Is Macbeth a tragic hero? Explore the factors that say “yes” to this common literary question.
Macbeth fits the role of a tragic hero because he is born to nobility, and he has good character. But his fatal flaw, his ambition, leads to his death at the end of the play. It also pushes him to commit many atrocities, including murder, as he falls deeper and deeper into darkness. Some characteristics of the character are not perfect examples of tragic heroes, but overall, he fits this archetype.
William Shakespeare’s tragedies have several examples of tragic heroes, but many literary analysts are divided about whether or not Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor, is one of them. Does the character and his tragic flaw fit the definition of the tragic hero, or is Shakespeare’s Macbeth a different type of character?
Here we will take a closer look at the answer to this question, for you to use in your next argumentative essay.
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Definition of a Tragic Hero
Before looking more closely at whether or not Macbeth is a tragic hero, first, you must understand what a tragic hero is.
According to the dictionary, a tragic hero is a character in a drama who is “destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat.” However, in literature, the definition is slightly more in-depth.
In Greek literature, Aristotle defined the tragic hero as someone whose mistakes or errors in judgment were the ultimate cause of their downfall. Other components of the tragic hero literary archetype are:
- Creates fear or pity in the audience’s mind, which creates a sense of catharsis at the end of the work.
- Have a tragic or fatal flaw, which is a character trait that causes the character’s downfall
- Be nobility, monarchy, or in leadership in some other way.
- Has heroic or potentially heroic tendencies.
- They endure great suffering and have a tragic ending
Based on these character traits, you can decide if Macbeth is, in fact, a tragic hero.
Ways Macbeth Fits the Idea of a Tragic Hero
In the play Macbeth, the main character fulfills some of the characteristics of the tragic hero. Looking more closely at these will help you decide whether or not you believe that Macbeth is a tragic hero.
1. Macbeth’s Background
One of the characteristics of the tragic hero is being of noble background, and Macbeth fits this profile well. He starts the play as the Thane of Glamis and quickly becomes the Thane of Cawdor. From the very beginning of the play, he is in a leadership role.
Early in the play, Macbeth has the king’s trust. The king has this to say about him:
“What bloody man is that? He can report,Macbeth
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt. . .
O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!
Dismay’d not this
Our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?”
This quote shows a high level of trust between the king and captain.
Macbeth is also a member of the military. Early in the play, the three witches prophesy that he will become king of Scotland. Through their prophecy and the urging of his wife, Lady Macbeth, he pursues the throne very violently.
With all three of these roles and his leadership in the military, Macbeth fulfills the requirement of noble birth or being a member of the monarchy.
Similarly, at the start of the play, he seems to be a nice man and a military hero. Until he meets the three witches, he also appears to be loyal to his king. The classic tragic hero will start as a pleasant character until the tragic flaw takes over. in this way, Macbeth fits the archetype.
2. The Audience’s View of Macbeth
To be a tragic hero, the audience must develop feelings of fear or pity for the character, which often occurs in Macbeth. At the start of the play, he seems to be an honest man of noble character. The play describes how he killed McDonald, a traitor, which could cause the audience to view him as a hero.
However, as the play unfolds and the external forces, like the three witches, impact the Thane, his moral character and mental health decline. He changes into a completely different type of person, eliciting the audience’s sympathy.
As the play continues, Macbeth’s outside influences grow stronger, as does his desire for power. Eventually, this causes him to become insane, and the audience feels fear and pity for the man and where his choices may take him.
Again, because the audience starts to feel this sense of pity for the once brave Macbeth, he fits the definition of a tragic hero.
That said, this is one area where Macbeth is not quite as clear a fit for the definition of a tragic hero. While some audience members may feel pity and fear, others will detest his fall from power and his poor character throughout the play.
“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man That function is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is but what is not.”Macbeth
3. Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw
Macbeth’s tragic flaw is the subject of much debate in the literature. Many will state that Macbeth’s ambition leads him down such a dangerous path. He wants to become king so badly that he is willing to murder.
Yet Macbeth also has a bit of hubris. He believes he can achieve everything in the witches’ prophecies without help, and he takes matters into his own hands to do so.
Finally, as the play progresses, he seems to develop some insanity. Though the vaulting ambition is likely the cause of some of his insanity, the insanity and mental health issues could be the fatal flaw that ultimately contributes to Macbeth’s downfall.
“For mine own good All causes shall give way. I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”Macbeth
4. The Wicked Actions of the Character of Macbeth
Another component of a tragic hero is the errors in judgment that cause evil actions. As Macbeth pursues his desire for the throne, pushed toward that desire by the prophecy of the three witches and various other apparitions that encourage him, he commits many crimes.
