In act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth, what dramatic purpose is served by the short scene between Lady Macduff and her son? In what significant way does the murder of Macduff's family differ from Macbeth's previous crimes?

In act 4, scene 2 of Macbeth, the dramatic purpose of the short scene between Lady Macduff and her son emphasizes Macbeth's maniacal, depraved nature and establishes the rivalry between him and Macduff. The murder of Macduff's family differs from Macbeth's previous murders because it serves no specific purpose other than to satisfy his bloodlust. Macbeth seeks to gain nothing by murdering Macduff's family and does not put much thought into planning the crime.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The short exchange between Lady Macduff and her son in act 4, scene 2 humanizes these two figures, especially the intelligent young boy. He is not simply an abstraction to us. Like Duncan and Banquo, he becomes a flesh and blood character we get to know a little. Unlike Duncan and Banquo, however, he is murdered onstage. To have Macbeth's assassins stab a child in front of the audience's eyes brings home, as words cannot, the horror of what Macbeth has become. There is no reason for Macbeth to have this child killed: it will be years before he can pose any realistic threat to the throne. Having him murdered shows that Macbeth has become a despot, whose actions make him utterly unfit to rule Scotland. Macbeth's thought before he kills Duncan, that one murder will lead to another until he is drowning in blood, has come true.

Further, the boy's awareness, shown through his dialogue with his mother, that the world is a corrupt and evil place shows the ill effects of Macbeth's reign. His mother says that liars and traitors must be hanged. The boy states to his mother that the liars and traitors of the world outnumber the honest enough to turn the tables:

there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them.

Macbeth's initial murder of Duncan has had effects that reverberate across Scotland, unleashing evil to the point that even children are aware of it.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In act 4, scene 2, Macbeth sends several murderers to slaughter Lady Macduff and her family while Macduff is in England petitioning Malcolm to assemble an army to reclaim Scotland. This scene is significant for several reasons. By slaughtering an innocent woman and her children, Macbeth's depravity is complete, and the audience recognizes that he has transformed into a maniacal, ruthless tyrant. Macbeth has no concern for human life and is determined to punish his enemies and anyone associated with them. In addition to emphasizing Macbeth's bloodlust, this scene also establishes the rivalry between Macduff and Macbeth and pits them against each other in the final battle. Macduff is additionally motivated to kill Macbeth and must avenge the deaths of his beloved family.

Unlike Macbeth's previous murders, the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her family seems senseless and irrational. Macbeth committed regicide to usurp power and murdered Banquo in an attempt to cement his legacy. However, Lady Macduff and her children are murdered for no reason other than to satisfy Macbeth's bloodlust. He has nothing to gain by murdering Macduff's family and only motivates his enemies to seek revenge. Also, Macbeth's decision to kill Macduff's family is impetuous and rash. Macbeth does not contemplate his actions or think about the consequences attached to the murders. He simply gives the order to have Macduff's family slaughtered and shows no remorse for his actions.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The scene serves several purposes. As your question suggests, it provides a way for the audience to see how Macbeth's evil has grown from when he first kills Duncan to this moment now, when he orders the murder of a defenseless woman and her children in order to terrorize Macduff, his enemy.  His other crimes served his "vaulting ambition," but this one does not serve such a purpose for Lady Macduff and her children are not his adversaries.  The scene also serves the dramatic purpose of providing a domestic scene, a woman with her family, that provides a stark contrast to Lady Macbeth, who lacks all qualities of a mother, which we see when she says to the evil spirits "Come to my woman's breasts / And take my mild for gall" (1.5.54-55).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This scene has a few purposes.  First, it shows us that Macbeth is a cold-blooded and desperate man because he has sent murderers to kill an innocent family.  The scene also shows us how Lady Macduff feels about her husband being in England.  The scene is full of irony, of course, because she is right to be afraid for her life.  The scene also shows us the loving, intimate relationship that exists between Lady Macduff and her son.  Their relationship is so close that the two of them can have a flippant conversation, each knowing that everything is spoken with love and tenderness despite the words.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial