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Shakespeare's Macbeth - Villain, Tragic Hero, or Simply Ambitious ?

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Macbeth: Villain, Tragic Hero, or Simply Ambitious ?

The play MacBeth conforms to the definition of a tragedy: “A play in verse or in prose dealing with tragic events, usually ending in the downfall of the protagonist”1. However, many sections of MacBeth do not describe a tragic hero, but merely a villain or a lord who is overly ambitious and pays the consequences for his actions. MacBeth is a tragedy that challenges the very foundations of that genre, set by Aristotle and Plato in the third century B.C. These foundations had been part of the text Poetics, in which Aristotle listed the six requirements of dramatic tragedy, one of which is the inclusion of a tragic hero, a fundamental that has been followed by many tragedians including Sophocles, Aeschylus, O’Neill and Shakespeare himself in his other tragedies.

MacBeth however is different from these tragedies in that the protagonist is not clearly defined as a tragic hero, the reader may view glimpses of a hero in MacBeth but not in substantial amounts, so this is neither completely validated nor revoked by Shakespeare. In order to come to a conclusion the reader must take into consideration not only MacBeth’s intentions but those of the people around him as well, such as Lady MacBeth and the three Weird Sisters, both of whom can be deemed to have influenced his actions in some way.

MacBeth’s downfall and ultimate fate begins with his decision to murder King Duncan. Yet, from what the reader has seen of MacBeth so far, this action seems highly out of character. He is initially portrayed a loyal warrior who has a wife and his own castle, and yet he still chooses to murder Duncan. The apparent reason for this is ambition, we are told this by Ma...

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...d, not once was he forced into doing anything that was not desired by him. On many occasions, the reader is tempted to see MacBeth as a simple villain and yet his resolve to carry out what he had already started influences them to rethink their opinion on his status as a villain. This remarkable blend of a tragic hero, a villain and a man beset with sheer determination is one that allows MacBeth to stand out arguably as one of the finest morality plays ever written.

1. Concise Oxford dictionary

Bibliography

English 366: Studies in Shakespeare Introduction to Macbeth http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/eng366/index.htm

Barnet, Sylvan. Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Signet Classic 1987

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a Play for our Time http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/mac/intro.html

Aristotle, Poetics http://planetpapers.com/poetics/1209.html
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