Study Guide

Macbeth Act 4, Scene 3

By William Shakespeare

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Act 4, Scene 3

  • Near King Edward's palace in England, Malcolm and Macduff brainstorm about Scotland's plight under the tyrannous Macbeth.
  • Malcolm suggests finding a nice shady spot where they can cry their eyes out. Macduff's got a better idea: maybe they should whip out their swords and fight like "men" against the good-for-nothing Macbeth.
  • Sure, that's an okay idea, says Malcolm; but he's worried Macduff might have something to gain by turning on him, (Malcolm) and betraying him to Macbeth. Besides, Macduff doesn't seem like a loyal guy these days, having abandoned his family back in Scotland and all. No man, Macduff says; I'm totally loyal.
  • Still, Malcolm's a little paranoid so he decides to test Macduff by suggesting that even he, Malcolm, might make a poor king, were they to defeat Macbeth. Scotland would suffer, he says, under his own bad habits. What bad habits? Malcolm's got "an impossible lust" that would only get worse as he devoured all of the maidens of Scotland.
  • Macduff at first insists there are plenty of maidens in Scotland, and Malcolm would be satisfied.
  • But Malcolm won't let up talking about how bad a king he'd be, and Macduff finally gives up and admits that Scotland's pretty much doomed.
  • Once Malcolm sees that Macduff is truly devoted to Scotland rather than just a political alliance, Malcolm goes "psych!": not only is he not lustful, he's never even "known" a woman. And he's got plenty of good qualities. Boo-yah.
  • So, Macduff, Malcolm and ten thousand Englishmen at their backs get ready to take Scotland back.
  • Then a doctor shows up (rather unexpectedly) and talks about how King Edward is tending to a crew of poor souls afflicted by a nasty disease called "scrofula," which the King heals with his touch.
  • This is why it's helpful to have a genuine king: he gets his power from God and can do cool stuff like cure diseases and rule with an iron fist.
  • We interrupt this program for a History Snack: Scrofula (what we now know is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes and skin) was also called the "King's Evil" and it was thought to be cured by a little something called the "Royal Touch," a kind of laying on of hands ceremony that was performed by monarchs in France and England as far back as the middle ages.
  • The healing ceremony was supposedly started in England by King Edward the Confessor, Macbeth's ideal king. In a book called The Royal Touch, historian Marc Bloch writes that King James I (who sat on the throne when Macbeth was first written and performed) wasn't exactly thrilled about performing this ceremony —he thought it was superstitious —but he did it anyway.
  • Ross shows up and chats with Malcolm and Macduff about how Scotland is in a bad way.
  • Macduff asks after his family, and Ross says they were fine when he left them. 
  • Macduff tells Ross not to be stingy with his words. It feels like he's holding back. So Ross tells him that the rumor is that if Macduff were to return to Scotland, a whole lot of men—and women—would be willing to take up arms against Macbeth.
  • Malcolm promises when they finally arrive in Scotland, ten thousand English soldiers will come, too.
  • Ross then announces he has some bad news, actually. Macduff offers to guess at it, but before he does Ross blurts out that, oops, actually Macduff's family has been gruesomely murdered.
  • It takes a bit for this news to sink in. Macduff asks multiple times if Ross is sure that his wife and kids are all dead. 
  • Macduff blames himself for leaving, but Malcolm recommends that Macduff take his own advice and get his feelings out by murdering rather than weeping.
  • Macduff vows to slay Macbeth without further delay. He prays for heaven to put him face to face with Macbeth, STAT. Malcolm agrees with this suitably "manly" approach and tells everyone to cheer up: their day will come. 

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