Macbeth, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, tells the somewhat historical story of events in Scotland’s history. Macbeth, an acclaimed war hero, has his desire for power awakened when some witches foretell that he will become Scotland’s king. His ambition overcomes him, which leads to his wife committing murder to put him on the throne. The tragedy of Macbeth is that a man with good qualities gets drawn into acting on his darker desires, turning Macbeth into a tragic hero. Thus, Macbeth is a play that demonstrates both Shakespearean tragedy and Shakespeare’s tragic hero.
Shakespeare makes sure the reader knows of Macbeth’s bravery, saying,
For brave Macbeth — well he deserves that name
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage…” (I.2.19-22).
By telling the reader of his valor, Shakespeare turns Macbeth into a tragic hero. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes start out in an elevated position, respected by others. Their own actions bring about their fall. Because of where they started, their fall is dramatic and tragic (Bradley, p. 1).
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes will be men of rank, and the calamities that befall them will be unusual and exceptionally disastrous in themselves. The hero falls unexpectedly from a high place, a place of glory, or honor, or joy, and as a consequence, we feel that kind of awe at the depths to which he is suddenly plunged. The fact that the Shakespearean tragic hero brings about his own downfall makes Shakespeare’s tragedy different than classical Greek tragedies, where gods control events. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, his heroes could have made other choices and avoided have avoided their terrible outcomes (Cahn, p. 2).
To build on the tragic events, Shakespeare places Macbeth in a situation that will feed his growing desire to take the crown. In Act I, Scene 4, the king announces that Malcolm and not Macbeth will follow him on the throne:
We will establish our estate upon Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland… ” (I.4.37-39)
The announcement only makes Macbeth’s desire to be king stronger.
Macbeth knows what he plans to do is wrong, even though his wife encourages his ambitions. He acknowledges that what he is going to do is so evil that he does not to see the hand that will do the deed. At the same time he diminishes the deed, saying that a wink of the eye will be enough to block the crime from his view, showing that desire for power has overcome his sense of right and wrong:
Stars, hide your fires:
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” (I.5 50-53)
Macbeth’s wife eventually kills King Duncan, and goes mad from the resulting guilt. Meanwhile, Macbeth, although a brilliant general, makes a poor king, especially when compared to Duncan. Eventually he is killed by his former friend MacDuff.
The play Macbeth is a true Shakespearean tragedy because the characters control their fate through the choices they make. Lady Macbeth did not have to go mad. She chose to kill the king and paid a high price for her action. Macbeth wanted the crown enough to kill Duncan himself if his wife had not done it, and their plot caused his downfall from celebrated hero to traitor. Macbeth is a good example of a Shakespearean tragic hero because he did start out as a hero, acclaimed by the king he had murdered as a brave and loyal soldier. If Macbeth could have been satisfied with those considerable achievements there would have been no tragedy and no tragic hero. Instead, his actions caused not only his own downfall but chaos for all involved.
Bradley, A.C. “Shakespearean Tragedy,” in GLOBAL CAMPUS: Distance Learning at Columbus State. Accessed via the Internet 8/25/06. http://global.cscc.edu/engl/264/TragedyLex.htm
Cahn, Victor L. Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances. Oxford: Praeger, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Accessed via the Internet 8/25/06. http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-macbeth.htm
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