Describe the actions of the Thane of Cawdor and the King of Norway in Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act I scene ii of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, King Duncan, the king of Scotland, gets word from his messengers about what is happening in a nearby battle. 

Ross arrives from Fife, where the battle is taking place, and relates to Duncan what he saw at the battle front. He says he just came from Fife (which is in Scotland) where the king of Norway was boldly flying the Norwegian flag. Even worse, he has been mocking and frightening the citizens there.

The king of Norway is leading a great army of men

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,
The thane of Cawdor....
Together, the Norwegian king and the traitorous Cawdor
began a dismal conflict.
This awful and bloody battle raged until the experienced warrior Macbeth arrived and gave as good as he got until he finally defeated the spirit of the Norwegians. Ross ends his narrative by saying:
and to conclude,
The victory fell on us.

Of course Duncan is thrilled that his kinsman and mighty warrior, Macbeth, was able to defeat the marauders; however, Ross has more news.

After his defeat, the king of Norway wanted to broker a treaty; the Scotsmen refused even to allow the enemy to bury their dead until they retreated to Saint Colme’s Inch and paid a fee of ten thousand dollars.

Duncan is furious that one of his own Scottish thanes, someone who is supposed to be entirely loyal to the king, has proved to be a traitor; Duncan orders the Thane of Cawdor to be executed and his title given to Macbeth.

In scene iii, Ross gives Macbeth the news and explains to an astounded Macbeth that Cawdor was, in some way, a traitor and has been stripped of his title. He explains:

Whether he [Cawdor] was combined
With those of Norway, or did line the rebel
With hidden help and vantage, or that with both
He labored in his country’s wrack, I know not;
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him.
In scene iv, Duncan asks about the execution of the traitorous former Thane of Cawdor, and his son Malcolm gives this account of Cawdor's death:
I have spoke
With one that saw him die; who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.
The former Thane of Cawdor was a traitor and assisted the King of Noway in a fight against Cawdor's own king and people. When Cawdor was called out for his crime and held accountable with his life by Duncan, he did the right thing and confessed his crimes. Of course he begged the king for a pardon (which of course he did not receive) and demonstrated a deep sense of remorse. The final line is a sad but true epitaph for the traitor, saying that Cawdor's finest moment as a man came at the end of his sorry life.
We never learn exactly why the king of Norway invaded Scotland or what prompted Cawdor to turn traitor; we do know that Macbeth thwarted their plans and now has Cawdor's title as a reward.