Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 2 – Summary & Analysis

Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 2 – Summary & Analysis

The play then switches to King Duncan of Scotland’s military camp, located close to his palace in Forres. The king speaks to a wounded captain (who was wounded helping the King’s son Malcolm escape the fighting), seeking an update regarding the Scots’ battle with the Irish invaders who are led by Macdonwald, a rebel. The captain tells the king how the Scottish general Macbeth and Banquo bravely overcame Macdonwald, with Macbeth killing Macdonwald and placing the rebel’s head on the castle’s battlements. The thane of Ross then enters as the the captain is taken away to be treated to, revealing how the thane of Cawdor has been defeated and the army of Norway fought off. The king orders the thane of Cawdor to be executed and for Macbeth to assume his title; the thane of Ross leaves to tell Macbeth of his promotion.

Analysis

The second scene serves one overriding purpose, to present Macbeth as a character of supreme virtue. In a world where there is disloyalty and betrayal, symbolized by the traiterous thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is a brave and loyal servant to the king of Scotland. However as mentioned, the initial presentiaton of Macbeth as a character of virtue is the first stage in his state of tragic hero, as he will fall from this state of virtue due to his tragic flaw. This is foreshadowed in the captain’s description of Macbeth’s actions on the battlefield:

‘For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name! – Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel Which smoked with bloody execution, Like valour’s minion Carved out his passage till he faced the slave, Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’chops, And fixed his head upon our battlements.’

As shall be seen, Macbeth is ‘disdaining of fortune’ when he upsets the natural order and kills the king, who is god’s representative on earth, ‘with bloody execution’ and later is killed by Macduff who is born from a Caesarian section, as his mother is ‘unseamed.. from the nave to th’chops’, who then hangs Macbeth’s head in public as Macbeth did to Macdonwald. The contradictory manner of this, with the captain foreshadowing Macbeth’s deception while praising his dedication to defending Scotland and its king, once more presents the world of the play as a place where all is not as it seems.

Points of note

The world of the play is one based on contradiction, which may be seen as a reason for the ambiguity and uncertainty in the play. While not going into the exact presence of religion in the play it is certainly a social convention, seen in such moments as Macbeth later attempting to say ‘amen’ with the chamberlains. The presence of religion immediately creates an association with morality and doing what is right, however in this scene Macbeth’s virtuous character is associated with his brutal murder of Macdonwald which culminates with his placing the head of his opponent on the battlements of the castle. This is at odds with religious ideals, and presents the play as similar to mythological times when heroism was linked to feats on the battlefield and devotion to the gods was held by all. However these gods were contradictory in their very nature, favouring certain individuals (usually heroes) over others and capable of cruelty, often so as to help the individuals they favoured (indeed there is mention of classical gods later in the play). This contradiction allows different ways to consider characters and their actions.

It is noteworthy to consider Macbeth, even though we only hear of him through description here. As shall be mentioned later, the Weird Sisters can be considered as goddesses of fate; does this mean we consider Macbeth the hero of the play, with the Weird Sisters the goddesses who look after him (this ties in with the aforementioned thought that Macbeth is the tragic hero whose role as king serves some purpose and reveals some new truth)? With this in mind how are we supposed to consider his regicide; is the play (and Shakespeare) advocating a departure from a world where influences such as religion are supreme? Or is it a not so radical departure as there is some form of religion associated with Macbeth (the goddesses of fate); is the play suggesting a world where religion plays a minor role is best? Another way to think about this is that Macbeth should not/ cannot be blamed for his actions, as they are caused by external influences such as the witches (and his wife).

In addition, Macbeth’s killing of Macdonwald may be considered significant. He does not just kill his opponent; he takes his head and places it on the battlement of the castle. While raising questions of morality (which can be considered in the above point about the role of religion) it allows a consideration of his character, most notably the idea of control. Is this instance an indicator that Macbeth is not capable of self-control as even when he kills Macdonwald he is unable to stop himself wreaking havoc on his opponent? As shall be shown later with the topic of imagination, this may be seen as a prominent character trait. There are also parallels to the play’s end, when Macbeth’s head is brought to Malcolm as he is proclaimed king; it is of worth considering if there are other similarities between the beginning and end of the play.

The frequent mention of ‘bloody’ in this scene introduces this much used phrase throughout the play. The play is certainly very ‘bloody’, seen in such instances as when Lady Macbeth believes she has blood on her hands. Here Duncan speaks of the battle and asks ‘What bloody man is that? He can report,/ As seemth by his plight’ and speaks of the ‘bloody execution.’ Similarly, Macbeth’s slaying of Macdonald is spoken of graphically, as it is revealed he ‘unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops’. It is of note to consider the heavy mention/ appearance of blood in the play as aside from the beginning and end of the play, in the battlefield, there are no other battle-like circumstances; is this a suggestion that the actions that take place in the royal court are as malicious and violent as on the battlefield and that both arenas are as dangerous as each other?

Deception is already present in the world of the play even before Macbeth’s traiterous journey to assuming the crown begins, shown with the actions of the Thane of Cawdor. This reveals to us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not the inventors of deception in the world of the play; indeed in a world where there is much war and fighting and a non-fixed concept of morality it is to be expected that underhandedness will be present in some form. Is it the case that deception is present due to a world of contradictions, where there is war and killing alongside religion and morality? Is this a world based on survival of the fittest, where one should act according to one’s own interests as opposed to according to the instructions of the king or morality, as these are linked to ideals such as killing on the battlefield? If we consider that the king, the instructor of the order of things, advocates gruesome fighting and a ‘bloody execution’ (he praises Macbeth for his feats in the battlefield later), does this suggest that this is a world where morality is secondary, and that the rule of the king can be questioned due to the inconsistencies in the world?

Finally, is it significant that Duncan is not in the battlefield leading his army? Mention was made earlier of classical references in the play; in classical/ mythological times the rulers of countries/ kingdoms fought alongside their armies in battle, and even if one does not have knowledge of this they would surely find it slightly surprising that the ruler of the country is not fighting with his army. Does this suggest Duncan is not a completely suitable ruler? Compare this to Macbeth who despite seizing the crown through wrongful means defends his kingdom from the front at the play’s end.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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