In Act II, Scene 4 of Macbeth, what do the images in lines 6-19 suggest about the act of killing the king? What do these lines foreshadow about Macbeth's reign?

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The lines convey a discussion between Ross and an old man. Ross states that it appears as if heaven (God) is upset by what had happened (Duncan's murder) and was now threatening to disrupt earth. This suggests that God was avenging Duncan's murder by punishing man for allowing such evil to happen. He mentions, as an example, the fact that even though the time indicates that it is day, the earth is covered in darkness.

Ross suggests metaphorically that the sun has been eclipsed. He rhetorically asks if darkness prevails because night has overwhelmed the light of day or because the day is too ashamed to show its face. His comment suggests that the evil that has been done is an indication of its pervasive presence and such a perverse act that even nature is ashamed of it.

The old man accedes that these events are unnatural, just like the murder. He recalls a similar, unnatural event when a mousing owl acted out of character and attacked and killed a hawk in her nest. His reference symbolically also asserts the fact that Macbeth (represented by the mousing owl) killed a most noble being (Duncan), further emphasizing the abnormality.

Ross then refers to Duncan's beautiful and speedy horses, the most docile of their breed, that had suddenly become violent, broke their stalls and rushed out, acting against their very nature as if they wanted to fight against man. This statement, much as that of the old man, is also a metaphor for Macbeth's evil. He had been a respected and loyal general, the last person one would suspect of committing such perfidy. He turned against his very nature by assassinating the king.

The central theme in the conversation is that the king's assassination was such an abnormal act that even nature itself rebelled against it. The king was supposed to have died either in battle, of illness, or of old age. His untimely death at the hands of one of his supposedly most loyal followers, and a relative to boot, is an anomaly, a reversal of what is natural.

These unnatural events are harbingers for Macbeth's reign since they suggest that his ascension to the throne (usurpation in this instance) would be unnatural since Duncan's eldest son, Malcolm, is supposed to be king and that Macbeth's reign will bring turmoil and confusion to Scotland, instead of the peace and security it should ensure. His reign will be exemplified by ruthless and tyrannical rule. Obviously, Macbeth's guilt in Duncan's murder will soon become common knowledge, and others will want revenge. To retain his position, therefore, the new liege will have to get rid of his enemies or those he deems a threat, which is exactly what Macbeth will do.

In the end, it is ironic that Macbeth's "vaulting ambition" brings about not only the near destruction of his beloved Scotland, but ensures his downfall.

dule05 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act II, Scene 4, we hear the conversation between Ross and an Old Man. This scene takes place in the morning after King Duncan's murder. The two men are talking about some unusual and dangerous occurrences in nature. Ross is surprised that, although the morning has arrived, it is still very dark outside:

By the clock, 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame.

The Old Man then notes that a mighty falcon was killed by an owl, which is abnormal. Ross mentions Duncan's exquisite horses turned wild and ate one another, which is symbolic of Scotland's aristocracy turning against each other.

And Duncan's horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience. . . 

'Tis said they eat each other.

All these bizarre occurrences seem to suggest the natural order of things, as established by God, has been disrupted. The world has been thrown into chaos because Macbeth unlawfully and sinfully murdered the king of Scotland, who was kind and acted like a father to Macbeth. Therefore, the previously mentioned lines imply Macbeth's reign will most likely be unnatural, tyrannical, and bloody. This proves to be true as we continue reading the play.