Macbeth - A Tragic Hero


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William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written in the 1600’s is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate his audience through creating a tragic hero. A tragic hero who, because of a flaw, tumbles from a well-respected hero to a cowardless murderer. It is through Shakespeare’s manipulation of figurative language, dramatic conventions and social expectations of the seventeenth century, do the audience witness the demise of this mixed up man. Macbeth’s persona of the tragic hero is enhanced even more when the characters around him influence his decisions, creating mayhem inside his mind and disorder throughout Scotland. Shakespeare positions his audience to respond to the central theme: the struggle between good and evil, by illustrating to the audience his weaknesses, which through the guidance of the supernatural, leads to murder and mayhem and eventually madness. It is this influence of the supernatural that leads to Macbeth’s tragic persona and in turn his physical and mental destruction. Shakespeare utilises these techniques to embody in Macbeth characteristics indicative of that of a seventeenth century tragic hero.

Aristotle described the Greek image of the tragic hero as one who takes:
part in a fictional account of a set of events that is
serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.” (The Poetics)

Macbeth conforms to the image of the tragic hero by possessing a flaw and dying because if it. His flaw of being led too easily is evident through the actions of characters who influence Macbeth. Macbeth is involved in a story intertwined with evil, disorder, conflict and failure; all resulting finally in his death. Part of being a tragic hero is possessing a flaw. A flaw which will inevitably lead to self-destruction; the fall of the tragic hero. In the play, the central protagonist Macbeth, is confronted with the supernatural and the prophesy of becoming king. He cannot help but want this position, as this flaw also includes his weakness through over ambition. It is generally said that those possessing a flaw will die. The first Thane of Cawdor was a traitor, Duncan was too trusting, Banquo did not act on the knowledge he had about Macbeth’s murders, Lady Macbeth helped plot the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth destroyed the natural order and harmony of the time. All of these deaths are a result of Macbeth’s over ambition to become king, fuelled by the prophecies of the evil witches. Like Macbeth, a tragic hero has choices, a conscience of right from wrong and in the end must die, because to live would create mayhem and a feeling that his actions were justified.

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Macbeth conforms to all of these traits and is aware from the beginning that his success is inspired by his own damnation. However, he does not care and it is this pride and over ambition caused by his interaction with evil, which creates his inevitable breakdown in the end. The real tragedy of the play is that the impending events never would have taken place if it were not for Macbeth’s tragic flaw and the supernatural foretelling and disorder which came about when the societal norms of the seventeenth century were broken.

Life in the seventeenth century influenced Shakespeare’s writings as well as the audience response, due to societal myths. Values and attitudes were naturalised through the Elizabethan view of society: a hierarchal structure that demanded order and loyalty. Superstitions were prevalent throughout Elizabethan society and Shakespeare draws on the evil associated with this aspect, to play the essentially evil part of Macbeth; pushing him towards destruction. The fact that Macbeth possessed tragic hero qualities meant he had to die. This is due to his flaw, which urged him into sending innocent people to their deaths, creating chaos and deception in a society which could not handle it and which were not accustomed to such mortality. By sending Macbeth to his death, moral order was re-instated within society, making fully aware Shakespeare’s stance on those who were not willing to conform. Part of creating a tragic hero is to generate a particular response in the audience. This response is known as catharsis – a feeling of emptiness followed directly by wholeness, as normality is placed back in society once more. This response is created when a tragic hero like Macbeth, sins due to his flaw, only realising too late of his wrongdoings. The audience feels for Macbeth because of this, already knowing his destined fate, although not being able to do anything about it. Those surrounding his decisions enhance the degree of reaction the audience has towards the tragic hero.

The play Macbeth is about a tragic hero who, through not only supernatural encounters but also those around him, is driven to commit murders. One such influential character is that of Lady Macbeth; his manipulating, deceiving wife. It is because of Macbeth’s flaw, does Lady Macbeth find controlling and manipulating Macbeth so easy. Her character has been created to oppose what is accepted in society. She wishes to lose her feminine qualities: “unsex me here” (I.V.40) to obtain more power and in turn use her acquired strength and intelligence for evil gains. This gives her the power to control a lot of Macbeth’s “deeds” (II.II.33) and force him to continue when he begins to doubt himself and his actions. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as manipulative, and this is evident to the audience when she tells him to look and act pure, but be evil on the inside:
Look like the innocent flower, but be
the serpent underneath (I.V.64-65).

Macbeth draws comments like that one from those around him who he respects and admires, which can be extremely persuading because of his flaw. Through Lady Macbeth’s death, the audience is encouraged to experience the psychological emptiness involved in committing murder and how she manipulated Macbeth to achieve his deadly desires. It was due to her, that Macbeth was driven to perform all those murders, however his realisation of his doings was encouraged by Banquo; his best friend whom he murdered for knowing too much.

