Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3:

Page Index:
Enter Malcolm and Macduff:
To understand the first part of this scene, we must remember that Macbeth pays spies to keep tabs on his nobles, and that he sends assassins after his enemies. With such a king on the throne of Scotland, it's not safe to trust anyone from Scotland, so Malcolm is extremely cautious in his dealings with Macduff.

Malcolm and Macduff are at the English court, and as the scene opens, Macduff has already been telling Malcolm of the terrible things that have been happening in Scotland. The first words of the scene are Malcolm's response: "Let us seek out some desolate shade, and there / Weep our sad bosoms empty" (4.3.1-2). This is Malcolm's way of expressing sympathy without committing himself to anything. Of course, this isn't the response that Macduff wants. Macduff replies, "Let us rather / Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men / Bestride our down-fall'n birthdom" (4.3.2-4). There is a great sense of urgency in Macduff's words. When a soldier bestrides a fallen comrade, he protects him by standing with one foot on each side of his comrade's body, and fighting from there. Macduff believes that his "birthdom," his native land and Malcolm's, is in desperate trouble, and he wants to protect it at all costs.

Macduff goes on to describe Scotland's agony, but Malcolm remains very wary. First of all he tells Macduff, "What I believe I'll wail, / What know believe, and what I can redress, / As I shall find the time to friend, I will. / What you have spoke, it may be so perchance" (4.3.8-11). This is quite a lot of cold water. Malcolm has said that he will shed tears only if he believes what Macduff is saying, and he will believe it only if he knows it to be true (presumably from other sources). Also, he says "what I can redress . . . I will," which implies that there may be problems that he can not redress. In addition, he will take action only when he "shall find the time to friend," that is, when all the circumstances show that a particular time is friendly to his cause. Finally, everything that Macduff has been saying "may be so perchance," which means that it very well could be true. Malcolm then makes things even worse for Macduff by expressing doubts about Macduff's own motivations. He points out that Macduff could still go back over to the side of Macbeth, who "Was once thought honest: you have loved him well. / He hath not touch'd you yet" (4.3.13-14). Malcolm goes on to say that even though he is young (and therefore not worth much), Macduff may "deserve of him through me," by betraying him to Macbeth, using him as "a weak poor innocent lamb / To appease an angry god" (4.3.15-17).

Macduff protests that he is not treacherous, but Malcolm answers that a forceful king (such as Macbeth) may make a good man turn bad, because "A good and virtuous nature may recoil / In an imperial charge" (4.3.20). Then Malcolm apologizes, in a way. He says, "That which you are my thoughts cannot transpose" (4.3.21). In other words, whatever Macduff is, he is, and that can't be changed by what Malcolm thinks. Thus, if Macduff is a good man, he won't be made into a bad man just because Malcolm is thinking bad thoughts about him. And although Malcolm can't tell that Macduff is a good man just by looking at him, "Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell; / Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so" (4.3.22-24). The "brightest" angel was Lucifer, who fell and became Satan. But angels are "bright still"; they look good and they are good. So, although "all things foul" want to look good, looking good doesn't mean that you are really evil, because "grace must still look so." In sum, Macduff may be a good man who is telling the truth. Still, Malcolm isn't ready to put complete trust in him.

Because it appears that there is no way that he can win over Malcolm, Macduff cries out, I have lost my hopes" (4.3.24). Malcolm replies, "Perchance even there where I did find my doubts" (4.3.25). Literally, this means that Macduff lost his hopes in the same place that Malcolm found his doubts about Macduff's loyalty. He's suggesting that Macduff needs to do some more explaining. He asks Macduff: "Why in that rawness [unprotected state] left you wife and child, / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love, / Without leave-taking?" (4.3.26-28). (In the previous scene Lady Macduff raised this same question, but it's never answered.) Apparently this question stuns Macduff, because Malcolm seems to regret asking it. He says, "Let not my jealousies [suspicions] be your dishonours, / But mine own safeties" (4.3.29-30). He means that the source of his suspicion is only his fear for his own safety, not anything dishonorable in Macduff.

