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Shakespeare's Macbeth is a Tragic Hero

Macbeth is a Tragic Hero

In many respects Macbeth, of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is the least admirable tragic hero of literature. Typical tragic heroes have at least a few admirable character traits. One may, or may not like the hero, but there is something in their characters or their situation on which one can hang some sympathy, even if there is not enough for us to rationalize away their actions. But Macbeth is a mass murderer, who does away with friends, colleagues, women and children, often for no apparent reason other than his own desires. Why should Macbeth be considered a tragic hero?

The answer, has to do with the quality of his mind, his horrible determination to see the entire evil business through. Having, with the murder of Duncan, taken charge of the events which shape his life, he is not now going to relinquish the responsibility for securing his desires. The most remarkable quality of the man in this process is the clear-eyed awareness of what is happening to him personally. He is suffering horribly throughout, but he will not crack or seek any other remedy than what he alone can deliver. If that means damning himself even further, then so be it.

This stance certainly does not make Macbeth likable or (from our perspective) in many respects admirable. But it does confer a heroic quality upon his tragic course of action. He simply will not compromise with the world, and he will pay whatever price that decision exacts from him, even though as his murderous career continues he becomes increasingly aware of what it is costing him.

It seems clear that what his murder has cost him is the very thing that made him great in the first place. For no soon...

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...use he has any desire to win but because wants to take charge of the final event, his own death. The life he has created for himself leaves him with nothing else to do.

This last point about Macbeth's bringing about his own death is an important element in his tragedy. Having set himself above all conventional morality and prudence to tackle life on his own terms in answer to his desires, Macbeth will remain in charge until the end. Like so many other great tragic heroes (Oedipus, King Lear, Othello), he self-destructs. He has come to the full recognition of what taking full charge of his own life, without any concessions to his community, really means. And that realization fills him with a sense of bitterness, futility, and meaninglessness.

Work Cited

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, ed. Carroll, W. C., Boston, MA: Bedford/ St.Martin's, 1999.
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