Scotland is at war. King Duncan faces not only his own rebellious kinsmen but also an invasion by King Sweno of the Norwegians. In this scene, Duncan receives three significant reports: the death of the rebel Macdonald at the hands of "brave Macbeth"; Macbeth's action against the Norwegians; and the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor, who has sided with the enemy. In each case, Macbeth's heroism shines out, leading to victory for Scotland and surrender by Sweno. Finally, Duncan orders Cawdor's execution and arranges for his title to pass to Macbeth.
A captain of Duncan's army makes the initial report of the battle. At first, he says, the outcome of the fighting was in doubt. To describe the inertia of the two armies, the captain uses a metaphor of two drowning men, who gain no advantage by clinging together but instead "choke their art." At this stage in the battle, it had appeared that Fortune, like a "smiling . . . whore" — a traditional personification of her fickleness — would support Macdonald. It was left to the brave warrior Macbeth, "disdaining Fortune," to reverse this situation.
The introduction of Macbeth as a warrior hero is crucial to the play, for tragedy depends on our witnessing the downfall of an already great man. Phrases such as "Valour's minion" (the servant of Courage) and "Bellona's bridegroom" (the husband of War) exemplify Macbeth's superheroism. His strength is underscored by the captain's graphic account of Macbeth's actions on the battlefield. Macbeth did not simply kill Macdonald; he "unseam'd him from the nave to the chops, / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (22-23) — a reference that foreshadows Macbeth's death at the end of the play.
Macbeth's reputation on the battlefield is further enhanced by the similes of the Captain's second report, in which Macbeth and his fellow-captain, Banquo, are compared to "eagles" and "lions" unafraid of the timid Norwegians, who themselves are likened to "sparrows" or "a hare." Symbolically, the lion appears on the royal coat of arms of the kings of Scotland. Macbeth's and Banquo's fighting is compared to the action of artillery pieces (even though, historically, this battle would have been a sword fight). Finally, Macbeth is credited with nothing less than recreating "Golgotha," the scene of Christ's crucifixion.
The Thane of Ross enters the scene with a third report: Once more, the result of the battle is doubtful, and once more both combatants are seen on equal terms — "self-comparisons" — until the outcome is decided in Scotland's favor by Macbeth. The scene ends with two resolutions: First, the Norwegians "crave composition"; that is, they beg for a truce. Second, and more importantly for the story, the disloyal Thane of Cawdor is condemned to execution and his title granted to Macbeth. The language in Scene 2 captures much of the activity, urgency, and gruesome realism of battle. Lines such as "the Norweyan banners flout the sky / And fan our people cold" give a cinematic feel to the scene and remind us that the play concerns a wider world and that its moral questions, when they come, do so as well.
Scene 2 establishes the opposing idea of order and the related theme of orderly or honorable behavior. Duncan himself is established as a figurehead of order who honors the valor of the bleeding captain and, in two grand rhyming couplets at the end of the scene, pronounces his favor of Macbeth.
kerns, Gallowglasses (13) light infantry, heavy infantry.
gins his reflection (25) starts to turn in its seasonal course.
Bellona's bridegroom (55) bridegroom to the goddess of war (i.e. Macbeth).
lapp'd in proof (55) covered in armor.