William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 3

— 4.3 —

Malcolm and Macduff were meeting outside the palace of the King of England. Malcolm’s bodyguards were near.

Malcolm said, “Let us find some shade and mourn for Scotland there.”

Macduff replied, “Let us instead wield deadly swords and like good men defend Scotland and wrest it from the tyrant, who with each new day makes new widows howl with grief and new orphans cry. Each day, the tyrant creates new sorrows that slap Heaven in the face — the slaps make Heaven cry out in pain and in sympathy for Scotland.”

“I will mourn whatever evils I believe to have occurred,” Malcolm said. “I will believe what I learn to be the truth, and whatever evils I can avenge, I will avenge — at the right time. The things you have been telling me may very well be true. This tyrant, whose name blisters our tongues when we speak it, was once thought to be good. You used to think highly of him. He has done nothing to harm you that I am aware of. I am young, but I am old enough to realize that you may be seeking to earn favor with Macbeth by doing harm to me. Some think that it is wise to offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb to appease an angry god. You may think it wise to offer up me to appease an angry tyrant.”

“I am not treacherous,” Macduff replied.

“But Macbeth is. Even a good and virtuous man may think it wise to obey the orders of a cruel tyrant. But I may be wrong in my suspicions of you. I may suspect you, but yet you may be a good man. Angels are still bright, although the brightest angel — Lucifer — became evil and fell from Paradise. Evil men seek to have the appearance of good men. Good men have that appearance naturally. Therefore, an evil man and a good man may have the same appearance but not the same nature.”

“I wanted you to gather an army to fight Macbeth, but I have lost all hope of that ever happening,” Macduff said.

“You have your doubts about me,” Malcolm said, “and I have my doubts about you. Why did you leave your wife and children behind without defenses in the dangerous land of Scotland — you love them, don’t you? If you are an agent of Macbeth, you could leave them behind without worry. I ask this because I want to protect myself, and by being cautious and fearing plots I can best defend myself. Despite my cautiousness, you may be a good and just man.”

“Bleed, poor Scotland, bleed!” Macduff mourned. “Tyrant, do your worst and do it openly because good people dare not oppose you. Enjoy the fruits of your evil, and boast about them. Farewell, lord Malcolm. I would not be the villain whom you think I am even if I were offered everything that the tyrant controls and all of the rich East as well.”

“Don’t be offended,” Malcolm said. “I am not entirely convinced that you are an agent of Macbeth. I believe that Scotland sinks exhausted beneath the yoke the tyrant has put on it. Scotland weeps, it bleeds, and each day a new gash is added to her wounds. I think that many hands would be uplifted to fight for me and give me my rightful throne of Scotland. The gracious Edward the Confessor has offered thousands of soldiers to me to lead against Macbeth. However, once I have the tyrant’s head under my boot or displayed at the end of my sword, Scotland will suffer worse and in more varied ways than it ever did under the tyrant.”

“Who would bring such woes to Scotland?” Macduff asked.

“I would,” Malcolm replied. “I know that in myself are all the many vices. Once I am in a position of power and able to enjoy my vices openly, black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow, and the citizens of Scotland will regard him as a lamb in comparison with me.”

“No one can ever be as evil as Macbeth — not even a devil damned in Hell.”

“I know that Macbeth is bloody, licentious, avaricious, false, deceitful, violent, malicious, and an enthusiastic participant of every sin that has a name. However, I have no limit to my lust. Scotland’s wives, daughters, matrons, and maidens could not fill up the cistern of my lust. Anyone who tried to restrain the satisfaction of my lust I would strike down. It is better that Macbeth rule Scotland than that I do.”

“Boundless lust in a man’s nature is a kind of tyranny,” Macduff replied. “It has caused many Kings to be removed from their thrones. Nevertheless, return to Scotland, oust Macbeth, and become King. You can satisfy your great lust in secret and appear to be virtuous in public. You can fool the Scots. Scotland has many women who would be willing enough to satisfy your lust. You cannot be so lustful as to run out of women who will willingly sleep with a King if they find out you want them.”

“I also have in my character a greed without end for land and possessions. I would seize the land of the nobles. I would seize jewels and castles. The more land and possessions I seize, the more I would want. I would create false justifications to seize the land and possessions of good and loyal Scots — I would destroy them just so I can have their wealth.”