Shakespeare allows Banquo’s death in Macbeth, because he is endorsing a value of truth and honesty. Banquo knew of Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, but kept it quiet, possibly because he was Macbeth’s best friend, or he was simply waiting for the right time to tell all. For his hesitation, he payed with his life. Banquo’s manifestation in front of Macbeth’s eyes in the banquet scene initiates the downfall of the tragic hero. The audience is aware that the illusion of Banquo’s ghost is symbolic of Macbeth’s instability and disorder within his mind and character and they absorb his need for stability. Due to Banquo’s ghost - a vision of evil, we see Macbeth enter a downwards spiral of self-destruction and madness:
can such things be?…you make me strange even
to the disposition that I owe (III.IV.111-114)

which inevitably leads to his tragic death, due to his non-conformity to society’s accepted values and attitudes. Banquo’s ghost is seen as a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt for murdering his best friend, merely for knowing too much. The audience realises this and sympathy towards is Macbeth is formed. This is part of the tragic plot Shakespeare utilises to create a dramatic convention.

Macbeth is a play created by Shakespeare, evolving around a tragic plot. The tragic plot of a once worthy and loyal soldier to the king, who encounters a supernatural evil and because of a flaw, is led slowly to his death. The form of evil prophesises Macbeth’s kingly position and because of his over ambition, seeks to carry this prediction out before its due time. This brings upon him murders, deceit, and eventually his wife’s and his own death; along with that of many innocent others. That is what makes Macbeth such a tragic story and is why Shakespeare has utilised this tragic plot. It acts as a foundation in which Macbeth starts his rise to a temporary power and then inevitably is his downfall. Shakespeare uses the theme of good versus evil to demonstrate to the audience that evil will never prevail; it can only create chaos. Macbeth does not accept this as true and ‘sells his soul’ to the unknown, thinking he will live a prosperous life as king of Scotland. However because he delved into the supernatural, the unknown, the dark side of human creation, he cannot live. This is the basis of his tragic hero persona. Shakespeare enhances it even more through his use of figurative language.

The success of a tragic play relies on whether or not the playwright can produce a believable story through the use of figurative language. He enhances the attitude of the audience towards supernatural elements being evil. Shakespeare does this by drawing on metaphors and symbolism to represent feelings, or foreshadow an event. He first creates an atmosphere through which the tragic hero can develop in and it is through this atmosphere, that the audience relates the tragic hero to the evil doings. In Macbeth, the atmosphere is one of gloom and death. This is supported through the numerous mentionings of “blood” (II.III.105) – a word associated with life and death. This creates and uncertain atmosphere and the audience become aware of it. Macbeth is forced to carry on through his indecisive period, which will result in bloodshed that he will have little control over. Perhaps the most significant metaphor of the play and Macbeth’s tragic demise, is that of the manifestation of a dagger pointing towards Duncan’s sleeping chamber. It foreshadows the looming murder, but also indicates the crazed state of mind Macbeth is currently in due to the supernatural soliciting:
Is this a dagger which I see before me…a
dagger of the mind, a false creation. (II.I.33-38)

The audience realises this and empathy towards Macbeth is imminent, however is soon ended when he ruthlessly murders Duncan. This is what makes Macbeth such a tragic hero; the feeling of sympathy one moment and hatred towards him the next. This can again be reinforced through the use of soliloquies and asides Macbeth exhibits.

Asides and soliloquies are perhaps the most powerful form of expression and Shakespeare employs these techniques so the audience is able to grasp a better understanding of the state and mind of Macbeth. Through his indecisive times when he was faced with the choice between good and evil, all can be revealed in a single soliloquy; from his regretful feelings to foreshadowing events that are only apparent to the audience:
for them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
put rancours in the in vessel of my peace only
for them, mine eternal jewel given to the
common enemy of man. (III.I.65-68)

This shows Macbeth’s guilt for murdering the “gracious” Duncan and the rancour (bitterness), which has invaded his conscience. He also indicates he has sold his “eternal jewel” (soul) to the “common enemy of man” which is none other than the devil. The audience is aware of his regrets, however cannot fully forgive him for his murder. In that way he conforms to the paradigm of a tragic hero, and through the fact that he had a choice concerning his actions.

Seventeenth century society was one built on order and morality. Shakespeare’s tragic play Macbeth enforces this cultural need and through dramatic conventions, is able to create the appropriate atmosphere for a tragic hero to thrive in. In this masterpiece, Shakespeare has created a character which embodies everything someone should not be. Through the struggle between good and evil, values and attitudes were developed. However it is through the tragic hero, that the real meaning of the play is derived. From a once noble and well-respected man, Macbeth delves into the evil side of human creation and through his over ambition is forced to commit sinful deeds. Those who delved into the supernatural, the ‘evil’, the darkness, did not conform to what was expected and accepted in society, so had no choice, but to meet their demise. However in the Christian society Macbeth lived in, he had a choice; a characteristic of a tragic hero. He chose to delve into the forbidded supernatural. He chose to mix with the unknown, while his fate was foreshadowed from the beginning. From his extensive verse to the acknowledgement of his wrongful acts, the audience was able to admire and stand in awe of that tragic hero. From conflict, chaos and death, came the reign of a new king. A king devoted to his people and all that is finally important in the restoration of the right order. After the death of Macbeth, a feeling that evil had been destroyed and goodness reinstated, was all that society needed to correct itself from the awe founding tragic demise of that tragic hero; Macbeth.


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