Brave Macbeth

Brave Macbeth

Introduction

In a typical character arc of a tragic hero, the audience must admire the protagonist for their virtues at the start of the play so we can then follow their fall from grace in the final scenes. Shakespeare satisfies this requirement by presenting “noble” Macbeth as the “brave” and loyal defender of Scotland, fighting to secure King Duncan’s throne against the rebels and foreign invaders.

Brave Macbeth

In the second scene, the Sergeant, a credible witness who is “bloody” from the battle, describes Macbeth’s courage when he surged through the enemy’s lines and killed the “merciless Macdonwald”:

“For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name –
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d 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 unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.”

The protagonist’s fearless defence of Scotland is certainly awe-inspiring.

The hyperbolic image of his sword “smoked with bloody execution” epitomises his military prowess on the battlefield. His “steel” blade is so hot with killing the enemy it is almost on fire.

The wounded soldier also describes Macbeth as “brave” and “disdaining fortune”. That bold willingness to lead the army and confront the “slave” in the dangerous “hurly burly” is heroic. The parenthetical “well he deserves that name” reinforces the Sergeant’s opinion that his nobleman is someone who the audience should admire because of his qualities and not just his rank.

Macbeth is then compared to “valour’s minion”. If this a reference to the goddess Arete of Greek mythology, then the protagonist is one of her most faithful of servants. This simile suggests he is the manifestation of virtuous bravery.

Finally, Shakespeare uses a quick succession of positive adjectives in this scene to emphasise Macbeth’s personality. The epithet “brave” in this extract is then reinforced when King Duncan labels him as “valiant”, “worthy” and “noble”. Macbeth is the hero.

Context

The “hardy” soldier vividly describes how Macbeth “carved out his passage” to face the “merciless Macdonwald” and then brutally “unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps”, decapitated the rebel and “fix’d his head upon our battlements”. This violent presentation leaves the audience in no doubt that Macbeth utterly defeated his rival.

Shakespeare probably sourced the moment from Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of Scotland”, which was first published in 1577. The historians do mention how Macbeth “caused the head to be cut off, and set upon a poles end, and so sent it as a present to the king”.

However, they had also described Macbeth “entering the castell by the gates” and discovering “the carcasse of Mackdonwald lieng dead there amongst the residue of the slaine bodies”. In this version, Macdonald committed suicide and Macbeth merely finds the corpse.

Shakespeare simply ignores the history book. By depicting the protagonist brilliantly vanquish Macdonald, the playwright inflates Macbeth’s bravery.

The Fresh Assault

The Sergeant then describes Macbeth’s reaction to the “fresh assault” made by the King of Norway:

“Yes;
As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion.
If I say sooth, I must report they were
As cannons overcharged with double cracks, so they
Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:
Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorise another Golgotha,
I cannot tell.
But I am faint, my gashes cry for help”

Rather than being “dismay’d” by the “furbished arms and new supplies of men”, Macbeth and Banquo are completely untroubled.

This fortitude is clear in the comparison of the captains to “eagles” and the “lion”. These animals are fierce predators who completely dominate their territory. A docile “hare” is no threat to the majestic lion, and small and insignificant “sparrows” are no match for the “eagles”. It is worth noting that the lion remains a symbol of English monarchy and was considered, in Shakespeare’s day, the king of beasts in the concept of the Great Chain of Being. The eagle is also perched at the top of the avian primate hierarchy. Once again, the Sergeant is praising Macbeth’s immense bravery.

Confronted by this “fresh assault”, Macbeth and Banquo “doubly redoubled” their “strokes upon the foe”. The Sergeant compares them to “cannons” which are “overcharged” with gunpowder. The anachronism in this simile only reinforces their tremendous power.

The Sergeant concludes his narrative of the battle with the allusion to Golgotha. According to the Gospels, Golgotha was the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. By linking the captains to the crucifixion, the Sergeant is implying they are the saviours of Scotland who are prepared to die for its people.

Victory

The Sergeant, whose “gashes cry for help”, is unable to complete the story. Fortunately, the “worthy thane of Ross” enters the stage and describes the final “dismal conflict” against Norway’s king and “that most disloyal traitor, the thane of Cawdor”.

Ross compares Macbeth to “Bellona’s bridegroom”. Since she was the Roman god of war, that makes Macbeth the god of war – Mars. By deifying the character, Ross elevates the protagonist’s bravery into the realm of myth. He is a superhero.

In the last line of the scene, the King rewards Macbeth for his bravery with a new title – the Thane of Cawdor.

By establishing the character’s great military might, Shakespeare is trying to make his inevitable downfall more dramatic and shocking.

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