If this is supposed to make Macduff feel better, it doesn't work. Macduff exclaims that goodness is afraid of tyranny, so there's no hope for Scotland. He's also angry that his honor has been questioned, and he's ready to give up on Malcolm. He says, "Fare thee well, lord: / I would not be the villain that thou think'st / For the whole space that's in the tyrant's grasp" (4.3.34-36). Malcolm, however, is not ready to give up on Macduff. He asks him to drop his anger, and tells him that he knows that he has been telling the truth about the suffering of Scotland. Malcolm adds that there are those that will fight for his right to the throne, and that England has already offered troops. All of this is the sort of thing that Macduff wanted to hear in the first place, but then Malcolm begins a new test of Macbeth's honor.

Malcolm begins his test by saying that Scotland will suffer even more after Macbeth is crushed. The reason: Malcolm will be more evil than Macbeth. (Malcolm's plan is to find out if Macduff wants what is best for Scotland, or just wants to defeat Macbeth.) First, Malcolm says that he will be so lustful that "your wives, your daughters, / Your matrons and your maids, could not fill up / The cistern of my lust" (4.3.61-63). Macduff's response is more than a little wimpy. He says that uncontrolled lust is bad, but he's sure that Scotland can provide Malcolm with enough willing women to satisfy him. But Malcolm goes on to declare that he's also so avaricious that "were I king, / I should cut off the nobles for their lands, / Desire his jewels and this other's house: / And my more-having would be as a sauce / To make me hunger more" (4.3.78-82). Macduff admits that avarice in a king is even worse than lust, but he's sure that Scotland has abundance enough to satisfy Malcolm. Such lust and avarice would be bearable, balanced against good qualities. "But I have none" (4.3.91), Malcolm answers. He goes on to assert that he has not a single virtue that a king needs. Not only that, but he is positively evil, so evil that "had I power, I should / Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / Uproar the universal peace, confound / All unity on earth" (4.3.97-100).

After describing himself as the worst possible person on the face of the earth, Malcolm then asks Macduff if someone like him is fit to govern. "Fit to govern! / No, not to live" (4.3.102-103), Macduff bursts out. Then he laments the fate of Scotland and wonders that such a bad man could come from such good parents. After this, he's about to storm off, but Malcolm once again calls him back. This time, Malcolm takes back everything he's just said about himself. He is, he now says, chaste, generous, and trustworthy. He also tells Macduff that the English warrior Siward is already marching towards Scotland with an army of ten thousand. Malcolm and Macduff will join them, with every hope that they'll quickly defeat Macbeth.

After putting Macduff through all of this psychological torture, Malcolm asks him, "Why are you silent?" (4.3.137). Macduff replies, "Such welcome and unwelcome things at once / 'Tis hard to reconcile" (4.3.138-139). Right. It's also hard for us to believe that Macduff would believe that an evil man would say that he is evil, but that's the way Shakespeare wrote it.

Enter a Doctor:
After the tyranny of Macbeth is contrasted with the goodness of Macduff and Malcolm, we are again reminded of what a good king should be. A doctor enters and tells Macduff and Malcolm that a crowd of sick people are waiting to be cured by the English king. Their sickness can't be cured by doctors, but only by the king: "at his touch-- / Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand-- / They presently amend" (4.3.143-145). The doctor leaves, and Macduff asks what disease he was talking about. Malcolm explains, "'Tis call'd the evil" (4.3.146). (The disease is scrofula, which causes ugly swellings of glands in the neck. It was called "the king's evil" because of the popular idea that a holy king could cure it by touching the diseased person.) Malcolm goes on to speak of what a miracle-worker the English king is. He brings God's healing power to his people, and it's a wonder, because "How he solicits heaven, / Himself best knows" (4.3.150). In addition to being able to heal the sick, the English king "hath a heavenly gift of prophecy, / And sundry blessings hang about his throne" (4.3.157-158). Malcolm doesn't mention Macbeth, but the only apparent reason for this description of the English king is to provide a picture of heavenly good to contrast with Macbeth's hellish evil.

