The Tragedy of MacBeth
A tragedy is a literary work depicting serious events in which the main character, often high-ranking and dignified, comes to an unhappy end. Going off of this description, Macbeth aligns nearly perfectly. His snowballing misfortunes and fatal end meet the requirements of a modern tragic hero, but does he check off the exact boxes created by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle when creating a true tragic hero? Shakespeare’s lead character Macbeth is as Aristotle requires to be a tragic hero; having not just the physical attributes of being a man and the nobility, but a grave error in judgment and major hamartia that leads to a drastic reversal in his fortune that also manages to evoke pity from audiences at his loss. According to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, the tragic hero must begin the play as a high-status individual as his fall creates a bigger impact on audiences. Aristotle also believed that since the aim of tragedy is to provoke intense emotion in the audience, that goal is more easily met by showing the conflict affecting a king or a nobleman than to shepherd, farmer, or lower status hero. That along with the well-known fact that, when a hero is of high status, his actions have repercussions on a much greater scale, sometimes even influencing the whole community. In this particular case, that includes not just a war, but disrupting a line of inheritance of the throne.
Thus why Macbeth takes the form of a wealthy and high-status male Scottish nobleman who has just earned the king’s favor due to his bravery and skill as a warrior. Duncan addressing Macbeth as, “…valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” (1. 2. 26) and later as a “Worthy Thane” (1. 2. 50), better exhibit the manner in which leaders of his country speak about how he truly shows a respectable and honorable nature. This persona makes it easy for audiences to not only admire him but relate to his desire to be king, as ambition is a common human trait and well understood by many. This ambition, however, later proves to serve him only the sourest of outcomes. A hamartia or otherwise defined as a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine is another necessity in the tragic hero department. Macbeth’s being this ever-present and overriding ambition he exhibits throughout each act. Tragic heroes begin as someone the audience can look up to, but soon give in to temptation and make a terrible mistake. Macbeth’s mistake being letting this ambition blind him, later leading to the murdering of Duncan despite his seeming loyalty, better depicted in his line “The service and the loyalty I owe, in doing it, pass itself. […] safe toward your love and honor.” (1. 4. 22-27) However, once the possibility of him becoming king is suggested, he cannot resist but to seize the opportunity. Instead of being content with the newly found status bump to Thane of Cawdor and allowing the witches predictions to run its course he remains unsatisfied and takes matters into his own hands. Granted he does, however, hesitate a number of times before putting his plan into action and this oscillation helps him contain some of the sympathy received from readers, he still follows through despite.
How it works
In most people, ambition is equalized by morality. People understand that actions have consequences, but Macbeth, on the other hand, does not see this for himself. He believes himself perfect, almost immortal. “I cannot taint with fear. […] The spirits that know all mortal consequences have pronounced me thus” (5. 3. 3-5) His ambition leads him to become a tyrant, who is quickly removed from power by the Scottish people, and soon he feared for his own life, despite this soon lost perception of untouchableness. With the gruesome path paved, he falls, or in other words, his once good fortune takes a U-turn and plummets. Scotland wants him dead, and as Macbeth predicted, people want revenge. Nevertheless, he fell for the witches words and, thinking their prophecies of no man born of a woman could defeat him, and that he will never be defeated until the trees of Great Birnam Wood attack Dunsinane, he acted without thought, not protecting his castle. At the moment of enlightenment for Macbeth, saying “ Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, For it hath cow’d my better part of man! And be these juggling fiends no more believed,” and quickly after, he is killed; his fortune all but gone. Macbeth solidifies himself as a tragic hero, his death the determining factor. The audience learns the dangers of ambition, and good is reestablished.