Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4 – Summary & Analysis

Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 4 – Summary & Analysis

Outside the castle Ross, a thane, walks with an old man and discusses recent events and their abnormal nature. While it is daytime it is dark outside, an owl killed a falcon last Tuesday and most recently Duncan’s usually well-behaved horses have eaten one another. Macduff arrives and tells Ross that Macbeth has been made king at the meeting of the lords, and is en-route to Scone to be crowned. He reveals that the chamberlains seem most likely to be the killers of the king, presumably paid by someone to commit the act of regicide, however Malcolm and Donalbain are now under suspicion as they have recently fled the country. Macduff then moves for home (in Fife), while Ross goes to Scone to view the coronation of the new king.

Analysis

This scene confirms that Macduff will be Macbeth’s opponent for the remainder of the play; while as mentioned earlier the knocking presented him as associated with fate his refusal to go the king’s coronation shows him as opposed to the rule of the new king. It must be noted that Malcolm will be opposed to Macbeth also and will become rightful king, but Macduff is presented as Macbeth’s opponent due to his returning home rather than fleeing as Malcolm does; Malcolm is shown as passive and unable to challenge Macbeth, foreshadowing the eventual alliance with Macduff which he will need to eventually become king. For plot devices it is essential that Macduff remains in Scotland to see it fall into disarray; if he and Malcolm both fled now it would be implausible for them to attain help from the English army, as there is no suggestion yet that Macbeth will be a corrupt ruler.

The events discussed by Ross and the old man act as pathetic fallacy, as the world of the play represents the mood of the drama. Macbeth, as said, has destroyed the natural order of things, which throws the kingdom into chaos; now unlikely events such as an owl killing a falcon and horses eating each other occur, as normality has been destroyed. The reference of the owl killing the falcon is also interesting as in mythology the symbol of the owl is linked to the passing of a spirit from one plane to another, often from the physical world to the spiritual. The falcon may be seen to represent god or king here, as it did in Egyptian times, with the owl killing the falcon conveying the dark consequences from recent actions. While the death of the king would usually result in a peaceful passing into the otherworld (the keeper of spirits accompanying the king to the next life) this now cannot occur as Duncan was not given a chance to repent his sins at the point of death; his inability to pass into the next world is represented by the owl killing the falcon. The killing of the falcon may also refer to Macbeth’s new-found control of the kingdom and he may be seen as the owl; whereas the owl would usually move the soul of the deceased to the next life Macbeth has become the owl of sorts, taking responsibility for how Duncan’s life. As he has removed God’s representative from the kingdom he thus removes Christianity from Scotland also, which will result in the aforementioned corruption and immorality facing the kingdom. It may also be considered that the falcon represented the unconverted Gentile in Christianity and his sinful state; Macbeth might represent the falcon here, and the owl killing the falcon suggests further that Macbeth is no longer a member of Christian realm (as suggested earlier) who thus does not have a passage to the next life as the owl will not provide him with the route needed to reach this place. On another level, the owl might simply be considered for its similarity to Macbeth; both act in ways previously abnormal to them and both kill at night.

Points of note

Shakespeare still does not let us forget the act of regicide which occurred two scenes earlier, reminding us of this as Ross comments of a ‘bloody stage’ and speaks of the ‘bloody deed’.

The conflicted, confusing world in which nothing is as it seems is represented by such quotes as Ross speaking of ‘night’s predominance, or the day’s shame’ and the old man commenting on ‘good of bad, and friends of foes’. Such quotes are paradoxical and contradictory and represent a world in which the characters cannot be sure of anything.

Macduff speaks of deception when he says ‘Lest our old robes sit easier than our new’, suggesting that certain characters are assuming appearances and positions that they are not entitled to. The quote can be seen as a foreboding to later when Lady Macbeth will suffer visibly from the murder she was part of.

Mention is made of ‘thriftless ambition’, which is easily associated with Macbeth. The phrase ‘thriftless’ refers to that which is useless, and reminds us once more that Macbeth’s ambition which caused the act of regicide to come about cannot be justified.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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