His criminal behavior starts with the murder of the Scottish King Duncan, a necessary move for him to take the throne. However, as he ascends to rule Scotland, he becomes paranoid about keeping his power, especially since Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, got away and remained a threat to his power.
Yet Macbeth’s murderous path is not over after the murder of Duncan. His friend Banquo, who spoke against his murderous intentions, is the next to fall.
Macbeth then sights Macduff, a loyal thane who believes Macbeth is King Duncan’s assassin. Macduff flees to England to escape the treachery, yet he leaves his family behind. Macbeth kills Macduff’s family. Eventually, this action leads to Macbeth’s death at the hands of the grieving husband and father.
These actions further solidify that Macbeth is a tragic hero. He makes errors in judgment that lead him to murder to retain his power.
“It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.”Macbeth
5. Macbeth’s Tragic Ending
The final characteristic of a tragic hero is a tragic downfall. In a Shakespearean tragedy, this typically includes the main character’s death.
At the end of the play, Macbeth’s tragedy begins when his wife starts to show signs of mental decline and ends up taking her own life. This causes him to sink into despair, withdrawing to Dunsinane to try to protect his throne and defend himself. The English army, with Macduff, comes to the castle in search of him.
As the battle unfolds, Macbeth fights hard, but his castle is no match for Macduff’s forces. Macduff confronts Macbeth and cuts off his head, allowing Malcolm to become the King of Scotland. Peace comes back to the land, but only because the traitor Macbeth died.
“Despair they charmMacbeth
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee. Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Arguments Against Macbeth as a Tragic Hero
Though many literary analysts believe Macbeth to be a tragic hero, some will argue that he is not. Macbeth is not the perfect example of a tragic hero. Here are some of them.
1. He Is Not Born with His Tragic Flaw
Many tragic heroes have a tragic flaw that is part of their inborn character, but this is not the case with Macbeth. His ambition is not entirely present at the start of the play. It is the prophecies of the witches and the urging of Lady Macbeth that fuels the flame of Macbeth’s ambition. When he starts to believe that he is destined to be king, and Lady Macbeth perpetuates that belief, he starts down his dangerous path.
In addition, his tragic flaw of ambition and desire to keep his power dos not become evident until the play is well underway. Their tragic characteristic is present in most tragic heroes from the very beginning.
2. His Heroic Nature Is Suspect
Another reason some claim Macbeth is not a tragic hero is that the play shows little to indicate he has heroic tendencies. While it shows he is a good soldier, his descent into madness starts fairly early in the play, and thus he does not have much time to show his good character.
For someone to be a tragic hero, they must have good character qualities that take a wrong turn. Macbeth may not fulfill this role well, depending on how the audience views his character.
3. Little Pity From the Audience
Some literary analysts state that the character of Macbeth does not evoke much pity. When he dies at the end, you do not experience catharsis but rather a sense of justice. His ruthlessness makes it hard to pity the character, which is an essential part of the idea of a tragic hero.
That said, the feelings of an audience are not always the same from one reader to the next. Some may feel pity for Macbeth, thus allowing him to fulfill this role, while others may not.
Macbeth as a Villain Instead of a Tragic Hero
Some literary scholars view Macbeth as the play’s villain, not a hero. The antagonist can still be a tragic hero if the audience has empathy for them, but if not, then he is just a villain.
To state that Macbeth is a villain, you must prove that he would have done the actions in the play regardless of the other events of the play. His character flaws would have pushed him to murder the king, even without the prophecy and his wife’s influence.
Shakespeare does not give enough detail in the play to draw this conclusion. However, Macbeth feels fear and defiance, not guilt, when he sees Banquo’s ghost, which may show that he is more villainous than heroic.
Macbeth as a Victim Instead of a Tragic Hero
Another potential view is that Macbeth is the story’s victim. To prove this view, you must prove that the outside influences, including the witches and his wife, push him toward his murderous actions rather than his character.
The key question here is whether or not these influences force Macbeth’s hand or if they encourage him along a path that he would have followed on his own.
One argument toward Macbeth being a victim is the intense guilt he feels after killing Duncan. The guilt is almost enough to drive him mad, and it is the start of his loss of peace through the end of the play.
You could also argue that Macbeth is a victim of himself. At the end of the play, when Macduff strikes the fatal blow, it is the witches Macbeth curses. This points toward him viewing himself as a victim.
Though Not Perfect, Macbeth Shows Many Characteristics of a Tragic Hero
This question is probably one that literary analysts will continue to debate. However, one thing is clear: Macbeth is not a perfect example of a tragic hero, but he does display many of the characteristics.
In literature, characters are not always perfectly representative of the archetypes they portray. Writers can give their characters different traits that pull them away from a particular path. Yet more of Macbeth’s characteristics align with that of a tragic hero than do not, and thus the conclusion that he is one is valid.
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