William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

At Macduff’s castle in Fife, Lady Macduff, her young son by her side, talked with Ross.

“What did my husband do to make him flee from Scotland?” asked Lady Macduff.

“You must have patience, madam,” Ross replied.

“My husband had no patience. His flight was madness. His actions did not make him a traitor, but his fearful flight makes him appear to be a traitor.”

“You don’t know whether it was his wisdom or his fear that made him flee,” Ross said.

“How could it be wisdom,” Lady Macduff said, “to leave his wife, his children, and his possessions in a place from which he himself flees in fear? He does not love us. He lacks the natural instincts that even animals have. The poor mother wren, the smallest of birds, will fight an owl to protect her young ones in her nest. Fear, not love, rules my husband’s actions. His flight is against all reason, and so it is not wise, either.”

“My dearest cousin, I advise you to control yourself. Your husband is noble, wise, and judicious, and he best knows the disorders present now in Scotland. I dare not speak much further, but cruel are the times when men are called traitors and do not know why they are called traitors. We are so fearful that we believe rumors, and yet we do not know what it is we fear. We seem to be floating upon a wild and violent sea that tosses us one way and then the other. I take my leave of you. Soon I shall return. When the times are at their worst, they cease becoming worse and may even improve to where they were before. My pretty cousin, God’s blessing be upon you!”

“My son has a father, and yet he is fatherless because his father has forsaken him.”

Ross replied, “I am so much a fool that should I stay longer, I would cry, and that would be my disgrace and your discomfort; therefore, I take my leave at once.”

Ross departed.

Lady Macduff said to her young son, “Your father is dead. What will you do now? How will you live?” She expected bad news and hoped to prepare her son for it by talking to him now.

“As birds do, mother.”

“What, with worms and flies?”

“With what I get, mother. That is how birds live.”

“My son, you would make a poor bird,” Lady Macduff said. “You would not know enough to be afraid of the nets and snares used to catch birds.”

“Why should I, mother? If I am a poor bird, hunters will not want to catch me. And you are wrong about my father — he is not dead.”

“Yes, he is dead,” Lady Macbeth lied, hoping to prepare her son for whatever bad news would arrive. “What will you do to get a new father?”

“What will you do to get a new husband?”

“Why, I can buy twenty husbands at any market.”

“Then you will buy them to sell again at a profit.”

“You are speaking with all your wit. Truly, you have wit enough to suit you.”

“Was my father a traitor, mother?”

“Yes, he was.”

“What is a traitor?

“Why, one who swears and lies — one who swears an oath of allegiance but does not keep his oath.”

“And be all traitors that do so?”

“Every one who does so is a traitor, and must be hanged.”

“And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?”

“Every one.”

“Who must hang them?”

“The honest men must hang them.”

“Then the liars and swearers are fools,” her son said, “for there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang them.”

“That is all too true,” Lady Macduff said, “and all too cynical for a boy as young as you to believe. God help you, you poor monkey! How will you get a new father?”

“If my father were dead, you would weep for him unless you were going to marry someone new. Since you are not weeping, that is a good sign that either he is not dead or I will soon have a new father.”

“Poor prattler, how you talk!”

A messenger entered the room and said to Lady Macduff, “God bless you, fair lady! You do not know me, but I know your rank. I fear that some danger does quickly approach you. If you will take a simple, plain man’s advice, you will flee immediately. Do not stay here with your children. Flee! I am sorry to have to frighten you like this, but I do not want something much more cruel to happen to you and your children. If you stay here, you will suffer much cruelty — it quickly approaches you! Heaven help you! I dare not stay here any longer!”

The messenger left in a hurry.

“Where should I flee to?” Lady Macduff said. “I have done no harm. But I am in this Earthly world where to do harm is often considered worthy of praise and where to do good is often considered the action of a fool. In such a world, what good does it do for a woman to say, ‘I have done no harm’?”

Murderers entered the room.

“Who are you?” Lady Macduff asked.

“Where is your husband?” a murderer asked.

“I hope that he is in no place so unsanctified that people like you can find him.”

“He’s a traitor,” a murderer said.

Lady Macduff’s young son shouted, “You’re lying, you shaggy-haired villain!”

“Runt!” the murderer shouted and stabbed the boy, who shouted, “He has killed me, mother. Run!”

Lady Macduff ran away from the murderers and screamed, “Murder!” She did not run fast enough.

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