Macbeth As A Tragic Character

Macbeth As A Tragic Character

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In all genres of literature, there are numerous character types one might encounter. Some bring humor or comic relief to a more serious plot, while others bring both pity and fear to the minds of the audience. A tragic character is one who shows characteristics above normality, while simultaneously giving evidence to the audience concerning his or her tragic flaw that causes the character’s life to end in an abnormal state of events. “A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him.” (George Orwell, Columbia Dictionary of Quotations) In a tragedy the main character rises to greatness, then continues to fall down a shame spiral, which leads to his or her downfall. Throughout his regression from life as a decent and moral man, to becoming indifferent to what is fair and what is foul, Macbeth brought both an immense tragic fate onto himself as well as creating tragedy in the lives of his peers. Macbeth regressed from being a decent, moral man, to someone closely resembling a devil, who could make no distinction between good and evil. Macbeth became so engrossed in himself as well as the prophecies that were laid upon him by the three witches, that he became indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of the people around him, who once considered themselves to be this demon’s friend. The process of this tragedy was slow to let the audience become comfortable with the power and happiness of the main character. Then, suddenly, signs appeared, foreshadowing an imminent climax as the main character headed toward his inexorable fate.

     As the play begins a battle ensues between King Duncan of Scotland and Macdonwald of Norway. Macbeth fights bravely on Scotland's side, killing Macdonwald himself. King Duncan hears of Macbeth's brave and noble qualities, crowning him the new Thane of Cawdor. The king states that the old Thane should not device, "... Our bosom interest: go pronounce his present death, And with his former title greet Macbeth." (I ii 63-65) Macbeth is hostile to accept the rank, because earlier three witches prophesied that the new hero would become Thane of Cawdor even though there was one at that time. Since Macbeth was crowned Thane of Cawdor, Banquo and Macbeth believe that the three weird sisters are able to correctly tell them their fate.

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Macbeth now having higher-ranking authority begins to have his ambition act up on him; thus, he craves more power. Lady Macbeth organizes King Duncan’s murder, which increased Macbeth's will to become king, enabling the overzealous ruler to rise up to the ultimate height. The murder is carried out, but not as planned, driving Macbeth to kill the king himself. Macbeth states to everyone after the discovery of the dead king, "Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man. Th’ expedition of my violent love..." (II iii 111-112) This is only done to destroy the thoughts that may have targeted Macbeth as one who is characterized by a drive to kill the king.

     Further on in the play, Macbeth travels to meet the witches and demands to know what lies ahead of him. The three witches predict what he is prepared to ask and produce the first apparition, the armed head. The first apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. "Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff! Beware the thane of Fife! Dismiss me. Enough." (I iv 81-82) After this, the second apparition appears, a bloody child. “Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." (IV i 90-92) The apparition informs Macbeth that no man born from a woman, naturally, can harm him. Finally, the third apparition appears as a crowned child, with a tree in his hand. The apparition says that Macbeth will never be defeated until Birnam forest meets Dunsinane. “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” (IV i 103-107) These apparitions convince Macbeth that the omniscient witches envision an accurate fate, causing Macbeth to become overconfident, leading him to his pitiful death.

Macbeth does not respond to the excitement of the last act, for he has lost the capacity of feeling either fear or, as we saw when he heard of his wife’s death, grief. The devilish creature speaks the most disillusioned in the play when he contemplates life’s “…petty pace from day to day.” (5.5.20) Macbeth still believed that the witches’ promises would protect him, but when he heard that “The wood began to move” (V v 33) his confidence is shaken as he begins to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like the truth, the devil’s oracles. Although the indifference invading Macbeth shows itself early in the play, the true extent of Macbeth’s lack of respect for Elizabethan values occurs when this monster orders the murder of Macduff’s wife and child. Even Macduff, who understands the danger that inundates his life in Scotland, does not feel a large enough threat for him to take his family and servants with him on his flee to England. “He has no children. All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, At one fell swoop?”(IV iii 216-219) Macduff, as well as the audience, can hardly believe such inhumane acts can be committed by a man, no matter how disturbed or evil he can be. The murder of Macduff’s family is the nail in Macbeth’s coffin, bringing such terrible thoughts upon himself by the audience, that under no circumstances will there be a possibility that Macbeth can ever be marked out for good fortune.

Macbeth has become his own opposite from the beginning of the play, where he is described “…Like Valour’s minion…” to, at the end of the play, becoming a hideous creature, capable of performing the unthinkable act of murdering innocent women and children just to prove it is within his power. Macbeth initially has the potential to be a powerful, just leader, which could have been advanced with such great achievements as his victory over the Norwegians at the start of the play. Because the ideas implanted by the witches tease Macbeth to search for more power than was intended for him, Macbeth regresses into someone whose psyche could only be compared to that of the devil’s. However, during his enlightenment in the fifth act, Macbeth realizes the monster he has become. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (V v 24-28) The now-pitied character can clearly understand how meaningless his existence is, that even though his hubris and jealousy has overcome his decency, he still displays signs of his innate humanity.     

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