In "Macbeth," what is the effect of the old man's remarks in Act II, Scene 4?
Act 2, scene 4 of Macbeth takes place a couple of scenes after Macbeth has murdered King Duncan. The conversation between the Old Man and Ross reveals how the world has been reacting to Duncan's murder. It was a belief in Elizabethan England that all spheres of the world were connected; if a disturbance occurred in one sphere, the other spheres would react accordingly. Shakespeare illustrates this belief in Macbeth when he shows how the natural world is thrown out of order by the unnatural death of Duncan. The Old Man's remarks on the unnatural events in the world has the effect of adding to the dark, supernatural mood of the play, as well as strongly suggesting that Macbeth's reign is doomed.
The Old Man begins his remarks with this ominous set of lines:
I can remember the past seventy years pretty well, and in all that time I have seen dreadful hours and strange things. But last night’s horrors make everything that came before seem like a joke.
In all his life, he cannot remember a more horrific night than the one during which Duncan was murdered. Even the things that passed in the "dreadful hours" before "seem like a joke" compared to what they've just witnessed.
Next, the Old Man provides some more specific examples of "last night's horrors." He says, "Last Tuesday a falcon was circling high in the sky, and it was caught and killed by an ordinary owl that usually goes after mice." This, as the Old Man explicitly says in the lines before, is an instance of the "unnatural" reactions to the unnatural murder of the king. The falcon is a powerful bird, but this falcon was killed by "an ordinary owl." The natural order is upset. Ross responds by saying that Duncan's normally "obedient" horses "broke out of their stalls." What's more, the Old Man adds that "the horses ate each other." This is clearly an example of how unnaturally the animal world is acting in the wake of Duncan's death.
The remarks add to the already foreboding mood of the play, which was set from act 1, scene 1 with the appearance of the witches. The Old Man's remarks, along with Ross's responses, further suggest that Macbeth's reign is doomed. This is not a promising way to begin one's rule.
The Old Man and Ross discuss events in Act II scene 4 that have been happening since King Duncan was killed. The Old Man says that he has not seen anything like recent events in his 70 years. For instance, the day is very dark as if it were night. Ross tells of an owl that ate a falcon. Also, the Old Man recounts how King Duncan's horses ate each other while in a frenzy. All of these events are symbolic representations of Duncan's murder. The owl, for instance, typically hunts mice, not falcons. The fact that an owl attacked a falcon is extraordinary because the falcon is a much more powerful bird. Symbolically, Macbeth (owl) acted in the same way by attacking a more powerful person (falcon).
Also, when the men discuss the weather, Ross says, "Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame, / That darkness does the face of earth entomb, / When living light should kiss it?" Ross is asking if the day is dark because the light is ashamed to show itself or if it is because darkness is too powerful that the light cannot show itself, referring back to Macbeth's evil and dark actions. The Old Man responds "'Tis unnatural, / Even like the deed that's done." The effect is to emphasize how Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's actions have completely undone the natural order of nature.