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ACT IV SCENE II Fife. Macduff’s castle.
[Enter LADY MACDUFF, her Son, and ROSS]
LADY MACDUFF What had he done, to make him fly the land?
ROSS You must have patience, madam.
LADY MACDUFF He had none:
His flight was madness: when our actions do not,
Our fears do make us traitors.
ROSS You know not
Whether it was his wisdom or his fear.
LADY MACDUFF Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes,
His mansion and his titles in a place
From whence himself does fly? He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight, 10
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love;
As little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason.
ROSS My dearest coz,
I pray you, school yourself: but for your husband,
He is noble, wise, judicious, and best knows
The fits o’ the season. I dare not speak
much further;
But cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves, when we hold rumour
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear, 20
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move. I take my leave of you:
Shall not be long but I’ll be here again:
Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward
To what they were before. My pretty cousin,
Blessing upon you!
LADY MACDUFF Father’d he is, and yet he’s fatherless.
ROSS I am so much a fool, should I stay longer,
It would be my disgrace and your discomfort:
I take my leave at once.
LADY MACDUFF Sirrah, your father’s dead; 30
And what will you do now? How will you live?
Son As birds do, mother.
LADY MACDUFF What, with worms and flies?
Son With what I get, I mean; and so do they.
LADY MACDUFF Poor bird! thou’ldst never fear the net nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.
Son Why should I, mother? Poor birds they are not set for.
My father is not dead, for all your saying.
LADY MACDUFF Yes, he is dead; how wilt thou do for a father?
Son Nay, how will you do for a husband?
LADY MACDUFF Why, I can buy me twenty at any market. 40
Son Then you’ll buy ’em to sell again.
LADY MACDUFF Thou speak’st with all thy wit: and yet, i’ faith,
With wit enough for thee.
Son Was my father a traitor, mother?
LADY MACDUFF Ay, that he was.
Son What is a traitor?
LADY MACDUFF Why, one that swears and lies.
Son And be all traitors that do so?
LADY MACDUFF Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hanged. 50
Son And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?
Son Who must hang them?
LADY MACDUFF Why, the honest men.
Son Then the liars and swearers are fools,
for there are liars and swearers enow to beat
the honest men and hang up them.
LADY MACDUFF Now, God help thee, poor monkey!
But how wilt thou do for a father? 60
Son If he were dead, you’ld weep for
him: if you would not, it were a good sign
that I should quickly have a new father.
LADY MACDUFF Poor prattler, how thou talk’st!
[Enter a Messenger]
Messenger Bless you, fair dame! I am not to you known,
Though in your state of honour I am perfect.
I doubt some danger does approach you nearly:
If you will take a homely man’s advice,
Be not found here; hence, with your little ones.
To fright you thus, methinks, I am too savage; 70
To do worse to you were fell cruelty,
Which is too nigh your person. Heaven preserve you!
I dare abide no longer.
LADY MACDUFF Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly: why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defence,
To say I have done no harm?
[Enter Murderers]
What are these faces?
First Murderer Where is your husband? 80
LADY MACDUFF I hope, in no place so unsanctified
Where such as thou mayst find him.
First Murderer He’s a traitor.
Son Thou liest, thou shag-hair’d villain!
First Murderer What, you egg!
[Stabbing him]
Young fry of treachery!
Son He has kill’d me, mother:
Run away, I pray you!
[ Exit LADY MACDUFF, crying ‘Murder!’ Exeunt Murderers, following her ]

Next: Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

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

This scene represents the perpetration of Macbeth’s third crime. It is usually omitted from stage performances since our modern nerves would be too greatly shocked by the murder of the child. The Elizabethan audience however was far less sensitive, and the actual representation of the deed added, of course, immensely to the effect of the following scene, where Ross hesitates to disclose the dreadful news, and Macduff bursts out in his passion of grief and prayer for revenge.

4. make us traitors, make us seem traitors. She means that Macduff was not a traitor to Macbeth, but fear drove him to flight, and made him appear a rebel.

8. He loves us not. At first sight, this accusation seems only too true. But Macduff fled to England not so much to save himself, as to rescue his country by stirring up Malcolm to attack Macbeth. He had, moreover, no reason to fear that Macbeth would butcher his wife and children in his absence.

15. school yourself, blame yourself. Ross tells her to blame herself for doubting her husband’s love.

19. ourselves, each other. The pronoun is used reciprocally as in iii. 4. 32. Owing to Macbeth’s system of espionage, even the good men in his kingdom are being denounced as traitors, and are becoming suspicious of each other.

19. hold rumour. Various explanations have been offered of this phrase. Perhaps the best is that which interprets “hold” as equivalent to “judge” and makes “from” in the next line equal “by.” The sense of the passage then is “when we judge by our fears whether a rumour is true or not.”

22. Each way, in every direction.

23. The subject “it” is omitted before “shall.”

27. fatherless, because his father has forsaken him.

28, 29. I am … discomfort. Ross means that he is so soft-hearted that if he stayed longer he would burst into tears, and thus disgrace himself and trouble Lady Macduff.

34. lime, birdlime, a sticky substance smeared on twigs to catch little birds.

35. gin, snare.

36. they. The snares mentioned above.

47. swears and lies, swears allegiance and breaks his oath.

66. Though … perfect, though I am perfectly acquainted with your rank.

67. doubt, fear.

68. homely, simple, plain.

70. To fright, in frightening.

71. fell, savage.

78. womanly, womanish, weak.

81. unsanctified, without sanctuary, unprotected.

83. egg, a term of contempt applied to a small person, as here to the child.

84. fry, offspring.


How to cite the explanatory notes:Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904.