At first, Macduff is so struck by the news that he says nothing, but Malcolm puts into...
In act 4, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ross interrupts a conversation between Macduff and Malcolm to tell Macduff, “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes / Savagely slaughter'd.”
At first, Macduff is so struck by the news that he says nothing, but Malcolm puts into words the shock and grief that he believes Macduff must be feeling.
MALCOLM: The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er fraught heart, and bids it break.
(act 4, scene 3, lines 241–242)
When Macduff recovers enough from the shock to speak, has asks simply, “My children too?”
Malcolm attempts to distract Macduff from the loss of his family and to focus instead on taking revenge against Macbeth “to cure this deadly grief,” but Macduff is too overcome by his emotions to think about anything but his wife and children.
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
(act 4, scene 3, lines 253–255)
Malcolm tells Macduff to “dispute it like a man,” and Macduff puts aside his grief long enough to tell Malcolm, “I shall do so,” but his emotions overcome him again, and he remembers the things “that were most precious to me.”
Clearly, Macduff loves his wife and children, but for the moment his priorities still lie with overthrowing Macbeth.
Macduff takes heaven to task for not protecting his wife and children, then he realizes that it’s his own fault for bringing Macbeth’s vengeance down on them by opposing Macbeth’s reign as king.
This brings to mind Lady Macduff’s complaints against Macduff in act 4, scene 2, when she holds Macduff accountable for deserting his family to go to England. She calls him a traitor and a coward and says that Macduff doesn’t love them, because he’s so caught up in bringing down Macbeth that he’s forgotten those who should be most important to him.
Lady Macduff is so upset about Macduff leaving his family unprotected in his castle that she tells their young son, “Sirrah, your father’s dead” and tells him that Macduff is a traitor who should be hanged.
SON: Was my father a traitor, Mother?
LADY MACDUFF: Ay, that he was.
SON: What is a traitor?
LADY MACDUFF: Why, one that swears and lies.
SON: And be all traitors that do so?
LADY MACDUFF: Everyone that does so is a traitor and must
(act 4, scene 2, lines 52–57)
It’s interesting to note that in his last moments alive, Macduff’s son defends his father.
FIRST MURDERER: He's a traitor.
SON: Thou liest, thou shag-ear'd villain!
(act 4, scene 2, lines 89–90)
Macduff tells Malcolm that his heart is filled with regret and self-recrimination.
MACDUFF: Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls.
(act 4, scene 3, lines 263–264)
However, with a little urging from Malcolm to “let grief / Convert to anger,” Macduff’s thoughts turn to revenge against Macbeth, and Macduff appeals to the heavens to bring him face-to-face with “this fiend of Scotland.”
Malcolm is encouraged by Macduff’s emotional turn from grief and regret to revenge because he knows that Macduff will fight hard against Macbeth because of the tragedy that befell his wife and children.