Is Macbeth the tragic hero of the play "Macbeth?" This question may seem to be redundant; however, not all of Shakespeare's Tragedies are named after their tragic heroes. For example, Julius Caesar is not the tragic hero of "Julius Caesar." A tragic hero must conform to a set of characteristics which evolved all the way from ancient to medieval times. Macbeth conforms to these characteristics and is the tragic hero of "Macbeth."
The death of an ordinary person in Medieval times was not considered tragic. This idea was based on the notion of "fall". If a peasant died, his death meant very little because he had not far to fall. In other words, a peasant did not have much of a life to lose. However, if a king or noble were to die, his death would be a very long fall, since to the Medieval mind, he had a great deal to lose. Macbeth is a very important person. He is a cousin to the king of Scotland. He is the highest ranking noble, the thane of Cawdor and Glamis, and a general of the Scottish army. He also becomes the king of Scotland later in the play. Despite his status, he has a character defect.
A tragic hero must have a character flaw. This character flaw causes him to make an error in judgment, "a mistaken act," which leads to his downfall. Because Macbeth is ambitious, he wants to become king. In order to take over the throne, he kills Duncan, and thus commits his terrible crime, and eventually is punished.
The tragic hero must deserve his fate. He must not simply make a mistake, like stepping off a curb in front of a moving vehicle. He must commit some terrible crime for which he is punished. People of the Elizabethan Period were well aware of the problems created when kings are murdered. The Fifteenth Century was a period of almost constant ruinous civil war in England. The dire consequences of this act are a constant theme in Shakespeare's plays. According to the medieval Theory of Divine Right, God appoints the king, thus Macbeth committed a religious crime when he kills the king. This is also the highest form of treason that one could commit. Moreover, Duncan is no ordinary king. He has been a great king. Even Macbeth says of him, "Besides, this Duncan / hath borne his faculties so meek hath been /So clear in his great office," (Shakespeare 57) This, of course, makes the crime even worse. After all he is not killing a bad king. But did Macbeth decide to kill Duncan by himself? Who persuaded Macbeth to kill Duncan?
As with every tragic hero in Shakespearean times, Macbeth must be tempted or persuaded to commit a crime. Lady Macbeth is the catalyst. She does a very good job of persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan. When Macbeth refuses to kill Duncan, she says, " And live a coward in thine own esteem," (Shakespeare 59) She also says she is braver than he is when she says, " I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dashed the brains out, had I sworn / As you have to this." (Shakespeare 59) This infuriates Macbeth, which in turn sparks his ambition to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth is very clever because she uses Macbeth's good quality, his bravery, against him.
By giving him a good quality, the author creates sympathy for Macbeth. Philosophers, such as Aristotle, believed that the audience must feel sympathy for the tragic hero; otherwise, it was not considered a good play because the audience could not empathize with the tragic hero.( Abram 190) Macbeth has a very good quality which his courage. He says, " I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked. / Give me my armor." (Shakespeare 225) He says this even though he realizes he will die.
The tragic hero and everyone associated with him must die. Macbeth should die because he has committed both treason and a religious crime. Macbeth is killed by Macduff as revenge for the murder of Macduff's family. Lady Macbeth commits suicide towards the end of the play, and Macbeth's followers are killed in the last battle of the play.
Is Macbeth the tragic hero? Macbeth fits all of the characteristics of a tragic hero. He is an important character in the play, has a character flaw, has one good quality, has someone to tempt him, deserves his fate, and was punished for the crime which he has committed. Macbeth definitely is the tragic hero of "Macbeth."
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: Toronto,1985.
Shakespeare, William. "Macbeth" Ed. Margaret Kortes. Toronto: Harbrace Brace,1988.
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