Previously in Macbeth: Witches, war, heroism, prophecies, and thoughts of murder consume the first act. A floating imaginary dagger, regicide, the death of sleep, flight of the sons, the second act. In Act Three, Banquo suspects Macbeth, but still accepts an invitation to that night’s banquet. Macbeth meets with murderers to make sure that that never happens and that Fleance dies as well. The murderers succeed in killing Banquo but Fleance escapes. When Macbeth is informed of this at the banquet, he sees the ghost of Banquo and loses his composure. Macduff leaves to meet with Malcolm in England to convince him to return to Scotland and fight for the throne.
In Act Four, Scene One Macbeth visits the witches’ coven (complete with their boss, Hecate), to get more answers. Of course, this is not before we as an audience are treated to nearly six dozen lines’ worth of un-Shakespearean (but more on that later in the month) witchy and sing-songy incantations. Pretty weird. When they do get around to answering Macbeth’s questions of the future, they do it in their usual tripartite fashion:
- An apparition of a head with a helmet, accompanied by thunder — “beware Macduff” (IV.i.93)…pretty straightforward
- A second apparition, “more potent than the first” (IV.i.98), a bloody child accompanied by thunder — ”none of woman born // Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.102-03)…seemingly simple, we all had mothers, even Macduff, right?
- A third apparition of a child wearing a crown and holding a tree in his hand — “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until // Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come to him (IV.i.114-16)…simple: trees don’t move
Macbeth seems to be safe; he certainly feels so. Now, we know–either through previous readings of the play or general knowledge–that each warning is legitimate and does come to pass. Later over the course of the next two months, we’ll discuss how Macbeth failed to see that the answers given here can be heard multiple ways (and he hears them wrong, but could have read them right). Macbeth wants to know if “Banquo’s issue [shall] ever // Reign in this kingdom” (IV.124-25). The witches try to warn him off, but Macbeth will not be denied. The apparition is an entire “show of eight Kings and Banquo, last [King] with a mirror in his hand” (iv.I.133, stage direction). We’ll discuss this apparition in greater detail later as well, but suffice to say, Macbeth now knows the Banquo prophecy is true.
The witches disappear, and Lennox enters with news of Macduff’s flight to England. In an aside, Macbeth says that he will send murderers to Macduff’s castle and “give to th’ edge o’ th’ sword // His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls // That trace his in his line” (IV.i.173-5). He’s not just going to go after Macduff, but he’s going to go after his entire family.
Act Four, Scene Two takes us to the Macduff castle where we find Lady Macduff upset over her husband’s abandonment and flight to England. Ross attempts to calm her with vague and ambiguous statements, promising only to return soon. After Ross leaves, Lady Macduff and her son have a bizarre conversation about life without dad. The kid seems set for the future as either a logician or comedian:
Was my father a traitor, mother?
Ay, that he was.
What is a traitor?
Why, one that swears and lies.
And be all traitors that do so?
Every one that does so is a traitor and must be hanged.
And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?
Who must hang them?
Why, the honest men.
Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them.
It’s a pretty sound argument, only the kid really doesn’t have a future. Shortly after a messenger tries to tell Lady Macduff trouble is coming, in come Murderers, who kill the boy, and chase the lady off-stage with bad intent.
Act Four, Scene Three is another weird scene, one that will need greater discussion later in the month. Suffice to say, it’s unusual: at 240 lines, it’s the longest in the play; there is no prose in the scene; it’s the only scene in the play that does not take place in Scotland; AND it fills most of the space in the four-scene interim between appearances of our titular hero (Macbeth is off-stage for 434 consecutive lines…20% of the play; I know the concept of the “Act Four rest” but now I want to go back and see if it’s that long in the other major roles).
With all that atypicality, it should come to no surprise that this scene is unusual for another reason: it is just plain weird. Reader’s Digest version: Macduff visits Malcolm in England to convince him to return to Scotland to take the throne back from Macbeth. Once convinced, Malcolm tries to say that Scotland will suffer under his rule as well. He then spends over 50 lines cataloging his sins and describing how he would be a horrible king. It’s only when Macduff gives up and tries to leave, that Malcolm says that he was kidding, it was a test, and Macduff passed. Malcolm then swings the other direction on the sinner/saint pendulum, proclaiming his virginity (“am yet // Unknown to woman” [IV.iii.125-6]) AND honesty (“My first false speaking // Was this upon myself” [IV.iii.130-31]). Macduff sums up the audience’s feelings perfectly: “‘Tis hard to reconcile” (IV.iii.139). But there’s no time to ponder linguistic reconciliation.
Ross enters to deliver news from Scotland to Malcolm and Macduff, telling the exiled prince that good people are dying quickly, and Macduff that his wife and children are fine (which feels contradictory…because it is). At this point, we’re thinking, “Oh, he never returned to check on Lady Macduff and her son like he promised.” But Ross can’t hold out on his lies, and within 20 lines, he’s revealing the truth of the slaughter at Macduff’s castle. Macduff is crushed and Malcolm tells him to use this for revenge; the scene and act ends with their decision to return to Scotland.
Like I said, weird scene. And an act full of ’em.