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ACT II SCENE IV Outside Macbeth’s castle.
[Enter ROSS and an old Man]
Old Man Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
ROSS Ah, good father, 5
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb, 10
When living light should kiss it?
Old Man ‘Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d. 15
ROSS And Duncan’s horses–a thing most strange and certain–
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. 20
Old Man ‘Tis said they eat each other.
ROSS They did so, to the amazement of mine eyes
That look’d upon’t. Here comes the good Macduff.
How goes the world, sir, now?
MACDUFF Why, see you not? 25
ROSS Is’t known who did this more than bloody deed?
MACDUFF Those that Macbeth hath slain.
ROSS Alas, the day!
What good could they pretend?
MACDUFF They were suborn’d: 30
Malcolm and Donalbain, the king’s two sons,
Are stol’n away and fled; which puts upon them
Suspicion of the deed.
ROSS ‘Gainst nature still!
Thriftless ambition, that wilt ravin up 35
Thine own life’s means! Then ’tis most like
The sovereignty will fall upon Macbeth.
MACDUFF He is already named, and gone to Scone
To be invested.
ROSS Where is Duncan’s body? 40
MACDUFF Carried to Colmekill,
The sacred storehouse of his predecessors,
And guardian of their bones.
ROSS Will you to Scone?
MACDUFF No, cousin, I’ll to Fife. 45
ROSS Well, I will thither.
MACDUFF Well, may you see things well done there: adieu!
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!
ROSS Farewell, father.
Old Man God’s benison go with you; and with those 50
That would make good of bad, and friends of foes!

Next: Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 1

Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 4
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)

This scene serves as a link to connect what has gone before with the next act. It probably takes place in the late morning of the day following the murder of Duncan. The dialogue between Ross and the old man renews our feeling of horror at the deed. Macduff’s brief report of the decision of the council of nobles as to the agents and instigators of the murder, and of the election of Macbeth, puts us in possession of the necessary facts, and his refusal to attend the coronation strengthens our feeling that he is entering into an attitude of marked opposition to the new king.

4. Hath trifled former knowings, hath made my former experiences seem mere trifles.

5, 6. heavens … act … stage. These words are drawn from the vocabulary of the Elizabethan theatre. The “heavens” were the hangings with which the stage was draped. When a tragedy was to be performed, these hangings were black. “Act” means “performance.”

8. the travelling lamp, the sun.

9, 10. It’s night’s … entomb. Has night got the better of the sun, or is day ashamed to look upon the deed that darkness still buries the earth as in a tomb?

14. towering in her pride of place, soaring at her highest point before swooping on her prey.

17. minions of their race, the best of their class.

21. eat, the past tense of the verb. This portent, along with the foregoing story of the owl and the falcon, and the prolonged eclipse, was taken by Shakespeare direct from Holinshed. He uses them to show how nature itself seemed to reflect the murder of Duncan in startling and unnatural phenomena.

24. How goes the world, sir, now? What is the latest news? Ross appears to have been absent from the council of the peers held after the close of the preceding scene. Macduff answers him very curtly; he is evidently deeply dissatisfied with what has been done.

28. Macduff does not believe this; he is simply giving Ross the official, accepted report of the king’s death.

29. What good, etc. What benefit could they intend to derive for themselves from the murder?

36. Thriftless ambition. Ross is referring to the supposed ambition of the princes which led them to kill their father. It was “thriftless,” i.e, “wasteful,” because it destroyed that by which it lived and so defeated its own end. Instead of gaining anything by their father’s death, the princes have had to fly the land. Note that Ross accepts without question the official view of the king’s death.

37. A line of four feet.

39. named. At the council of the peers Macbeth, as the next of kin to Duncan in the absence of the princes, was naturally chosen king.

39. Scone, an ancient royal city in Scotland, near the present town of Perth. It contained the ancient throne, inclosing the stone which Jacob used for his pillow (Genesis, xxviii. II), on which the Scottish kings were crowned. When Edward I overran Scotland he took this throne to England, and it is now used in the coronation of English sovereigns in Westminster Abbey.

42. Colme-kill, Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. St. Columba, who converted Scotland to Christianity, founded a monastery here from which the name in the text was derived. Colme-kill means Columba’s cell. Owing to the high reputation of this monastery for holiness, its precincts became a favourite burial place for Scottish kings. Altogether, forty-eight kings are said to be buried there. It is interesting to note that the historical Macbeth, as well as Duncan, was interred in this cemetery.

46. Fife, a county on the east coast of Scotland, ruled over by Macduff. A ruined castle on the shore of Fife is still called Macduff’s Castle.

49. This clause depends upon “adieu” in the preceding line. Macduff bids Ross farewell since things may turn out badly for them under the new king and they may not meet again.

51, 52. Goa’s benison. The old man blesses Ross as a well-meaning person who will try to make the best of things and reconcile adversaries.


How to cite the explanatory notes:Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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