act III, Scenes 2 and 3, concerning the murder of Banquo. The subplot of this second murder forms the basis of the whole of the next act.
trifled (4) made trivial
travelling lamp (7) the sun
minions of their race (15) best of their breed
suborn'd (24) bribed
ravin (28) eat up
benison (40) blessing