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Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 4

Page Index:
Enter Ross and an Old Man:
This short scene is like the rumblings of distant thunder. It reminds you of the great storm that has just passed, and suggests that another may be on the way.

The discovery of King Duncan's corpse happened shortly after 3 a.m. Now it is daytime, but still strangely dark. The place is somewhere near Macbeth's castle, and Ross is talking to an Old Man.

Ross is a minor character who seems to function as an observer of Macbeth. He was the one who appeared in the second scene of the play to tell the final part of the story of Macbeth's defeat of the rebel forces led by the first Thane of Cawdor. It was Ross (accompanied by Angus) who first greeted Macbeth with the title of Thane of Cawdor. And Ross probably saw Macbeth kill King Duncan's grooms. At the end of this scene Ross says that he will go to see Macbeth crowned King of Scotland.

The Old Man's memories go back seventy years, but nothing he can remember compares to what has happened during this night: "I have seen / Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night / Hath trifled former knowings" (2.4.2-4). Ross replies "Ah, good father, / Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act, / Threaten his bloody stage" (2.4.4-6). The "heavens" are the heavens above, where God lives, and they are also the upper regions of Shakespeare's Globe theater. Ross is saying that the heavens frown angrily ("threaten") as they look down upon man playing his part on the stage of life, which has been made bloody by the murder of King Duncan.

King Duncan should have been honored and loved, so his murder was unnatural, and Ross and the Old Man go on to tell each other of all the unnatural things that have been happening lately. They do not know that Macbeth is the murderer, but as they speak we can see the parallels to Macbeth and what he has done.

Ross points out that though the clock says it's time for the sun to shine, it's still dark. Ross thinks that maybe this terrible night is stronger than day, or maybe the day is ashamed to see what has been done in the night. We are reminded that Macbeth wanted a very dark night for the murder, one in which he wouldn't have to look at what he was doing, and he got such a night. Now that night has lingered into the day.

The Old Man answers that other unnatural things have been happening, too: "On Tuesday last, / A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd" (2.4.11-13). The falcon's "pride of place" is the highest point of its flight. And the owl, which usually catches mice on the ground, went up instead of down, and killed a falcon. Also, a falcon is a day creature, and a royal companion, while the owl is an untamable bird of night and death. If things in nature stands for things in human life, King Duncan was the falcon, and Macbeth the owl.

Even worse, King Duncan's horses, "Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, / Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, / Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make / War with mankind." (2.4.15-18) A "minion" is someone's favorite. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were King Duncan's minions. The King showered them with honors and gifts, but they turned wild and made war on their master.

In the end, the horses ate each other. At their ends, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will be eaten up from inside. Macbeth will fall into despair and Lady Macbeth will go mad from thinking about King Duncan's blood.

Enter Macduff:
As Ross and the Old Man are marveling at the fact that King Duncan's horses ate one another, Macduff appears. Ross greets Macduff in most ordinary way, saying "How goes the world, sir, now?" Macduff's reply is edgy: "Why, see you not? (2.4.21). In Macduff's place we might say "What do you think?" or "Just take a look around you." After all, a good king has just been murdered.

Ross then asks who did the murder. This is probably not an innocent question. Both Macduff and Ross heard Macbeth explain that he killed King Duncan's grooms because they killed the King. Just the fact that Ross asks the question seems to show that he thinks that maybe Macbeth's explanation doesn't hold water. Macduff repeats the official line: King Duncan was killed by his grooms, who were bribed by Malcolm and Donalbain, whose guilt is shown by the fact that they ran away. Ross exclaims "'Gainst nature still!" He adds an outburst against "Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up / Thine own life's means!" (2.4.27-29). Ross means that what Malcolm and Donalbain are said to have done was not only unnatural, it was stupid, because in killing their father, they killed everything he could have given them. [That is, if they did kill their father. If Macbeth killed him, then everything would make more sense. But if Ross and Macduff are thinking that Macbeth killed the King, they're too cautious to say it out loud at the moment.]

In any case, the Scottish nobles have already given Macbeth the throne. (This apparently happened in Macbeth's castle soon after King Duncan was murdered. Once Malcolm and Donalbain had fled, Macbeth, as Duncan's cousin, had the strongest claim.) Ross is on his way to Scone to see him crowned, but Macduff is going home to Fife. Bidding farewell to Ross, Macduff says, "Well, may you see things well done there: adieu! / Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!" (2.4.38). Macduff is wishing everyone well, but also suggesting that they may find that Duncan was a better king than Macbeth will be.