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This scene is different from others in the play in two ways: it is the only scene not set in Scotland, and it has mostly talk and little action. It takes place in England at the king's palace and opens with Macduff and Malcolm bemoaning the bloody state of their homeland. Macduff gets right to the point. He paints a vivid image of the sickness raging in Scotland. He is tired of the "widows' howls" and "orphans' cries," (an ironic image in light of his family's recent murder of which he has no knowledge). He seeks Malcolm's help to strike out against Macbeth. Malcolm, however, is suspicious of everyone (and has a right to be after his father's execution) and thinks that "all things foul would wear the brows of grace," (appear to be what they are not). Before he joins forces, he must test Macduff's loyalty. The prince claims to be a vile and evil person, worse than Macbeth (the theme of appearance vs. reality once again). Macduff believes his confession and weeps for Scotland (much as he will soon weep for his family), for he had hoped that Malcolm, the rightful future king, would save his country from total ruin.
But things are not as they seem throughout this scene. Malcolm is really not the vile person he has described himself to be. Instead, the reality, as he later tells Macduff, is that he "at no time broke my faith, would not betray the devil to his fellow, and delights no less in truth than life." Macduff is certainly relieved to learn the truth. Reality (goodness in place of evil) is beginning to prevail. Ross, the noble messenger in the scene, also advances the theme of appearance vs. reality. When Macduff quizzes him about the welfare of his family, Ross replies, "They were well at peace when I did leave 'em," which leaves the appearance that they are still well. Ross and the audience know the truth behind this appearance, and when Macduff discovers the reality of his murdered family, he is devastated by his grief and tortured by his guilt for having left them in Scotland. This time it is Malcolm who must persuade Macduff to leave his grief and take up arms against Macbeth in revenge of this family's murder. Ironically, at the beginning of the scene, it was Macduff encouraging Malcolm to put away his grief over his father and revenge his death by attacking Macbeth.
There is another strong irony in this scene. Scotland, the homeland and country that they love, is described in the most vile terms:
Alas, poor country, Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot Be called our mother, but our grave.... Where sighs and g roans and shrieks that rend the air, Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems A modern ecstasy."
In ironic contrast, England, the foreign land that should be feared, is described as a heavenly place with a holy king. Fortunately for Malcolm and for Scotland, because of the prince's virtues and basic goodness, King Edward will lend his "healing" touch to Scotland, ironically in the form of Siward and 10,000 murderous soldiers. How sad that it will take greater death and mayhem to destroy the chaos that has become Scotland in the person of Macbeth. The scene ends in positive foreshadowing with a picture of Malcolm on the throne and reigning in the manner of his family before him, his father being a "sainted king" with a queen that was often on her knees in prayer (an image that is in total contrast to Macbeth and his queen). The hope is that goodness (Malcolm) will prevail over evil (Macbeth).