Summary and Analysis
In England, Duncan's son Malcolm tests the loyalty of his newest recruit, Macduff. By demeaning his own nobility and professing himself to be a greater tyrant than Macbeth, Malcolm hopes to goad Macduff into an open display of his loyalties. This attempt at reverse psychology has its desired effect. Macduff is thrown into a fit of anger against the "untitled tyrant" Macbeth, and Malcolm enlists his help in the struggle. When Ross appears with news of the slaughter of Macduff's family, Macduff is finally convinced not only to engage in the rebel army but also to take personal revenge upon Macbeth. This scene also includes a passage in which it is reported that England's king, Edward the Confessor, has provided more than political aid to Malcolm; he has been healing the sick by supernatural means.
This scene develops further the important issues of loyalty and courage found in the preceding scene, and it is structured in two halves: the first concerns the testing of Macduff's loyalty by Malcolm; the second evokes the great passion of Macduff in the face of terrible grief and his sworn revenge on Macbeth.
It is helpful to think of this scene as a job interview. Malcolm begins by suggesting that Macduff may be prepared to betray him as "a sacrifice" to his previous leader, Macbeth. Macduff passes this stage of the interview by boldly announcing, "I am not treacherous." Still, Malcolm persists: Men may look as bright as angels on the outside but still harbor secret feelings within. Why, he asks, did Macduff desert his wife and children? At this point, Macduff nearly fails the test: He cannot believe that Malcolm is so short-sighted not to realize that his interests lie in defending not only his family but the whole nation of Scotland.
As in Ross' speech in Act IV, Scene 2, the context of this entire scene has been set in terms of the country as a whole: Macduff explains to Malcolm that "Each new morn . . . new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds / As if it felt with Scotland"(4-7). Later, Macduff cries out "O Scotland, Scotland . . . O nation miserable!" Macbeth's motivation in murdering Duncan may have been personal, but its effects have become very much public.
Malcolm's next move is a daring piece of reverse psychology: He claims that as a future king, he himself will be even more malicious and barbarous than Macbeth. To understand this scene, the audience must be aware from the start that Malcolm is lying when he suggests that he possesses no virtues, no nobility, no honor, and no qualities of kingship.
Macduff's response to this suggestion is at first cautious. His speech beginning with the words "Boundless intemperance in nature is a tyranny . . . " has a diplomatic tone. Macduff argues, probably against his better judgment, that certain human sins are forgivable, even in a king. Even avarice, the sinful desire for wealth, is "portable" when balanced against the good qualities of kingship. "But I have none," replies Malcolm, listing exactly those qualities which he does have and which, of course, Macbeth lacks. At this point, Macduff snaps. He cannot endure the thought that the country might have to undergo another reign even more vicious than Macbeth's. Seeing Macduff's clearly emotional response, Malcolm relents, revealing as fake the self-portrait he has previously given.
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