15

When Macduff's son defends his father's honor when the murderers sent by Macbeth call Macduff a traitor in Macbeth, they wind up stabbing the son:

Enter Murderers.
FIRST MURDERER: Where is your husband?
LADY MACDUFF: I hope, in no place so unsanctified where such as thou mayst find him.
FIRST MURDERER: He’s a traitor.
SON: Thou liest, thou shag-ear’d villain!
FIRST MURDERER: What, you egg! [Stabbing him.] Young fry of treachery!
-Macbeth

What's up with the "What, you egg!" line? Why does the murderer call the son an egg? It seems completely unrelated to anything else, and doesn't seem like a witty comeback to the son's "shag-ear'd villain" insult.

  • 4
    The implication is, "you are so young, you might as well still be in the egg". – Gareth Rees Jul 12 at 21:27
  • 1
    He didn't upload a profile picture for his Twitter account. – Acccumulation Jul 14 at 0:22
18

A. R. Braunmuller (Macbeth, New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1997) provides the following gloss:

Contemptuous epithet for a young person (OED Egg sb 2b, citing only this line and another from 1835); (...)

G. K. Hunter's edition of the play (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1967) doesn't provide a gloss here.

Braunmuller also links the murderer's word choice with the proverb "An evil bird lays an evil egg" (cited in Robert W. Dent's Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index, 1981, B376).

The murderer also calls Macduff's son "fry of treachery". Fry means fish-spawn (G. K. Hunter) or "progeny, (...), brood" (Wiktionary) and is another "contemptuous epithet". It is also worth noting that the word choice "egg" fits the bird imagery in Macbeth.

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  • Can a rather generic insult really be seen as an epithet, which seems to be most commonly defined as a 'byname'? – smcs Jul 14 at 12:35
  • @smcs Could it be that you are thinking of epithet in a Homeric sense? I don't see an issue after checking the definitions of epithet in Wiktionary. – Tsundoku Jul 14 at 12:37
  • Thanks, I was under the impression that an epithet has to be connected to a single person, like "Macbethson the Egg". Apart from that it can apparently simply mean "term of abuse". – smcs Jul 14 at 12:48
9

When Shakespeare uses an unfamiliar or idiomatic word or phrase, he quite often doubles it with a more conventional one, with the effect of explaining it "in place." There's a good example of this elsewhere in Macbeth, when the eponymous villain says "Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red." Incarnadine is thus explained as making the green one red.

If we view the same technique at work here, then "egg" = "young fry of treachery." So Macduff Jr. is being here accused of following in the traitorous footsteps of his father. The apple does not fall far from the tree, nor the egg from the hen that laid it, being the general implication.

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