Enter Ross:
After we know that Malcolm and Macduff are ready to go to war against Macbeth, Ross brings news that gives them even more reason to destroy the tyrant.

Macduff asks Ross how things are going in Scotland, and Ross answers, "Alas, poor country! / Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot / Be call'd our mother, but our grave" (4.3.164-166). In a previous scene, we have seen Macbeth's terrorism in action against Lady Macduff and her son. Now Ross says that Macbeth does this sort of thing every day, so that "the dead man's knell / Is there scarce ask'd for who" (4.3.170-171). He means that the death knell rings so often that people don't even ask who's dead.

Macduff asks about his wife and children, and Ross says that they are "well." Macduff repeats the question, asking "The tyrant has not batter'd at their peace?" (4.3.178). Ross answers with an equivocation: "No; they were well at peace when I did leave 'em" (4.3.179). We know that Macbeth has not "batter'd at their peace," he's killed them, and that they are "well at peace" because they are gone from this world to the peace of heaven. Ross has good intentions; he wants to spare Macduff's feelings, at least for the moment.

Macduff, sensing that Ross is holding something back, presses him to say more, and Ross gives him some good news. He has heard that men in Scotland are taking up arms against Macbeth, and he believes it because he has seen Macbeth's forces gathering for battle. Now appealing directly to Malcolm, he says, "Now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland / Would create soldiers" (4.3.186-187). Ross knows that Malcolm, as the son of good King Duncan, could inspire everyone to fight against Macbeth. In answer to this appeal, Malcolm reassures Ross that he is on his way to Scotland with ten thousand men commanded by Siward.

Now Ross can no longer hold back the worst news. Before he delivers it, he asks forgiveness from Macduff, saying "Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever, / Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound / That ever yet they heard" (4.3.201-203). What follows is one of the most affecting moments in the play. Ross tells the terrible news: "Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes / Savagely slaughter'd" 4.3.204-205). Macduff is so overcome with emotion that he chokes up. As we put a hand to our mouth when we feel tears coming on, Macduff pulls his hat down. Malcolm tells him he must give voice to his pain, saying, "Merciful heaven! / What, man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows; / Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break" (4.3.207-210).

Still, Macduff can barely speak. He does not want to believe what he has heard, and asks, "My children too?" Ross answers, "Wife, children, servants, all . . . ." (4.3.211). Blaming himself for his decision to flee from Scotland, Macduff says, "And I must be from thence!" (4.3.212). Malcolm advises him to cure his grief with revenge against Macbeth, but Macduff cries out, "He has no children." He means that he can't get complete revenge by killing the children of the child-killer, even if he were such a monster as to be a child-killer himself. Macduff continues, All my pretty ones? / Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? / What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?" (4.3.217-220).

Disconcerted by Macduff's outburst, Malcolm tells him to keep his emotions in check, to "Dispute it like a man." His idea is the familiar one that real men don't cry, but Macduff knows better, and says, "I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man" (4.3.220-221). Malcolm, however, continues to urge him to turn his grief into anger, and Macduff finally determines to do so. He wants to come face-to-face with Macbeth immediately. "Front to front / Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself," he says. "Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape, / Heaven forgive him too!" (4.3.233-235). Of course he means that only heaven itself can save Macbeth.

Now everything is prepared for Macbeth's destruction. Malcolm and Macduff have a righteous cause, backed by ten thousand soldiers and powered by Macduff's hot rage. As Malcolm says, "Macbeth / Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above / Put on their instruments" (4.3.237-239). Nothing can save Macbeth from destruction now. The only question is how he will face it.