Last Updated 26 Jan 2021

Macbeth and Tragic Hero

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Macbeth, a tragedy written by William Shakespeare in the 17th century, expresses clearly the strong pull that desire for power can have over a man. Macbeth, the title character of the play, is often expressed as being the villain of the tragedy. However, through studying the play closely it is clear to see that, rather than being an innately evil character, Macbeth is in fact a tragic hero, doomed by fate from the start to descend into the madness which he did. Had it not been for his hamartia and his interaction with the witches and his wife then the play would have had a very different ending.

Like every tragic hero in literature Macbeth suffered from a tragic flaw, or a hamartia. In his case, his flaw was his vaulting ambition, combined with a lust for power. Macbeth himself recognises this ambition in act I, scene 7 where he states in a soliloquy “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent but only vaulting ambition”. This comment suggests that he knows that the only thing that prompts his actions is his ambition. While ambition alone is not in fact a bad trait, when added with a lust for power, this ambition can become dangerous. Did having these qualities mean that Macbeth was indisputably corrupt?

No, they simply meant that he, like all human beings, had a flaw and a weakness. Indeed, at the start of the play, Macbeth was seen as the hero, being described as “brave Macbeth” in act I, scene II, and shown as a loyal and brave solider on the battle field. He is also frequently referred to as valiant by Duncan throughout the first act. That ambition always resided within him but did not cause a problem until the prophecy was made by the witches in act I. It was essentially the moment that the witches first cast the prophecy over Macbeth that sealed his fate forever.

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Without the witches foretelling his rise to power as Thane of Cawdor and furthermore as the future king of Scotland, the idea would never have occurred to him. He was initially a modest character, grateful of his position in life. However, once the witches planted the seeds in Macbeths mind they started to flourish and, given his hamartia, the idea wholly consumed him. Though initially he did not believe what they said, once he was granted the title Thane of Cawdor, he started to consider that it could possibly be true. There is a noticeable ifference in his attitude toward the prophecy before and after he is made Thane of Cawdor. Before, there is a clear disbelief in his approach, though it’s obvious that he hopes for it to be true. Where as afterwards Macbeth is starting to view his promotion to King as not just a possibility, but rather an inevitable truth. His desire for this power arose and his ambition started to take control. It was this moment that started his transformation from hero, to tragic hero. However, the alteration was a slow one and throughout the tragedy the Witches continued to contribute to Macbeths growing insanity.

Their prophecies begun to dictate his every move. This reliance on the witches is seen in the final scenes of the play, where Macbeth shows increasingly reckless behaviour in the battle scene due to the witches’ prophecy that “none of women born would harm Macbeth” (act IV, scene I). He became enraptured by a longing for power, a desire that would not have consumed him so, had it not been for his interaction with the witches. For if the Witches had not come along, than it is certain that Macbeth would not have fallen victim to the clutches of madness like he did.

However, it was not only the Witches who contributed to his mighty fall. For it was not until he wrote to his wife that the ambition fully started to form. If it was the Witches who planted the seeds, then it was Lady Macbeth who helped them to grow. In many ways, Lady Macbeth can be described as the driving force behind the murder of Duncan and thus also Macbeth’s transformation. It was initially Lady Macbeth who created the idea for the murder of the King. Whiles Macbeth had previously considered it, he had never come to a conclusion and had simply left things to see how they turned out.

Lady Macbeth was the one who voiced the idea and who pushed it. In act I, scene 7 Macbeth had decided that he would not go through with the act, however he was convinced otherwise by his wife, who questioned his manhood through quotes such as “When you durst do it, then you were a man; And, to be more then what you were, you would be so much more the man” (act I, seven 7). She worked on Macbeth’s ambition and filled his mind with ideas of power. Combined with his tragic flaw, it was almost impossible for Macbeth to resist that temptation. It was ultimately Lady Macbeth who spurred him to murder Duncan.

Macbeth was not a typical villain, for whiles he did kill people he felt guilt and remorse for his acts. In the scene following the discovery of Ducans murdered body (act II), Macbeth showed great difficulty in hiding his remorse. This contrasted with his wife, who could easily hide the truth and forge innocence. He was also aware of the consequences that could arise from his actions, as seen in the ‘if it were when tis done’ soliloquy in act I, scene 7. Most other villains created by Shakespeare did not suffer from this same form of guilt as Macbeth, guilt that eventually drove him crazy.

This emotion is shown in the scene where Macbeth sees an apparition of Banqo at the banquet. This apparition was a reflection of his remorse for the crime he had committed and his fear of being caught. This guilt and knowledge of the consequences of his actions is one of the main things that separates’ Macbeth from a typical villain and helps make him a tragic hero. Macbeth was not an irrevocably evil character, but rather one who had flaws which he caved into. In the end, it was his hamartia and his interactions with the witches and his wife that shaped him into the tragic hero that he became.

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