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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE III
In England, Malcolm and Macduff repair the bonds of loyalty and trust which have been destroyed by Macbeth.
Macduff wants Malcolm to lead a revolt against Macbeth. Malcolm would like to overthrow his father's murderer, but he has a problem: how does he know he can trust Macduff?
Malcolm is in a delicate position. As Scotland's rightful king, he owes it to his people to overthrow the tyrant. But he must be very careful. Macbeth has been sending spies to try to lure Malcolm back to Scotland and into a trap. So far, Malcolm has seen through all their plots.
Now Malcolm has to figure out whether or not Macduff is what he appears to be. In Macduff's favor is the fact that he is known as an honest man. But Macbeth was considered an honest man at one time. Also, Macbeth has not actually done Macduff any personal harm yet. (Neither of them knows about the murder of Macduff's family.)
Malcolm's problem is how to tell a good man from a bad man acting good: "Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so" (lines 24-25). In other words, "foul" wants to seem "fair," and "fair" is "fair" by nature, so how can you tell them apart?
Fortunately for Malcolm, he has a quick mind and a clever tongue. When
one approach fails, he can try another. His direct questioning of Macduff
("Wouldn't you get a lot for turning me in to Macbeth?" "If
you are Macbeth's enemy, how can you have left your family exposed to
him?") only makes the older man angry. That does not help. Macduff's
anger could be either that of a guilty man found out or an innocent man
Malcolm tries another tactic. He tells lies about himself. He describes in great detail what an awful person he is and what a terrible king he would make.
At first, Macduff tries to downplay the faults Malcolm gives himself. After all, Macduff thinks, anybody would be better than Macbeth.
As Malcolm goes on, he gives an anatomy of a bad king. He says that he is lustful. Macduff does not approve, but he knows that there are plenty of women willing to satisfy a king's sexual appetites.
Malcolm adds greed to his list of faults. Macduff likes this fault even less, but says that there are enough riches in Scotland to satisfy anybody's desire for wealth. Malcolm's virtues, says Macduff, will outweigh his faults.
Malcolm gives Macduff one final chance to reject him. He lists every virtue a king could have. Then he declares that he doesn't have any of them. He says that, if he were king, he would "Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell" (line 98).
That is just what Macbeth has done. Finally, Macduff sees that Malcolm would not be an improvement. He gives up hope.
By giving up hope, Macduff passes Malcolm's test. Malcolm reveals that he has been telling lies about himself in order to test Macduff. The truth, he says, is just the opposite. Because of the extremity of the situation, we can forgive Malcolm for his lack of humility as he informs Macduff of his virtues.
"Old Siward, with ten thousand warlike men" (line 134) are already prepared to march on Scotland, Malcolm tells Macduff.
This interlude about the king of England and his healing powers serves to contrast with the sickness a bad king like Macbeth brings on his country. The imagery is religious: "How he solicits heaven, Himself best knows" (lines 149-150), suggesting that a true king is good, and a gift from God.
Ross appears, having just arrived from Scotland. He is bringing the terrible news about Macduff's family, but he cannot bring himself to say it at first.
Notice that when Ross first enters, Malcolm does not recognize him. Macbeth has kept the rightful king away from his country for so long that he does not even know his people anymore. Of course, after riding hard for several days to be the bearer of bad news, Ross may not look his best!
When Ross describes Scotland, it sounds as if he were trying to tell somebody about a nightmare:
Where sighs, and groans, and shrieks that rent the air, Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems A modern ecstasy. Act IV, Scene iii, lines 168-170
Ross is going through his own personal nightmare trying to bring himself to tell Macduff that his wife and children have been killed. When Macduff asks about his family, Ross dodges the question. His answer has a weird blend of horror and humor:
Macduff: The tyrant has not battered at their peace?
Ross: No; they were well at peace when I did leave 'em. Act IV, Scene iii, lines 178-79
Macduff can tell that Ross is holding something back. He presses him for news.
Ross changes the subject for a moment, saying that he has seen Macbeth's army. He appeals to Malcolm to come home and lead the revolt. When he is told that the troops are ready to march, he knows that he can no longer wait to tell Macduff about his family.
Macduff's reaction to the news is the most touching passage in the play for many readers. This blunt, practical man, this soldier who has seen many of his comrades die on the field, stands blinking in disbelief. He must ask Ross to tell him several times. He can understand the words but he cannot fathom anything so horrible.
There is a lesson in the way Macduff takes the news. Malcolm, who is still relatively inexperienced, tries to snap Macduff out of his grief:
Malcolm: Dispute it like a man.
Macduff: I shall do so; But I must also feel it as a man. Act IV, Scene iii, lines 220-21
Macduff is not only brave in fighting. He is brave enough to face his own personal tragedy.
Finally, Macduff converts his grief to rage. Strong as his resolve to overthrow Macbeth was before, it is now even stronger.
Shakespeare has just set up the last act of the play. We know that Macbeth is depending on the witches' new prophesies and believes himself invincible. We also know that a mighty army is setting out from England to defeat him. The stage is set for the final battle, in Act V.