Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 3


The next 20 lines may appear curious to a modern audience, for two reasons: first, because they were probably added as a flattering direct address to King James I, for whom the play was performed; and second because of what they reveal about the miraculous healing powers ascribed to his forebear, Edward the Confessor. According to legend, Edward had been able to cure scrofula, or the King's Evil, a glandular inflammation, simply by touching the diseased patient. But the passage is dramatically ironic as well: The king of England is shown to be a monarch of genuine goodness and to use the supernatural for beneficial purposes. Coming almost immediately after Macbeth's visit to the Witches, this contrast is made even more clear. Moreover, the speech introduces us to the choric (or commentating) figure of the Doctor, who speaks of disease but is powerless to cure the more severe, mental affliction of Lady Macbeth in the subsequent scene.

When Ross enters, his report consolidates this idea of disease. According to him, the entire country is "teeming" with illness: He reveals that "sighs, and groans, and shrieks . . . rent the air" and that "good men's lives expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken" (168-173). However, the worst news is for the ears of Macduff alone. In a piece of dialogue heavy with emotion, Ross relates the story of the murder of Lady Macduff and her little children. His speech wavers, as he tries to avoid telling Macduff the truth.

On hearing the news about his family, Macduff's reaction is understandable. Shakespeare gives him an implied stage direction in Malcolm's line "What man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows," which suggests that Macduff must cover his face to prevent any unmanly show of grief. But Malcolm suggests that Macduff's tears should become "medicines . . . / To cure this deadly grief." Macduff, however, feels he can only blame himself. With ironic reference to his wife's words of the previous scene, he alludes to his "poor chickens," slaughtered by the "fell swoop" of a bird of prey. The emotional impact of this scene reaches its climax in Macduff's response when Malcolm tells him to "[d]ispute it like a man": "I shall do so / But I must also feel it as a man."

From this moment onwards, Macduff becomes the stereotypical avenging hero. It was he who first discovered the murder of Duncan, having arrived, Christ-like, at the gates of hell in Act II, Scene 3. Now he must take on himself the personal act of revenge. The scene is set for the final act.


to friend (10) auspicious

recoil in an imperial charge (20) recoil (like a cannon) when under royal orders (from Macbeth)

jealousies (29) suspicions

afeer'd (34) confirmed

rich East to boot (37) all the wealth of the Orient as well

grafted (51) embedded

spacious plenty (71) at will

summer-seeming (86) youthful

foisons (88) abundance

interdiction (107) accusation

trains (118) tricks

detraction (123) self-accusation

convinces . . . art (143) defeats all the attempts of (medical) skill

stamp (153) coin

eye (186) command

latch (195) catch

fee-grief . . . breast (196) a personal sorrow

quarry . . . deer (206) carnage of these dead creatures

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