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Summary of Act 4, Scene 2:
As the scene opens, Ross has already told Lady Macduff that her husband has fled from Scotland, and she is already extremely upset. She exclaims, "What had he done, to make him fly the land?" (4.2.1). Ross tries to get her to calm down, but she replies that her husband's "flight was madness: when our actions do not, / Our fears do make us traitors" (4.2.3-4). She means that her husband has done nothing traitorous, but running away from Scotland makes it look like he has.
Still trying to calm her down, Ross says that she doesn't know whether it was wisdom or fear that made her husband go to England. Ross is suggesting that Macduff's wisdom made him go, but Lady Macduff declares that it must have been his fear. Otherwise, why would he leave his wife, children, and possessions behind? If Scotland isn't safe for him, it can't be safe for them. Then Lady Macduff gives voice to her own worst fear: "He loves us not; / He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren, / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, / Her young ones in her nest, against the owl" (4.2.11). Her metaphor shows that she knows that Macduff, by himself, wouldn't have much of a chance against Macbeth and all the powers a king can command. In such a fight Macduff would be the wren and Macbeth the owl, the bird of night and death. Even so, she's angry with her husband because she wants him with her.
Trying to reassure the lady, Ross tells her that he is sure her husband is "noble, wise, judicious" (4.2.16), and knows best how to act in these dangerous times, "when we are traitors / And do not know ourselves" (4.2.18-19). He means that under Macbeth (who keeps a spy in every house) anyone can become a traitor without even knowing it. Under these conditions people believe rumors because of what they fear, yet don't know exactly what it is they fear, and don't know which way to turn. Or, in Ross's words, "we hold rumour / From what we fear, yet know not what we fear, / But float upon a wild and violent sea / Each way and none" (4.2.22). Thus Ross suggests that even if Macduff did flee because he was afraid, he probably had good reason to be afraid, because Macbeth makes everyone afraid.
Now Ross says he must leave, promises to return, and tries to comfort the lady with the idea that things can't get much worse.
Before he goes, Ross notices Macduff's son, who has been there all along, with his ears open, listening to the news that his father may be considered a traitor. This boy's age is not given, but on stage he appears to be nine or ten -- still a child, but old enough to make a few wisecracks. Ross wishes blessings upon the boy, and his mother remarks, "Father'd he is, and yet he's fatherless" (4.2.27). She means that the boy looks just like his dad, but he doesn't really have a father. This bitter joke expresses her anger at her husband for leaving them in the lurch, and perhaps also hints at how much she misses the man whose face she sees in her son's face.
Touched by the plight of the mother and son, Ross says that he'll weep if he stays any longer, then leaves quickly. Once he's gone, Lady Macduff tries to make light of the situation by pretending to believe that things are worse than they really are. She says to her son, "Sirrah, your father's dead; / And what will you do now? How will you live?" (4.2.30-31). This is a joke. It may be a bitter joke, but it's still a joke. As the boy's replies will show, he doesn't for a minute believe that his father is really dead. His answer to her question of how he will live is "As birds do, mother" (4.2.32), and when she asks if that means he will eat worms and flies, he replies "With what I get, I mean; and so do they" (4.2.33). What the birds get is provided by God, as Jesus said: "Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them" (Matt. 6:26). Lady Macduff comments, "Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime" (4.2.34). "The net" and "lime" (birdlime, a sticky substance) were the two most common ways of catching birds, but this boy -- his mother says -- is so innocent or stupid that he wouldn't fear either one. The boy is unfazed. He takes the word "poor" to mean "little," and says that poor birds are too little to be trapped.
Now the boy tries to turn the tables on his mother. He says that he knows that his father is not dead, despite what his mother has said. Teasing, she says again that his father is dead, and asks what he will do for a father. He throws it back on her and asks what she will do for a husband. She says that she can buy twenty husbands at any market. He answers that if she did that, she'd just sell them again. She then acknowledges that there's a lot of truth in his joke. Apparently they both mean that none of those twenty husbands would be good enough for her, because none of them would be as good as Macduff.
As though he knows exactly what is on his mother's mind, the boy asks, "Was my father a traitor, mother?" (4.2.44). Continuing to joke with her son as she has before, Lady Macduff says that yes, her husband was a traitor. (Note that they are now both talking in the past tense, as though Macduff has already been hung for being a traitor.) Starting a rather long joke, the boy asks what a traitor is, and his mother answers that a traitor is a person who lies while he swears that he is telling the truth. The boy then asks if all traitors have to be hung. His mother says yes, they must be. Finally, the boy asks who hangs the traitors, and his mother answers that the honest men do that. Now comes the punch line of the joke. The boy says, "Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow [enough] to beat the honest men and hang up them" (4.2.56-58).
This joke probably gives Lady Macduff a little smile, because she calls her son a "monkey" and urges him on by asking him again what he will do for a father. The boy replies with another joke, saying "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" (4.2.63). He knows that she's been joking because if she were the sort of woman who could hear of her husband's death without crying, she would be the sort of woman who would quickly get another husband, so the boy would quickly have a new father. Under the surface -- though not very far under the surface -- this joke means that Macduff is alive and that Lady Macduff dearly loves him. Still, this gallows-humor reflects the very real danger to mother and son.
Once we see the love that Lady Macduff and her son have for each other, in comes a messenger with the news that they are about to die.
The messenger himself is in a panic. He tells Lady Macduff that she doesn't know who he is, but he knows who she is, and he thinks that she and her children are in great danger. He apologizes for frightening her, saying, "To fright you thus, methinks, I am too savage" (4.2.70), but then he adds that much worse could happen at any moment. With this, the messenger runs out of courage and runs out of the room, saying, "Heaven preserve you! / I dare abide no longer" (4.2.73-74).
Now Lady Macduff realizes her absolute helplessness. She says, "Whither should I fly?" (4.2.74). She's already at home; if she's not safe there, she's not safe anywhere. Her next thought is that she has "done no harm" (4.2.75), but then she remembers that in this evil world, to do good is often dangerous, and she asks herself, "why then, alas, / Do I put up that womanly defence, / To say I have done no harm?" (4.2.78-80). As she says this, the murderers are upon her.
There are only ten more lines in the scene, and it is too easy to read them quickly, which can make us miss the full horror that is enacted. The main thing to remember is that a child is murdered before our eyes. A murderer demands to know where Macduff is, but Lady Macduff stands up for her husband, saying, "I hope, in no place so unsanctified / Where such as thou mayst find him" (4.2.81-82). Her son also shows his courage. When a murderer says that Macduff is a traitor, the boy cries out, "Thou liest, thou shag-ear'd villain!" (4.2.83). Maybe the boy means that the murderer has a bad haircut, so that the hair hangs over his ears, or maybe he means that the murderer is an ass, and has an ass's hairy ears. In any case, his curse is a childish curse, and it emphasizes the terror of what is happening. In the next instant he is dying, and his mother is running away without any chance of escape.
If we see all of this -- if only in our mind's eye -- it can make our stomachs churn and teach us the full force of Macbeth's evil.
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