Summary and Analysis
In Macduff's castle in Fife, Lady Macduff comforts and is comforted by her young son, who displays a courage beyond his years when confronted with the possibility that his father has turned traitor. Although warned by the Thane of Ross to escape before it is too late, Lady Macduff is encountered by Macbeth's henchmen, who brutally kill first her child and (as the audience learns in the following scene) her.
This scene and the next should be considered together, for both deal with the question of treachery and loyalty, and both consider the nature of genuine courage, as opposed to the arrogant bravado of Macbeth.
Here is a woman apparently abandoned by her husband. She has been left to fend for her children like a mother bird in the nest. Even the tiny wren would show more spirited defense of her own family against a predator than Macduff has done, she argues. Her conclusion can be only that her husband "wants the natural touch" — that is, he lacks human kindness. It's interesting to hear in this phrase an ironic echo of the words of Lady Macbeth, who accused her husband of having precisely too much of "the milk of human kindness."
Ross' speech diverts Lady Macduff's justifiable anger away from her husband, whom he calls "noble, wise, judicious," toward the cruelty of the circumstances in which the country as a whole finds itself. The terror of Macbeth's Scotland is that no one can be sure of another's loyalty or treachery "when we are traitors, / And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumour / From what we fear, yet know not what we fear" (18-20).
Left on their own, Lady Macduff and her son converse further on the subject of her husband's loyalty. To her, Macduff has acted dishonestly, but her son, however naïve his view of the world, comforts her by his practical statement that the world is full of dishonest men. The entry of another messenger increases the urgency of the scene. Left on her own once more, Lady Macduff reflects, as Ross did, on the unpredictability and topsy-turvy nature of human society where "to do harm" is praiseworthy and to do good is dangerous.
The audience should not be surprised, given the direct and courageous speech of the young boy in his conversation with his mother, at the spirited defense he puts up against the murderers. His words ("Thou liest, thou shag-haired villain") foreshadow those of the brave Young Siward to Macbeth in Act V, Scene 7 ("Thou liest, abhorred tyrant") and remind us of the indomitable spirit of honor and justice that must ultimately prevail.
coz (14) cousin
lime (34) bird lime (a sticky substance for trapping birds)
gin (35) trap
enow (56) enough
I doubt (66) I am concerned
savage (69) bold
fell (70) terrible