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William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 2:
Easier questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 23 January 2014
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Scene 1 introduced the question of fate and the supernatural. Scene 2 brings us down to earth by introducing Macbeth -- but through the eyes of other people.

Word is brought to King Duncan of Macbeth's heroism in fighting the Norwegian forces, for which he not only earns the king's respect but is also richly rewarded for his services.


If one is to accept Act 1, Scene 2 at face value, then an immediate problem reveals itself.

Two battles are described in this scene. Both are against the Norwegian (Viking) forces which are attempting to overrun Scotland. Each has a Scottish traitor who has sold himself to the enemy.

At the first battle, the traitor is the "merciless Macdonwald" with soldiers from the Western Isles (Ireland). The attacking forces are led by a "Norwegian lord".

Macbeth is named as the valiant general who "disdaining fortune" carves the enemy hordes to pieces and slices Macdonwald "from the nave to the chops" -- and then beheads him.

The second battle is at Fife and the attacking forces are led by "Norway himself", i.e. Sweno, the king of Norway. There is another traitor -- the Thane of Cawdor -- who is captured and sentenced to death.

The valiant general who defends Scotland, however, is not named. He is referred to only as "Bellona's bridegroom", i.e. Mars, the god of war. Is this second valiant general the selfsame Macbeth -- as most textbooks would want us to believe?

There are, however, several major reasons for questioning this. First, it would have been impossible for Macbeth to have been at both battles at the same time because the battlefields were many miles apart.

The first was at Forres, i.e. Macbeth's territory. The second was at Fife which was the home of Macduff. Moreover, the treacherous Thane of Cawdor had joined forces with the Norwegians at this second battle.

If Macbeth had indeed been at that battle, he would have known of Cawdor's treachery but, when the three witches later greet him with the title "Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!", Macbeth is clearly surprised.

"The Thane of Cawdor lives," he says, "a prosperous gentleman."

Would it not be more logical, therefore, to suppose that it was Macduff and not Macbeth who was at this second battle at Fife? In other words, the Thane of Fife was defending his own territory, rather than Macbeth doing it for him.

Macbeth was, after all, the Thane of Glamis. Macduff was the Thane of Fife.

The Arden Shakespeare argues that the Great Bard was merely condensing time and the two battles into one. The editors would like us to believe that Shakespeare did not notice three major inconsistencies in his words.

Yet authors of great works of art do not usually make such mistakes! It is therefore quite possible that there is an error in the majority interpretation of the play and that the second general was not Macbeth at all but rather the Thane of Fife, i.e. Macduff.

If that is so, then it brings into question Duncan's later decision to reward Macbeth. Is the king honouring Macbeth with the title Thane of Cawdor, despite the fact that it was Macduff who deserved the title?

Was the king in fact sorely afraid of Macduff? Did he want to put a rift between Macduff and Macbeth by rewarding the latter?

Are we not therefore looking at a power struggle in Scotland? King Duncan is desperately afraid of Macduff and therefore allies himself with Macbeth.

Then, to make certain that neither will reach for the throne of Scotland, Duncan announces that he is making his own son, Malcolm, his successor. In doing so, he hopes to prevent Scotland being plunged into civil war.

His action, however, causes the very civil war that Duncan was hoping to avoid.

Just a thought for you to think about!

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

There are TWO Scottish traitors who have gone over to the Norwegian side in the war.
  • Who are they? (2)

[Need help?]

What does King Duncan mean when he says, "What bloody man is that?" (2)

[Need help?]

Rewrite in your own words: "He can report, As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt The newest state." (3)

[Need help?]

Who are the "kerns and gallowglasses"? (2)

[Need help?]

Does the captain's description of Macbeth's actions present a positive or negative view of Macbeth? Explain. (4)

[Need help?]

Give another word for "Fortune". What figure of speech is this? (2)

[Need help?]

What does the captain mean when he says, "Compelled those skipping kerns to trust their heels"? (2)

[Need help?]

Where does the second battle take place and who was the leading Thane in this area? (2)

[Need help?]

Who does Ross mean when he speaks of "Norway himself"? What was this man's real name? (2)

[Need help?]

Ross tells Duncan that the Norwegian army was forced to give over "ten thousand dollars to our general use".
  • Provide ONE word to describe such a payment. (1)

[Need help?]

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