Detailed Summary of Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 2

Page Index:
Enter King Duncan, Malcolm, Donalbain, Lennox, with Attendants, meeting a bleeding Sergeant:
We hear an "alarum," a trumpet call which gives directions to soldiers, so we know that the battle is being fought very nearby. Then we see Duncan, King of Scotland, with his sons and followers, just as Duncan sees a "bleeding Sergeant." Because the sergeant has just come from the battle, Duncan judges that he "can report, / As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt / The newest state" (1.2.1-3). Thus we learn that the battle is a revolt against the king, who wants to know if his side is winning or losing.

Because he is all covered with blood, the sergeant looks heroic himself, and everything he says emphasizes the heroism of Macbeth. The sergeant describes the two sides as being like "two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art" (1.2.8-9). That is, the two sides were exhausted, just going through the motions, until the rebel Macdonwald "from the western isles / Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied" (1.2.12-13). "Kerns" are lightly armed soldiers; "gallowglasses" have heavier armor. The phrase "Macdonwald . . . is supplied" means that he suddenly got reinforcements, so that it looked like he was about to given the kiss of victory by the whore Fortune. "But all's too weak" (1.2.15), says the sergeant, meaning that neither the reinforcements nor the favor of Fortune did Macdonwald any good. Macbeth charged through Macdonwald's soldiers, killing them left and right, until he got to the rebel captain himself. Then, says the sergeant with grim humor, Macbeth was downright rude to Macdonwald, because he "ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, / Till he unseam'd [split] him from the nave [bellybutton] to the chops [jaws], / And fix'd his head upon our battlements" (1.2.21-23).

King Duncan exclaims, "O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!" (The "cousin" reminds us that Macbeth has royal lineage; both he and King Duncan are grandsons of King Malcolm.) Duncan doesn't get a chance to say any more, because the sergeant charges ahead with his story. He wants King Duncan to not just understand what happened, but to feel it. He reminds him of how, just as spring has started, and we're looking forward to warm days, we can be blown away by "Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders" (1.2.26). And so it was with Macbeth. Just as Macbeth was chasing away the last of Macdonwald's army, the Norwegian King mounted a surprise attack against the Scottish forces.

"Dismay'd not this / Our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?" (1.2.34-35), asks King Duncan. Yes, replies the sergeant, with macho irony, like a sparrow dismays an eagle, or a rabbit dismays a lion. Macbeth and Banquo exploded upon the Norwegians like cannons packed with double charges of gunpowder, and they made the battlefield into a place of skulls, a new Golgotha . . . . At this point, the sergeant's wounds catch up with him. He grows faint and is taken away before we can learn the end of the story of the fight with the Norwegian army.

Enter Ross and Angus:
As the sergeant is taken out, the noblemen Ross and Angus appear. As they approach, one of King Duncan's followers comments about Ross: "What a haste looks through his eyes! So should he look / That seems to speak things strange" (1.2.46-47). The strange thing that Ross tells is the rest of the story of the battle against the Norwegians. The end of that story, like the beginning, emphasizes the heroism of Macbeth.

The Norwegian King himself led the attack, with "terrible numbers" (1.2.51); that is, his troops terribly outnumbered the Scots. Not only that, but the traitorous Thane of Cawdor also brought his forces into the battle against Macbeth. But none of this did any good. The way Ross tells the story, we get the impression that Macbeth almost single-handedly defeated the Norwegian forces and captured the Thane of Cawdor. Duncan celebrates the victory by ordering that the rebel Thane of Cawdor be hung, and Macbeth be given his title. Ross goes to carry out the king's orders, and we are left to wonder what business the witches will have with the heroic Macbeth.