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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE II
Now that Macbeth has completed his descent from loyal thane to evil tyrant, Shakespeare leaves him for a while.
The setting changes from the eerie gloom of the witches' haunt to a quiet, domestic scene in Macduff's castle. The characters are Lady Macduff, Macduff's son, and a kinsman, the Thane of Ross.
Although Lady Macduff and her son are not part of the political turmoil caused by Macbeth, they are affected by it. Good and bad have been blurred and confused for them, too.
Macduff has gone to England without saying goodbye to his family, on whom his lack of loyalty to King Macbeth will bring disgrace. Lady Macduff does not understand why he has abandoned them. She decides he must not love them.
Let's stop for a minute to look at his reasons for sneaking off that way, We can guess that after enduring Macbeth's tyranny for some time, Macduff decided something had to be done. The only hope for his country was to bring back Malcolm, its rightful king. And that meant going to England in secret.
Could Macduff have guessed what would happen? It seems unlikely. He must have known that his wife and children would be shamed and unprotected, and that Macbeth would make it hard on them. But maybe he figured that a new king for Scotland was worth the price. But how could Macduff or anybody else imagine how threatened his family would be? Clearly, he underestimated Macbeth.
"How can you tell right from wrong, courage from cowardice, in a topsy-turvy world?" this scene asks. Lady Macduff is a strong, intelligent woman, and she cannot understand her husband's motives. She is angry at him, because she believes he has acted unwisely.
Ross seems convinced that Macduff is doing the right thing, but he cannot explain why. He sums up the situation well:
But cruel are the times, when we are traitors And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor From what we fear, yet know not what we fear Act IV, Scene ii, lines 18-20
Ross finds Macduff's family's plight so sad, he has to leave before
he starts crying.
Lady Macduff tells her son that his father is dead. What she means is that they have been left to fend for themselves; nobody knows when Macduff will come back.
The tone of the scene is light, but the intent is serious. Macduff's son is bright and cocky. He doesn't believe for a minute that his father is dead. Probably Lady Macduff's tone lets him know that she does not mean what she says literally. But being left alone and in disgrace will be difficult for them.
Lady Macduff also tells her son that his father is a traitor. She probably says it because she knows that he will hear a lot of other people say it before long.
Not even the oppressed people of Scotland realize the depth of Macbeth's evil. Never in Lady Macduff's talks with Ross or with her son has it occurred to any of them that she and her children could be killed. That would be too cruel, even for Macbeth.
This false sense of security is shattered when a man runs in, winded and scared to death. He warns Lady Macduff that she and her family are in great danger. Then he runs away. Lady Macduff has only a few moments to wonder why she should be in danger when she has done no harm before several murderers enter.
One of the murderers says the same thing about Macduff his wife has just been saying-that he is a traitor. This time, both she and her son defend him. When the young Macduff is grabbed by the man and stabbed, he bravely calls to his mother to run. She does, but she is caught by another murderer and killed.