What is a Tragic Hero?
Shakespeare’s perception, and our modern view, of tragedy are founded in Aristotle’s theories on the subject. Aristotelian tragedy, as described in Poetics, has shaped every form of dramatic art, from Ancient Greek theatre to big-budget, Hollywood blockbusters. According to Aristotle, tragic heroes must conform to a few rules, most notably:
•They should not be too good. Otherwise, an audience will feel that their downfalls are unjust.
•They should not be too bad. Otherwise, an audience will feel no sympathy for them.
•They must have an intrinsic character flaw ‘hamartia’, which causes them to do something horrific and instigates their fall from grace. Macbeth’s Bad Side
It’s not difficult to explain how Macbeth conforms to the first of the rules above. As soon as the witches tell him that he’ll be king, he begins to have rather dark thoughts about how he can make it happen. “…why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/Against the use of nature?…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man…”(I.iii) Of course, he doesn’t stop at the assassination of Duncan, either. In order to retain the throne, he is driven to even more heinous acts, such as ordering the murders of Banquo, Fleance and Macduff’s household. Macbeth’s Good Side
However, in concordance with Aristotle’s opinion, Macbeth isn’t all bad. At first glance, it may seem difficult to find redeeming features in a mass-murdering tyrant. But it’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the play, he is lauded as a great and loyal soldier. “For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel…”(I.ii) His hesitancy over committing regicide, “We will proceed no further in this business…”(I.vii) is also evidence of the fact that he is not an innately ‘evil’ person. Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw
Often, Aristotle’s use of the word ‘hamartia’ is translated as a fault that causes a horrific act to occur as an unforeseen consequence or accident.
Alternatively, the terrible act can be as a result of ignorance or negligence. For example, Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is an accidental act, which is caused by his reluctance to exact revenge in the previous scene. However, Macbeth’s flaw, which is initially that of ambition, does not cause an accidental or unforeseen event. The murder of Duncan is a very purposeful act, although it could be argued that, as he was focused solely on the witches prophecy, it was an act of ignorance rather than malice. Later, after he has met with the witches for a second time, he begins to develop another flaw; hubris, which mistakenly convinces him that he is immortal. “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”(IV.i) The tragic flaws of ambition and hubris cause Macbeth, the loyal and honourable soldier, to become a mass-murdering despot. Despite the many horrific, bloody acts he has committed, an audience feels empathy for him, because he isn’t a bad guy. And there is a sense that, if he had never met the witches, he would not have met his downfall, either.
MacBeth – Tragic Hero
The character of Macbeth is a classic example of a Shakespearean tragic hero. There are many factors which contribute to the degeneration of Macbeth of which three will be discussed. The three points which contribute greatly to Macbeth’s degeneration are the prophecy which was told to him by the witches, how Lady Macbeth influenced and manipulated Macbeth’s judgment, and finally Macbeth’s long time ambition which drove his desire to be king. Macbeth’s growing character degenerates from a noble man to violent individual.
The prophecies which were told by the witches were one of the factors which contributed to the degeneration of his character. If it had not been for the witches telling him that he was to be Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis, and King of Scotland, Macbeth would still be his ordinary self. As a result of the prophecies, this aroused Macbeth’s curiosity of how he could be King of Scotland. As the play progresses, Macbeth slowly relies on the witches prophecies. Shakespeare uses the witches as a remedy for Macbeth’s curiosity which corrupts his character.
The influence of Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth also contributed to his degeneration of character. Lady Macbeth’s character in the beginning reveals that she is a lovable person. When Lady Macbeth was ready to kill King Duncan herself, it showed that Lady Macbeth could not murder King Duncan because he reminded her of her father. This proves that Lady Macbeth has a heart deep inside her. Lady Macbeth plays an important role in this play because she provided a scheme which caused Macbeth to assassinate King Duncan. After Macbeth had killed King Duncan, he later regrets on his wrong doing. At the point of this play the audience can note the change in Macbeth’s character. Macbeth’s first murder was a trying experience for him, however after the first murder, killing seemed to be the only solution to maintain his reign of the people of Scotland. Therefore, it was Lady Macbeth who introduced the concept of murder to Macbeth.
Macbeth’s ambition also influenced his declining character. However, Macbeth’s ambition had not been strong enough to carry the motive to kill King Duncan. Lady Macbeth’s influence also comes in to play because if not for Lady Macbeth, his ambition would not have been intensified enough to drive him to obtain and maintain his title of King of Scotland no matter what it took, even if it meant murdering. Macbeth’s ambition influenced the cause of his new character. This new character of Macbeth contained greed, violence, and power hunger. Macbeth shows this when he kills King Duncan.
In conclusion, the prophecies given to him by the witches, Lady Macbeth’s influence and plan, and his intensified ambition, all contributed greatly to his degeneration of character which resulted to his downfall…death. Therefore Macbeth character displays strong signs of a tragic hero, making him the ideal classic example.
Because we first hear of Macbeth in the wounded captain’s account of his battlefield valor, our initial impression is of a brave and capable warrior. This perspective is complicated, however, once we see Macbeth interact with the three witches. We realize that his physical courage is joined by a
consuming ambition and a tendency to self-doubt—the prediction that he will be king brings him joy, but it also creates inner turmoil. These three attributes—bravery, ambition, and self-doubt—struggle for mastery of Macbeth throughout the play. Shakespeare uses Macbeth to show the terrible effects that ambition and guilt can have on a man who lacks strength of character. We may classify Macbeth as irrevocably evil, but his weak character separates him from Shakespeare’s great villains—Iago in Othello, Richard III in Richard III, Edmund in King Lear—who are all strong enough to conquer guilt and self-doubt. Macbeth, great warrior though he is, is ill equipped for the psychic consequences of crime. Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth is plagued by worry and almost aborts the crime. It takes Lady Macbeth’s steely sense of purpose to push him into the deed.
After the murder, however, her powerful personality begins to disintegrate, leaving Macbeth increasingly alone. He fluctuates between fits of fevered action, in which he plots a series of murders to secure his throne, and moments of terrible guilt (as when Banquo’s ghost appears) and absolute pessimism (after his wife’s death, when he seems to succumb to despair). These fluctuations reflect the tragic tension within Macbeth: he is at once too ambitious to allow his conscience to stop him from murdering his way to the top and too conscientious to be happy with himself as a murderer. As things fall apart for him at the end of the play, he seems almost relieved—with the English army at his gates, he can finally return to life as a warrior, and he displays a kind of reckless bravado as his enemies surround him and drag him down. In part, this stems from his fatal confidence in the witches’ prophecies, but it also seems to derive from the fact that he has returned to the arena where he has been most successful and where his internal turmoil need not affect him—namely, the battlefield. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes, Macbeth never seems to contemplate suicide: “Why should I play the Roman fool,” he asks, “and die / On mine own sword?” (5.10.1–2). Instead, he goes down fighting, bringing the play full circle: it begins with Macbeth winning on the battlefield and ends with him dying in combat
What is a Tragic Hero?