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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff was born as the result of a primitive and agonizing...

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 21, 2013 at 6:21 PM via web

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff was born as the result of a primitive and agonizing caesarean section which may have caused his mother's death in childbirth. Was the fact that he was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" intended to suggest an effect on his character and personality?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:43 PM (Answer #1)

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What an intriguing question--certainly worthy of Freud!

Although renowned critic Harold Bloom makes no mention of the condition of Macduff's birth having had any significant effect upon the Scottish nobleman, the circumstances of Macduff's having been "from his mother's womb/Untimely ripp'd" (5.7.15-16) certainly contribute to the motifs of blood and the preternatural.

There may, however, be some effects on Macduff from not having had a natural and nurturing mother:

  • Macduff's unnatural birth lends more feasibility to his being likened to a Christ-figure in Act II, Scene 3, who before His last ascension to Heaven, descends to Hell [the "Harrowing of Hell" as it is referred to] and releases the souls of the damned.
  • As the hero of Shakespeare's tragedy, there is, then, something spiritual, or almost mythological, about Macduff's being generated from blood and the death of his mother.
  • He seems somewhat beyond the mere human in his act of leaving them in the cause of his motherland--perhaps his substitute for his natural mother
  • When he learns of his family's murders, he displays great emotion; however, he responds to Malcolm's urging to "dispute it [Macbeth's heinous act] like a man" (4.3.219) by saying,

I shall do so;

But I must also feel it as a man" (4.3.220-221).

In this more natural encounter with Macbeth alone, Macduff demonstrates a rationality in his revenge that contrasts with Macbeth's heinous slaughterings of whomever is in his murderous path. 

 In summation, Macduff's birth "not of woman" makes him an archetypal hero; he has had an unusual birth; he leaves his family for a time; he has his special weapon, his sword; and he certainly proves himself against the anti-hero, Macbeth.

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