Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents: Macbeth’s Slaughter of Macduff’s Babies
The conundrum the babies in the cauldron give Macbeth is to fear Macduff but also that none of woman born shall harm him. Despite this, Macbeth decides to kill Macduff’s entire family and retinue. During the harrowing scene where the wife, children and all in the line of Macduff are callously slaughtered, I got a powerful feeling. Up came an image of the story in the Gospel known as The Slaughter of the Innocents.
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th’ edge o’ th’ sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line.
Macbeth, Act IV Scene I
What I didn’t originally realise is that not only was this horror recounted in Matthew, but it was prophesied centuries before in Jeremiah. It puts Macduff’s hasty flight from Dunsinane with Malcolm immediately after Duncan’s death is discovered into a greater perspective. Macduff’s wife is distraught at her husband’s abandonment, and Ross suggests it might have been prompted by wisdom rather than fear. Indeed.
It looks like a motif of the flight to Egypt taken by Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus on hearing of Herod’s impending slaughter, and a mirror of the biblical event in the Old Testament this slaughter might be symbolising. When Moses was born, in order to control the rising population of Jewish slaves, the Pharaoh had begun a campaign of slaughtering the firstborn children of Israel. Moses was hidden in the bulrushes, found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought up as a prince of Egypt. It was subsequently the slaughter of the firstborns of Egypt that resulted in the release of the children of Israel from bondage. Maybe mankind, like God himself, had to sacrifice the innocent so as to let the children of God, all souls held in the bondage of Mosaic Law, go free.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
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