William Shakespeare
Contributed by Sharon Fleming
Act 1 Scene 2

Scotland is in chaos, plagued by both civil and international war. Both rebels and Norwegians, led by King Sweno, attack the country. King Duncan faces immense pressure to demonstrate leadership in the face of such challenging circumstances. He receives three pieces of news. First, a member of his army, the “brave Macbeth,” has killed Macdonald, one of the rebels. Second, Macbeth has led the war against the Norwegians gallantly and demonstrated unrivaled patriotism. Finally, on a sad note, the Thane of Cawdor has abandoned Scotland to side with the enemy. However, Macbeth's heroism leaves a lasting impression on the King. Due to his bravery, King Sweno surrenders, and Scotland emerges victorious. King Duncan orders for the Thane of Cawdor’s execution and gives Macbeth his title.


As the army captain reports to King Duncan, he employs figurative language to illustrate the unpredictable nature of the war. He describes inertia between the opposing sides, describing them as two men drowning together, each holding tightly to the other and ensuring their mutual demise. Ultimately, the captain explains, both men die from oxygen deficiency. His message is clear: Scotland is losing the war. Under Macdonald, Scotland stands no chance of winning, and fortune becomes a “smiling...whore.” The onus of leadership falls upon the shoulders of the “brave Macbeth,” who brings Scotland to victory.

The captain goes on to describe Macbeth’s battlefield valor with flowery language. He likens Macbeth and Banquo, respectively, to a fearless eagle and lion of the troops. Notably, the Scottish coat of arms contains lions, which symbolize bravery and strength. Together, Macbeth and Banquo represent their country’s highest aspirations. Macbeth creates a scene which resembles Golgotha, the place where Jesus Christ was crucified.

The Thane of Ross arrives to report on the ongoing battle. Just like the first army captain, the Thane says the battle’s two sides are evenly matched. However, that changes under Macbeth’s leadership. Under his command, the odds favor the Scottish, who ultimately win. Toward the end of the scene, two critical events occur: first, the Norwegians ask for a truce. Second, the King takes away the Thane of Cawdor’s title and presents it to Macbeth as a reward for his valor. King Duncan also condemns the Thane of Cawdor to execution. Throughout all this, Shakespeare’s language demonstrates the urgency of the wartime circumstances. It also calls into question the world’s moral compass and the way people think and act in response to difficulty.

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