Why does the murderer call Macduff's son "egg"?

Literature Asked on August 23, 2021

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!

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.

2 Answers

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.

Answered by Chris Sunami supports Monica on August 23, 2021

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.

Answered by Tsundoku on August 23, 2021

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