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Act IV, Scene 2
This scene takes place at Macduff's castle in Fife. Lady Macduff, with her young son at her side, is conversing with noble Ross about her husband's having fled the country. She is understandably upset, feels deserted, fears for his life, and thinks "his flight was madness." She openly calls him a traitor who acted out of fear. Ross tries to convince her that he acted from wisdom, not fear. Lady Macduff scoffs and says, "Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes...he loves us not." Ross assures her that her husband is noble and wise, and only the times are traitorous. Almost overcome with emotion, Ross leaves, and the mother turns her attention to her child, saying to him that she fears his father is dead. The son refuses to believe it, but he does ask if his father was a traitor. His mother answers that anyone who lies is a traitor and should be hanged by honest men. With a child's vision, her son answers that " there are liars enow to beat the honest men and hang them up." Lady Macduff laughs at his grown up thoughts, but the laughter is interrupted by an unknown messenger who has come to warn Lady Macduff that "some danger does approach you nearly." He advises her to take the children and flee from Fife. Then he is off. Lady Macduff is too melancholy and astonished to react. She asks herself, "Whither should I fly?...I have done no harm." In truth, there is not time for escape. The murderers enter and stab the young boy who calls out a warning. "He has killed me, mother; run away, I pray you." Lady Macduff, screaming "murder," runs out, pursued by the murderers who are certain to kill her as well.
In this scene, the audience is vividly shown the results of Macbeth's chaos on a personal, family level. Macduff, as a target of the king's fear, has wisely left the country and fled to England, leaving behind his wife and children. At the beginning of the scene, Shakespeare poignantly presents the emotions of the wife he left behind. Lady Macduff does not understand her husband's desertion and calls him a traitor, driven by fear. She feels abandoned, unloved, and afraid. As a mother, she is worried about how she will provide for her children. Ross tries to ease her pain, saying Macduff was no traitor, but a wise and noble man. Then, in an almost poetic manner, he explains to Lady Macduff the horrors that reign in Scotland that caused her husband's actions. He says, "Cruel are the times, when we are traitors and do not know ourselves...we know not what we fear, but float upon a wild and violent sea." With these words, Ross has perfectly captured the spirit of the country driven into chaos by the madness of Macbeth. It also foreshadows the "violent sea" that is about to engulf the gentle lady.
When Ross departs, she turns her attention to her son that is by her side. She tries to prepare him for the fact that his father may be dead. The young boy refuses to accept that fact or that his father was a traitor; instead, the lad tries to cheer up his mother by joking with her. It is a loving, family scene that makes the horror that is about to occur even more vile. As they talk, they are interrupted by a messenger who warns Lady Macduff that she and her children are in danger and should flee. Although unnamed, the messenger is obviously a good-hearted soul who has taken a great risk to bring the warning.
The melancholy Lady Macduff, unfortunately, is unprepared to deal with the news; she has no where to go, no one to lean on. She accepts her fate, realizing the irony of the times "where to do harm is laudable, to do good sometimes accounted dangerous folly." It appears that evil will prevail over good once more. Her thoughts are interrupted by the intrusion of the murderer. When the young son boldly calls the intruder a " shag- haired villain," he is stabbed on stage. Before he dies, he screams to his mother to "run away, I beg you," a clear flashback to an earlier murder scene where Banquo calls a warning to his son Fleance to flee. The scene ends with Lady Macduff running off to meet her ill fate.
This scene probably shows the greatest horror in the entire play, for it reveals total disorder and murder for no purpose. The fact that the victims are a gentle woman and her young son intensifies the depth of the horror. It is Macbeth (evil) gone totally astray. And yet there are pinpoints of goodness and hope in the scene. Ross (a picture of goodness) serves as a comforter to the lady in the midst of the chaos. An unknown messenger (symbolic of the good, unnamed, unseen people of Scotland) risks his life to try and save Lady Macduff. The young son (symbolic of the future) refuses to accept the evil of the times (his father's possible treachery or death) and dies in bravery trying to protect his mother from the evil. There is still hope beyond Macbeth and his chaos!