Macbeth is one of the best known of Shakespeare's plays. It is commonly classed, along with Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, among Shakespeare's four great tragedies. After reading Macbeth, several significant aspects of the play come to mind: the central characters (Lady Macbeth and her husband) and their development, the treatment of gender issues, the nature and conflict of good and evil, the final triumph of the forces of goodness and life, and the troubling implications of that triumph.
One way to approach the play's leading characters is to see how they fit Aristotle's ideas about tragedy. The problem with this approach is that they don't fit Aristotle's ideas very well. Aristotle wrote that a tragic character should be more good than evil and that the character's fall should be the result of a mistake or misstep (the probable meaning of Aristotle's term hamartia) rather than moral depravity. Lady Macbeth and her husband, by contrast, are more evil than good, and they deliberately commit or arrange several horribly depraved acts: among others, the murder of King Duncan, the murder of Macbeth's friend Banquo, and the murder of Macduff's wife and children. Their motives are purely selfish: they want power and all the personal benefits it will bring. It doesn't look as if Aristotle's ideas work very well at all in Macbeth.
But despite the fact that the play doesn't fit the ideal Aristotelian mold (and Shakespeare probably had no intention that it should, anyway), looking at the play in this way sheds some light on it. We're required to ask, "Is Macbeth purely evil? Is his wife?" The more closely I've looked at the play, the more I've become convinced that its power comes f...
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...tues we commonly associate with women and children -- or with Christ -- have not been given adequate attention.
Macbeth shows us characters who have succumbed to despair: Lady Macbeth, who comes to believe that "What's done cannot be undone" (5.1.68), and Macbeth, who argues that, since "I am in blood/ Stepp'd in so far," repentance is pointless: "should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er" (3.4.135-37). The play shows these characters defeated, but not redeemed.
Cooke, Patricia. "Macbeth: Origin of Despair." Online posting. 20 Nov. 1996. SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference. 5 March 2001
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999.
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