“The evil of avarice is worse than the evil of lust. Lust will be less prevalent as you grow old, but greed can stay with you all your life. Like lust, greed has caused subjects to rebel against and kill many Kings. However, this does not mean you should not return to Scotland and become King. The royal lands and wealth are so great that they ought to satisfy your greed. Scotland can endure your vices if you have virtues to go with them.”

“I have no virtues,” Malcolm said. “I care nothing about justice, truth, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, humility, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude. The people of Scotland will find no trace of these virtues in me, but they will find an abundance of each kind of vice in me. If I had the power to act on all my wishes, I would pour virtues into Hell so that they would be extinguished, I would turn universal peace into universal war, and I would take all unity on Earth and tear it to pieces.”

“I mourn for Scotland!” Macduff said.

“If such a one be fit to govern, speak up. I am as I have spoken.”

“Fit to govern!” Macduff said. “You are not fit to live! Our nation is miserable. A tyrant who lacks the true title to the throne and yet rules with a bloody scepter now governs Scotland. You are the rightful King of Scotland, and yet if your words are true you are unfit to rule and ought to be kept from the throne. Your evil character would scandalize your ancestors. Your royal father was a most sainted King. The Queen who gave birth to you was oftener upon her knees praying than she was on her feet. Each day she lived, she prepared herself for residence in Paradise. Farewell to you! The evils that you say you are guilty of now make me an exile from my own country. I have no hope for Scotland. My hope ends here.”

“Macduff, this love you have for Scotland shows that you are noble and have integrity,” Malcolm said. “I have banished my suspicions about you. I know now that you are truthful and honorable. Many times has devil-like Macbeth tried to trick me and get me within his grasp. Because of this, I am not hasty to believe people. But now, let God witness that we shall work together. I will do as you wish and free Scotland. Know also I take back my ‘confession’ of my ‘vices.’ I did not tell you the truth about the kind of person I am. The vices that I said are part of my character are in reality strangers to me. I am a virgin and have not sexually known a woman. I have never committed perjury. I scarcely value my own possessions, much less those of other people. I would not betray one devil to another devil. I love the truth as much as I love my life. My only lies are the ones I told you just now to test you and ensure that you were not an evil man who obeys the orders of Macbeth. I am yours to guide and Scotland’s to command. In fact, before you arrived here, Old Siward with ten thousand soldiers gathered into an army was already coming here to be led in war against Macbeth. Now you and I will march together. I pray that our chance of success will equal the justice of our cause.”

Macduff said nothing.

Malcolm asked him, “Why are you silent?”

“To hear such welcome things immediately after hearing such unwelcome things makes it difficult to know what to say.”

A doctor walked up to Malcolm and Macduff.

“We will speak together at more length soon,” Malcolm said to Macduff. Then he said to the doctor, “Is Edward the Confessor coming out?”

“Yes, sir,” the doctor said. “Many wretchedly ill people await his cure by touch. Their illness cannot be cured by medical science, but when the King touches them, his touch heals their illness — such is his gift from Heaven.”

“I thank you, doctor,” Malcolm said.

The doctor departed.

“What is the disease he means?” Macduff asked.

“It is called the King’s evil by most people because the King can cure it by the laying on of hands,” Malcolm said. Others call it scrofula. I have often seen the good King Edward the Confessor cure it with a most miraculous work. What prayers he makes to Heaven, he alone knows, but strangely afflicted people, swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye, with no hope of being cured by doctors, he cures. He prays as he hangs a golden coin around their necks, and it is said that when a King of England dies he passes on this gift to the next King. Along with this Heavenly gift, he has others, including the gift of prophecy. These gifts and other blessings show that he is full of grace and loved by God.”

Ross walked up to Malcolm and Macduff.

Macduff asked Malcolm, “Who is this man coming toward us?”

“Judging by his clothing, a Scotsman, but I don’t know him.”

Now recognizing Ross, Macduff said to him, “My noble cousin, welcome.”

Malcolm said, “I recognize him now. I pray to God that soon the circumstances that make us strangers will no longer exist. If I had not been exiled from Scotland for so long, I would have recognized Ross immediately.”

Overhearing Malcolm’s prayer, Ross said, “Sir, amen.”

“Is the situation in Scotland still the same?” Malcolm asked.

