In act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth, how does Macduff react to the news of his family's death? Did he really love his family? Why was Malcolm encouraged by Macduff's reaction?

In act 4, scene 3 of Macbeth, it's clear from Macduff's reaction to the death of his family that Macduff truly loved his wife and children, and his grief over the loss of his family is deepened by his feelings of guilt and remorse for leaving them behind when he went to meet Malcolm in England. Malcolm is encouraged by Macduff's desire for revenge against Macbeth, as it greatly increases Malcolm's chances of defeating Macbeth.

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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

be hanged.
(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.

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In Act IV, Scene III, when Macduff learns of his family's slaughter, he reacts with sorrow and grief. He talks about the grief that "does not speak," and states that his heart is breaking. He also feels guilty; he thinks his family was killed because of his actions, not their own:

They were all struck. . . Not for their actions, but for mine.

That Macduff loved his family is without doubt: he refers to them as his "pretty ones," for instance, and his "pretty chickens." His love also accounts for the strength of his reaction to the news that they have been slaughtered.

Also in this scene, Macduff makes a speech in which he urges Malcolm and his allies to rise up against Macbeth with action ("Strike heaven on the face"). Malcolm is very encouraged by these sentiments because he realizes that Macduff is his true ally and that Macduff is ready to fight against Macbeth.

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Macduff loved his family very much and is absolutely devastated by the news of their deaths. At first, he cannot comprehend that his entire family has been slaughtered:

All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?

Macduff blames himself for their deaths; he was not there to protect them, and they were murdered only because he had aligned himself with the forces working to bring down Macbeth. He also agonizes thinking about the terror-filled final moments of their lives: "Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?" Macduff implores that "[h]eaven rest them now!" Filled with grief, he then turns his attention to Macbeth, the cause of his family's destruction:

. . . front to front

Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;

Within my sword's length set him. If he 'scape,

Heaven forgive him too!

Macduff intends to make sure that Macbeth will not escape retribution for his abominable acts.

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