What is the significance of the old man in Act 2 Scene 4 of Macbeth?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The old man helps establish an atmosphere that shows that the world has been spookily out of kilter since Macbeth took the throne. The man is old enough to be able to provide a context for the eerie and frightening events going on; he says he has seen bad times before, but nothing like this, or as he puts it: 

Threescore and ten I can remember well,
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
He can also confirm what Ross says about occurrences in nature that show the kingdom is out of joint. Ross speaks of how unnaturally dark the skies are, a sign the heavens are "troubled," and the old man adds his own story of seeing a falcon killed by an ordinary owl, which would be understood by the audience as nature reflecting the disorder of Macbeth murdering Duncan. Ross mentions Duncan's horses turning wild after Duncan's death, and the old man adds embellishments to this story too, saying that he heard the horses ate each other. Whatever Ross says, the old man has a tale to top it. All of this adds to the creepy, uncanny atmosphere Shakespeare is working to establish throughout the play, a supernaturally infused dreamscape of witches and fogs and unnatural happenings that reinforces the horror of Macbeth's crime. 
teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act 2 Scene 4 of Macbeth, an old man enters with Rosse after the news of King Duncan's death has spread and Malcolm and Donalbain have fled from Scotland.  The old man is significant because he is representative of times past.  He says that over the course of time, he has seen bad things happen in Scotland, but the murder of the king and the situation surrounding it is much worse than anything he has ever known:  ". . .but this sore night hath trifled former knowings" (II.iv.3-4).  At the end of the scene, the old man leaves Rosse and Macduff with a bit of foreshadowing:  "God's benison go with you; and with those that would make good of bad, and friends of foes!" (II.iv.40-41).  This paradox is a warning that all is not what it seems, and the men need to be careful whom they trust.