The witches depart—and what is the first thing we see? A “bleeding Captain.” A man covered in blood—another apparition. Although, as this BloggingShakespeare.com post indicates, we don’t know how much was used for any particular play, real blood (animal and perhaps even human) probably was used on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage; after all, it “could not have been very hard to obtain!” It stands to reason that blood would have been splashed liberally at least on the Captain’s face and hands, emphasizing that we are still in the realm of the uncanny.
What are the first words we hear? “What bloody man is that?” They are spoken by Duncan, the king of Scotland, who little reckons that the central action of the play will be to make him a “bloody man” (“his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood,” as Macbeth thrillingly says at 2.3.110; I don’t usually like to do the term-paper motif-tracing thing, but it’s hard to ignore all the references to blood in this play. Scholars have counted over 100.).
The bloody Captain relates the outcome of the triple battle in which Duncan’s forces have been engaged. In one phase, the rebellious Macdonwald (“Macdonald”) is about to prevail when “brave Macbeth . . . unseam’d him from the nave to the chops/And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.16, 22–23). But there is little time to celebrate, as the “Norweyan [Norwegian] Lord” takes the opportunity to attack. The exhausted Captain gives way to one Rosse, who recounts the third phase of the battle; the king of Norway himself, aided by the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, “began a dismal conflict” but—again!—was defeated by Macbeth just in time. Duncan is not amused by the Thane’s behavior: “Go pronounce his present death/And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66–67).
It all seems straightforward enough: Macbeth has fought with uncommon valor for his king, and is to be rewarded with the title of Thane of Cawdor. But what was that I said about everything in this play going topsy-turvy without warning?