Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 3
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
This long scene serves at once to sum up the fourth act and to introduce the fifth. It gives us a picture of the wretched state of
Scotland under Macbeth's tyranny, and by way of contrast shows us the blessings conferred upon his people by a virtuous monarch.
The long dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff with which the scene opens is, perhaps, the only tiresome passage of the play. It
is drawn directly from Holinshed, and it seems as if in this case Shakespeare did not have full mastery over his sources. At the
same time this dialogue gives us a good idea of the prudence and virtue of Malcolm who is to succeed Macbeth as king, and, in the
rugged honesty of Macduff, a picture of the loyal subject as Shakespeare conceived him.
The episodic account of the "royal touch" is introduced, not merely by way of compliment to King James, but
also to show that God through his earthly representative, the holy king, is on the side of Malcolm, as the devil, through his instruments,
the witches, is pushing on Macbeth. The appearance of Ross at the English court shows that even the most time-serving of the
Scottish nobles are abandoning the tyrant, and the news that he brings gives Macduff a personal as well as a public cause of vengeance on Macbeth.
1. Malcolm, as he frankly confesses later on, is suspicious of Macduff and imagines that he has been sent by Macbeth to encourage him to an invasion of Scotland and then to betray him. He therefore feigns a weakness and reluctance to undertake the attempt
that he does not really feel.
4. Bestride our down-fall'n birthdom, stand over the prostrate
form of our mother-country, as a soldier would bestride a fallen
comrade to protect him from the enemy.
6. that, so that.
8. syllable of dolour, cry of grief and pain. Heaven is thought
of as echoing the cries that rise up from Scotland.
10. to friend, favourable.
12. whose sole name, the mere utterance of whose name.
13. honest, honourable.
14. He hath not touched you yet. Note the unconscious irony of
this speech. Of course neither Malcolm nor Macduff knows anything of the fate of the latter's family.
14, 15. I am young ... wisdom, although I am still young,
you may learn something of Macbeth's nature through my experience, and understand that it would be a wise thing. "Wisdom" like
"something" is the object of "discern," which here has a double
meaning, first, "learn"; second, "understand."
15. discern, learn.
19, 20. A good ... charge, even a virtuous man may fall, "recoil" = give way, degenerate, in the execution of a commission, "charge,"
imposed on him by royal, "imperial," authority. Malcolm plainly
hints that Macduff's virtuous character may have been so wrought
upon by Macbeth that it has sunk to a point where it might well
be suspected of treachery.
20. shall crave, ought to ask.
21. transpose, alter the nature of.
21. thoughts, used here with reference to Malcolm's suspicions of
23. would wear, should, were to, wear.
24. so, like itself.
24. my hopes. Macduff had, of course, expected to be received
with open arms by Malcolm as a strong ally against Macbeth. He
is deeply hurt by the prince's suspicions, and speaks out with his
25. even there, in that action which has aroused my doubts.
Malcolm goes on to say why he distrusts Macduff. He can hardly
believe that if Macduff really means to fight Macbeth, he would
have left his family defenceless in Scotland.
26. rawness, rash haste.
27. motives, causes for action.
28. An imperfect line. The first half really concludes the
rhythmical phrase of the two preceding lines. The last half begins
a new phrase.
29. jealousies, suspicions.
29, 30. Let not ... safeties, let not my suspicions be regarded
as something dishonourable to you, but as something intended to
secure my own safety.
30. rightly just, wholly honourable.
31. shall think, may think of you.
33. wear thou thy wrongs, enjoy the benefit of the wrongs you
have inflicted on your country. The subject of "wear" is "tyranny."
37. Be not offended. Malcolm sees that he has gone too far.
He has no wish to drive Macduff away, but he is not wholly satisfied,
and now puts him to another test.
41. withal, moreover.
42. in my right, in support of my claim.
43. England, the king of England. This use of the name of
a country to denote the monarch is very common in Shakespeare.
Cf. i. 2. 51.
46. wear, bear.
48. sundry, diverse.
49. What should he be? What sort of a person is he, Macbeth's
successor, to be? Macduff is naturally slow to believe that Malcolm is referring to himself.
51. particulars of vice, special forms of vice.
52. open'd, revealed. There is also a reference to the figure implied in "grafted" of the preceding line. Malcolm means that the
vices grafted into his nature will some day open in full flower.
55. my confineless harms, the unbounded injuries that I shall
57. top, surpass.
58. Luxurious, licentious.
59. Sudden, hasty, violent.
64. continent, restraining.
65. will, desire, lust.
66, 67. Boundless intemperance In nature, absolute lack of self-control in a man's character.
69. fall, cause of fall.
71. a spacious plenty, an ample liberty.
72. hoodwink, blind, deceive.
74. That vulture ... to devour, such a vulture as to devour.
76. With this, moreover, in addition to my licentiousness.
77. ill-composed, compounded of evil qualities.
77. affection, disposition.
78. stanchless, unstanchable.
81. sauce, stimulant.
