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Macbeth’s Status as a Tragic Hero is Highly Questionable

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The Tragedy of Macbeth was written in 1606 by William Shakespeare. King James I was on the throne when this play was written. The king was particularly interested in witchcraft, as his life had been threatened by a group of witches in 1591. He had passed a law which condemned anyone to death who practised it. In 1605, one year before the play was written, there was a plot to blow up the king and parliament. These facts are important, as both witchcraft and conspiracy feature strongly in Shakespeare’s play – ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’.

The play tells a story of man who has just come back from fighting for his king and country in Scotland. He is tricked by a prophecy and encouraged by his wife to commit regicide in order to gain power. Ever since the play was written, 400 years ago, Macbeth has generally been thought to be one of the best tragedies ever written, but is Macbeth really a tragic hero?

The weird sisters (three witches) appear in the very first scene of the play. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy to create a sense of darkness each time the witches appear. The witches frequently speak in rhyme. It is just the third scene in the play when Macbeth is linked to the witches. Macbeth says “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”, which is very similar to a phrase the witches used in the first scene. The witches make three prophecies for Macbeth, of which two come true by Act I Scene III.

The third prophecy states that Macbeth will become King. For this to happen, the current king, Duncan, would have to die. It is the third scene when Macbeth first has murderous thoughts, just a few minutes into the play.

When Macbeth is compared to another tragic play; Othello, there is a huge difference. It is almost half way through the play when Othello begins to contemplate murder – whereas in Macbeth, it just a few scenes.

Aristotle stated that the ideal tragic hero should be the sort of man who isn’t too sinful, and whose fall into misery is not due to vice and depravity, but rather some error, and a man who enjoys a high reputation.

Macbeth is not very sinful, as he has huge doubts about murdering Duncan. This is portrayed in his soliloquy and thoughts early in the play. He is confused by his murderous thoughts. His fall into misery is more due to his manipulating wife, rather than his lust for power, as it isn’t until Lady Macbeth starts coming up with a plan that he really even considers committing this deed. Macbeth enjoys prosperity and a high reputation, as he wants to become king.

Macbeth’s tragic flaw is that he was influenced far too easily by his wife. This is harmartia, one of Aristotle’s terms for tragedy. Another term is peripaeteia, which is a change of state in affairs, which is bought about by anagnorisis, normally a discovery or realisation. In Macbeth’s case, the peripaeteia would be the change of him being loyal and dedicated to the king, to him committing regicide. This bought about by the discovery of the witches’ three prophecies – two of which came true. In Act I Scene IV, Lady Macbeth in trying to manipulate Macbeth as he is loosing his will to kill Duncan. This shows that if it wasn’t for Macbeth’s wife, the murder may never have happened at all.

Even though we don’t actually see Macbeth being a loyal man, fighting bravely for his king and country in the play, we know that he has. The fact that Duncan chose to come and stay at his castle shows that Macbeth must been a loyal hero, and that the king thought highly of him.

When Duncan enters the castle of Macbeth, Duncan tells Lady Macbeth that she is an honourable hostess. This scene is ironic as Lady Macbeth has planned his death as well as the party.

At the beginning of Act I Scene VII Macbeth makes an important soliloquy which gives us an insight into what he’s really feeling.

From this soliloquy we learn that Macbeth sees Duncan has a good king and a good friend. He feels guilty and that he should be loyal to Duncan. In this soliloquy, Macbeth realises that he must not let his ambition get ahead of him. When he says “The deep damnation of his taking-off” it shows that he would be unable to face the guilt of murdering the king. Macbeth cannot complete his thoughts – at this point in the play he is very unsure of what he should do.

Immediately after this soliloquy, Lady Macbeth enters the room. She knows that Macbeth has been having doubts, and Macbeth tells her that he will proceed no further in the business of treason and murder. She cleverly questions his manliness and calls him a coward. She says he isn’t a man who stands by his promises. This surprising way in which Macbeth is manipulated by his wife can cause the audience to sympathise with him – another sign that he is a tragic hero.

Macbeth is astonished by Lady Macbeth’s masculinity and strength, as she comes up with a plan to kill the king. By the beginning of Act II, Macbeth is ready to kill.

Before Macbeth kills Duncan, he hallucinates a dagger, covered in blood. This shows how guilty he was feeling at the time. After he has killed the king, Shakespeare uses his religious (catholic) feelings to show how he is ashamed of what he has done. He is unable to say Amen because of the deed. Macbeth then becomes obsessed with sleep, saying “Macbeth does murther sleep, the innocent sleep”. Shakespeare then uses bloody imagery to symbolise Macbeth’s feeling of guilt. When Macbeth is washing the blood off his hands, he says “Will all great Neptune’s Ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” meaning his guilt is so intense that the sea will become red.

In Act III Scene I, Macbeth is plotting the murder of Banquo, who was (at the beginning of the play) Macbeth’s best friend. There is another important soliloquy in which Macbeth considers his intention to murder Banquo. He praises Banquo in his soliloquy, in a similar way to how he praised Duncan as a king before he killed him in the first soliloquy. At this point in the play, Macbeth has begun to change. He no longer listens to his manipulative wife, and he starts making his own decisions when it comes to murder and conspiracy. Lady Macbeth is the one who now becomes unstable, as she begins to confess her and her husbands terrible deeds in her sleep. Macbeth is no longer under the influence of his wife.

By the final act of the play, Macbeth becomes so twisted by his ambition and lust for power that he no longer cares about murder – it’s nothing to him anymore; just an after-thought. We see a different Macbeth; a man who is now immune to emotion. An example which shows this is when his wife dies – Macbeth doesn’t really seem that bothered. Earlier in the play he had seen hallucinations and ghosts which showed how he was unsure and ashamed of his murders, but at this stage in the play, these problems no longer affect him. The only time Macbeth shows any emotion now is when a servant tells him that he thought he saw Birnam Wood move. The witches had made a prophecy that if the wood moved, Macbeth would die. Macbeth was extremely angry when the servant told him this, and went to see the truth for himself.

As Macbeth goes to war for the last time, he knows he’s going to die and his army is outnumbered by far. Even now, at the end of the play, there is still a sense of loyalty and honour, as Macbeth began the play a warrior, and he ends it as a warrior.

I believe this shows Macbeth to be a true tragic hero. Even when compared to Othello, where the murderous thoughts didn’t begin until much further into the play, there are still many signs which show that Macbeth was a good, honourable man. His fall from grace was planned by witchcraft, and encouraged by his manipulating wife. Macbeth’s three main soliloquies along with his bloody imagery showed the huge amount of uncertainty and guilt he was feeling throughout the first half of the play. His use of the word ‘sleep’ shows us what he’s feeling along with the constant reference to blood. Although what he did was wrong, it is not enough to take away his title of a tragic hero, as his soliloquies showed us that he had huge struggles against himself before, during and after committing his terrible deeds.

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