Macbeth - Summary and Analysis Act IV: Scene 3


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 harbour 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 realise 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 honour, 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.

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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