85. Sticks deeper, strikes a deeper root. Cf. iii. i. 50.
86. summer-seeming, summer-like.
87. The sword of our slain kings, the sword which has slain our
88. foisons, plenties.
89. Of your mere own, with what is yours alone. There is
enough that belongs to the king alone in Scotland to satisfy even
such an avarice as Malcolm attributes to himself.
89. portable, endurable.
90. With other graces weigh'd, when balanced by other virtues.
93. perseverance, pronounced "persev'rance."
95. relish of, trace of.
96. In the division of, in every shade of. The word "division" is taken from the musical vocabulary of Shakespeare's day, and
denotes a rapid succession of varying notes in the scale.
97. An Alexandrine.
99. Uproar, disturb by revolution.
99. confound, destroy.
104. With an untitled ... bloody-sceptred, swayed by the bloody
sceptre of a usurping tyrant.
105. wholesome, healthy, prosperous.
106. the truest issue, the true heir.
107. interdiction, a sort of ecclesiastical injunction, which when
launched against a king, put him under the curse of the church
and forbade him to perform his royal duties. Malcolm's confession of his sinful nature is here compared to such an interdict.
108. blaspheme his breed, brings scandal upon his ancestry.
111. Died every day she lived. Compare I Corinthians, xv. 31:
"I die daily," where St. Paul speaks of himself as dying to the world.
111. Lived, probably pronounced as a word of two syllables.
112. The evils ... thyself, the vices which you have repeatedly
charged yourself with.
114. passion, passionate outburst.
118. trains, tricks.
119. modest, sober.
119. plucks, restrains.
123. Unspeak ... detraction, contradict what I have said
124. blames, accusations.
125. For, as.
135. at a point, prepared.
136. the chance of goodness, the successful issue.
137. silent, Macduff's silence and his hesitating speech when Malcolm questions him show how he has been baffled by the
prince's sudden change of front. Some commentators have even suggested that Macduff would at this point have abandoned
Malcolm, if it had not been for the news Ross brings him.
138. welcome and unwelcome. The disavowal of the crimes that
Malcolm had charged himself with was, of course, welcome to
Macduff; but the suspicions which had led the prince to act as he
did were most unwelcome. Altogether the brave, frank warrior is
141. crew, company.
142. stay, wait for.
143. The great assay of art, the strongest efforts of medical skill.
145. presently, straightway.
146. the evil, scrofula, formerly called the "king's evil," because the English kings were supposed to have the power to cure
it by the laying on of hands. So late as 1712 Samuel Johnson,
then a child in his third year, was brought up to London to be
"touched" by Queen Anne. This gift was supposed to have
descended to English sovereigns from Edward the Confessor.
When James ascended the English throne he was, or pretended to
be, reluctant to exercise this power for fear lest he might be considered superstitious. He consented, however, to continue the
practice of touching, ascribing the cures which followed to the
efficacy of his prayers.
150. strangely-visited, strangely afflicted.
153. stamp, coin.
156. virtue, power.
159. speak, proclaim.
160. countryman, Malcolm recognizes a Scotchman by his
dress, but is not certain who he is.
163. the means ... strangers, the cause that makes us strangers to each other. Malcolm's delay in recognizing Ross
is probably to be attributed to his long absence from Scotland. This absence is due to Macbeth's usurpation, which he prays God
to put an end to.
166. where, in which place, in Scotland.
169. made, uttered.
169, 170. violent sorrow ... ecstasy, Ross says that terrible
outbursts of sorrow are regarded as of no more importance than
common fits of madness. This seems a strange speech, but it
reflects the feeling of Shakespeare's day when madness was little
regarded and even laughed at.
173. relation, report.
173. or ere, before.
174. nice, fancifully minute.
175. hiss the speaker, for bringing stale news.
176. teems, brings forth.
177. children, pronounced "childeren."
178. The almost careless way in which Macduff asks this question shows how unprepared he is for the news, and makes it harder
for Ross to tell him.
179. they were well ... leave them, Ross is reluctant to break
the news to Macduff, and puts him off with this evasive answer.
Before he tells him the truth he makes sure that Malcolm is about
to invade Scotland.
182. heavily, sadly.
183. out, up in arms.
184. Which was ... rather, which rumour was the more strongly
attested to my belief.
185. power, army.
186. time of help, opportunity for military aid.
188. doff, put away, get rid of.
192. gives out, proclaims.
195. latch, catch.
196. fee-grief, private sorrow.
202. possess, in form.
206. quarry, heap of bodies.
210. o'erfraught, overburdened.
220. Dispute, fight against.
225. naught, wicked.
229. Convert, turn.
232. intermission, delay.
235. time, tune.
239. Put on, push forward, encourage.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co., 1904. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_4_3.html >.
Did You Know? ... One can connect Shakespeare's patron, King James I, to almost every significant dramatic alteration Shakespeare made to his source material on the historical Macbeth. But fascinating contemporary references and compliments to James also are found throughout the play. Read on...