“Pity our poor country!” Ross said, “It is almost afraid to look at itself. It should not be called our mother at this time, but rather our grave. No one smiles except those who are too ignorant or too stupid to know what is happening. Sighs and groans and shrieks rend the air, but they are now so common that they are no longer noticed. Violent sorrow is now a common experience. Death is so common that no one asks any more for whom the death bell tolls — someone is always dying and it is impossible to keep up to date on who is dead. The life of a good man is so short that the man dies before the flower in his cap dies. Good men die before they grow ill; they do not die of sickness of body.”

“Your story is eloquently told, and it is true,” Macduff said.

Malcolm asked, “What’s the newest grief?”

“News of grief that is even an hour old is old news. Every minute a new cause for grieving pushes aside the old cause,” Ross said.

“How is my wife?” Macduff asked.

Ross knew that Lady Macduff had been murdered, but he was reluctant to convey such bad news to her husband, so he replied, “Why, well.”

“And all my children?”

“Well, too.”

“The tyrant Macbeth has not battered at their peace and attacked them?”

Ross replied, “No; they were at peace when I did leave them.” He thought, That is partially true. It is false that Macbeth has not attacked them, but it is true that they were at peace when I left them — they were peacefully lying in their graves.

Suspicious at Ross’ obvious reluctance at answering his questions, Macduff said, “Be not a niggard of your speech. How are they?”

Still not willing to tell Macduff the truth and wanting to be sure that Malcolm would attack Macbeth, Ross replied, “When I came here to give you the bad news about Scotland, news that saddens me, I heard a rumor that many men were arming themselves in order to fight against Macbeth. I personally saw Macbeth’s army on the march, and so I believe the rumor I heard. Now is the time for you, Malcolm, to help. Your presence in Scotland would create soldiers and would inspire even our women to fight to get rid of Macbeth and the distresses he inflicts upon them.”

“They shall be comforted,” Malcolm said. “We are going to Scotland. Edward the Confessor has given us the use of an army led by Old Siward. The Christian nations do not have a more experienced or more successful soldier.”

“I wish that I could answer this comforting good news with news like it,” Ross said, “but I have words that should be howled out in the desert air, where no one can hear them.”

“Which person do such words concern?” Macduff asked. “Do they affect all Scots or just one Scot?”

“The news grieves all good Scots,” Ross said, “but it will especially grieve you.”

“If the grief be mine, keep it not from me. Quickly let me have it,” Macduff said.

“Let not your ears despise my tongue forever,” Ross said. “My tongue will speak words that will scar your ears.”

“I can guess what you are going to say,” Macduff said.

Ross told him what Macbeth had done: “Macbeth attacked your castle and savagely slaughtered your wife and children. If I were to give you specific details, your grief would cause your corpse to be added to the pile of dead bodies.”

Macduff was silent.

Shocked, Malcolm said, “Merciful Heaven! Don’t be silent. Give way to your grief and rail against its cause. Unless you express your grief, it will eat at you from inside and break your overburdened heart.”

Despite having already been told the answer, Macduff asked, “My children, too?”

“Wife, children, servants, all who could be found in the castle and on your land,” Ross said.

“And I was not there because I was seeking Malcolm,” Macduff said. “Macbeth killed my wife, too?”

“Yes,” Ross said. “I have told you that.”

“Be comforted,” Malcolm said. “Let revenge against Macbeth be your medicine to cure this deadly grief.”

Such words were not comforting to Macduff, who said to Ross about Malcolm, “He has no children.”

Macduff added, “All my pretty ones are dead? Did you say all? Hell! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam killed at one fell swoop?”

Malcolm said, “Fight it like a man.”

“I shall do so,” Macduff said, “but I must also feel it like a man. I cannot help remembering that of all people these were the most precious to me. Did Heaven witness their murders and would not help them? Sinful Macduff, Macbeth killed them because of you! They had done nothing wrong. Macbeth killed them because I came to England. Heaven rest them now!”

“Let this be the whetstone of your sword,” Malcolm said, “Let grief convert to anger. Do not blunt your heart; instead, enrage it.”

“I could act like a woman and cry,” Macduff said. “I could also brag about how I will avenge their deaths. But I pray that Heaven will not make me wait but instead quickly bring me face to face with this fiend of Scotland. If I get within sword’s length of him and he does not die — but he will die! — then let Heaven forgive him.”

“Now you are speaking like a man,” Malcolm said. “Let us go to Edward the Confessor. Our army is ready, and everything is ready for us to march against Macbeth, who is soon to fall from power. God will show us our way. Macbeth has made a long night for Scotland, but we will make it day.”


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