Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 4
From Macbeth. Ed. Thomas Marc Parrott. New York: American Book Co.
(Line numbers have been altered.)
This scene serves as a link to connect what has gone before with the next act. It probably takes place in the late morning of the
day following the murder of Duncan. The dialogue between Ross and the old man renews our feeling of horror at the deed. Macduff's brief report of the decision of the council of nobles as to the agents and instigators of the murder, and of the election of
Macbeth, puts us in possession of the necessary facts, and his refusal to attend the coronation strengthens our feeling that he is
entering into an attitude of marked opposition to the new king.
4. Hath trifled former knowings, hath made my former experiences seem mere trifles.
5, 6. heavens ... act ... stage. These words are drawn from
the vocabulary of the Elizabethan theatre. The "heavens" were
the hangings with which the stage was draped. When a tragedy
was to be performed, these hangings were black. "Act" means "performance."
8. the travelling lamp, the sun.
9, 10. It's night's ... entomb. Has night got the better of the
sun, or is day ashamed to look upon the deed that darkness still
buries the earth as in a tomb?
14. towering in her pride of place, soaring at her highest point
before swooping on her prey.
17. minions of their race, the best of their class.
21. eat, the past tense of the verb. This portent, along with the
foregoing story of the owl and the falcon, and the prolonged eclipse,
was taken by Shakespeare direct from Holinshed. He uses them
to show how nature itself seemed to reflect the murder of Duncan
in startling and unnatural phenomena.
24. How goes the world, sir, now? What is the latest news?
Ross appears to have been absent from the council of the peers
held after the close of the preceding scene. Macduff answers him very curtly; he is evidently deeply dissatisfied with what has been
28. Macduff does not believe this; he is simply giving Ross the
official, accepted report of the king's death.
29. What good, etc. What benefit could they intend to derive
for themselves from the murder?
36. Thriftless ambition. Ross is referring to the supposed ambition of the princes which led them to kill their father. It was
"thriftless," i.e, "wasteful," because it destroyed that by which it
lived and so defeated its own end. Instead of gaining anything by
their father's death, the princes have had to fly the land. Note
that Ross accepts without question the official view of the king's
37. A line of four feet.
39. named. At the council of the peers Macbeth, as the next
of kin to Duncan in the absence of the princes, was naturally chosen
39. Scone, an ancient royal city in Scotland, near the present
town of Perth. It contained the ancient throne, inclosing the stone which Jacob used for his pillow (Genesis, xxviii. II), on which the
Scottish kings were crowned. When Edward I overran Scotland
he took this throne to England, and it is now used in the coronation of English sovereigns in Westminster Abbey.
42. Colme-kill, Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland.
St. Columba, who converted Scotland to Christianity, founded a
monastery here from which the name in the text was derived. Colme-kill means Columba's cell. Owing to the high reputation
of this monastery for holiness, its precincts became a favourite
burial place for Scottish kings. Altogether, forty-eight kings are
said to be buried there. It is interesting to note that the historical
Macbeth, as well as Duncan, was interred in this cemetery.
46. Fife, a county on the east coast of Scotland, ruled over by
Macduff. A ruined castle on the shore of Fife is still called Macduff's Castle.
49. This clause depends upon "adieu" in the preceding line.
Macduff bids Ross farewell since things may turn out badly for
them under the new king and they may not meet again.
51, 52. God's benison. The old man blesses Ross as a well-meaning person who will try to make the best of things and reconcile
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_2_4.html >.
How to cite the sidebars:
Mabillard, Amanda. Macbeth Notes. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth_2_4.html >.
It should be noted that, for Act II, scene iv, Shakespeare extracted three of the four omens associated with King Duffe's murder from the Chronicles, and applied them to the murder of Duncan, for great dramatic effect. A divinely appointed monarch has been assassinated, and it is a calamity of such epic proportion that even the workings of nature are disrupted. This is reminiscent of the events following the death of Christ:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the Saints which slept arose... (Matthew: 27:51)
Presenting Duncan's murder in this way diminishes Macbeth's place in the grander scheme of the play. Like those who sought to crucify Christ, Macbeth and his Lady are relegated to mere player status -- they become, if only briefly, instruments whose crime against all of humanity has surpassed their collective motive of ambition; they have done a deed of apocalyptic consequence. Through them evil has been unleashed, and it has destroyed God's beloved. Read on...
Did You Know? ... It would appear from drawings of the Bankside that every playhouse contemporaneous with the Globe had a superstructure of one or multiple huts, but the Globe's huts, or "heavens", seem the most elaborate. In the floor of the superstructure were several trap-openings allowing props to hang down over the stage or actors to descend to the floor, suspended by wires concealed under their costumes. Read on...