Macbeth as a Tragic Hero
To what extent do you think Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a tragic hero? The 17th century play, ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare, was written during a time when James the first became the first king of both Scotland and England. The characters in the play are also based upon his descendants. The play itself focuses on the character of Macbeth who is manipulated into committing regicide by 3 witches. As the play progresses, both him and his wife begin to lose all sense of morality, resulting with both of their deaths in the end.
Macbeth is portrayed as a tragic hero, but it is debatable as to whether he is constructed by Shakespeare to follow a classical or renaissance model. At the start of the play, Macbeth is presented as a highly respected thane by King Duncan before the audience meet him. The characters in the play praise Macbeth, “For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name”, while they discuss the progression of the war. The use of the objective “brave” emphasises the respect that Macbeth is given.
Shakespeare uses this adjec tive and later, another, “noble Macbeth” to infer that the characters have genuine admiration for his battle skills rather than feeling the need to attempt flattery. Macbeth’s battle skills are shown to be very brutal. “Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’chaps” means that Macbeth has ripped the traitor, Macdonald, from his navel to his jaws. Even though Macbeth is applauded for his brutality, in hindsight, it is disputable as to whether it is a positive quality.
Due to his loyalty, Macbeth has no need to feel guilt for killing anybody and he would almost feel pride. This infers that he not only applies these feelings when acting for the king, and that killing has become second nature for him. Shakespeare has chosen to give Macbeth a high status as this links to Macbeth being a tragic hero. To some extent, Shakespeare has presented Macbeth as an Aristotle classical tragic hero through the use of other characters in the play.
A classical tragic hero is commonly the main character in a play. They have no control over their own life – their future is ordained – and only the Gods have the power to change his destiny. Another typical feature of a tragedy is that there is the Gods messenger (the oracle) who delivers the prophecy and if Macbeth is a classical tragic hero, it is possible that the witches play the oracles. When Macbeth first meets the witches, they immediately present to him the prophecy. ‘All hail, Macbeth!
Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor! All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter’. Here, Shakespeare has used ‘Thane of Glamis’ as part of the prophecy as it informs the reader that the witches already know something about Macbeth. It also makes the prophecy seem more truthful. The next statement from the witches is ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and from the previous scene the reader also knows that the King has decided to bestow Macbeth with this name.
This then makes the witches final prediction, ‘Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter’, even further reliable. Later on in the play, after the first prophecy has been fulfilled, the reader meets a 4th witch, Hecate, who is labelled as the witches’ queen. At first, she scolds the three witches: ‘How did you dare To trade and traffic with Macbeth In riddles and affairs of death? ’ Shakespeare has used ‘riddles’ to highlight that the three witches are playing with Macbeth and not entirely telling him the truth.
He also used ‘affairs of death’ to imply that the witches knew that Macbeth would kill the King and others. Hecate then continues to say: ‘He shall spurn fate, scorn death and bear his hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear. ’ This infers that Macbeths, in the future, will rely on hope more than his ‘wisdom, grace and fear’. It tells the reader that Hecate has planned Macbeth’s future through the use of ‘he shall’. This implies that Shakespeare has toyed with the possibility that the witches are not the oracles and could indeed play the role of the Gods.
Therefore, the likelihood of Macbeth being a classical tragic hero has been increased through Shakespeare’s use of the witches. Within the play, Lady Macbeth occupies a large role towards the development of Macbeth’s final disposition. After hearing news of Macbeth’s plans, Lady Macbeth summons spirits: ‘Come, you spirits that tend on moral thoughts, unsex me here And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull Of direst cruelty’ could imply that she has contact with evil spirits but it can also infer that she has no cruelty and needs to be given it.
In addition, Shakespeare has used ‘unsex me here’ to display how she feels the need to put aside all natural femininity in order to commit the bloody deeds that are necessary to seize the crown. Nevertheless, after Macbeth’s arrival she takes it upon herself to plan the murder and even has to manipulate Macbeth into committing the regicide. ‘I would… have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done this’. Even though it is never mentioned as to how or when they’re child died, Lady Macbeth tells the eader that she has had a child at some point.
Furthermore, she tells Macbeth that she would of rather smashed her own baby’s head in than watch him cower out of killing the king. After hearing her say this he still has his doubts but she inevitably persuades him into it. Because of this, there is a possibility that Lady Macbeth is Macbeth’s fatal, tragic hero, flaw (harmartia). Altogether, Shakespeare has used the character of Lady Macbeth to develop Macbeth’s personality and to further infer that he could be a tragic hero.
Alternatively, it can be argued that Shakespeare has presented Macbeth as a Renaissance tragic hero. During the Renaissance period, writers had begun to explore a new type of tragic hero who was not controlled by gods and did indeed have free will. There only reason for being a tragic hero was that they were born with a fatal flaw that would one day prevail. This new tragedy genre had evolved due to the increase of scientific discoveries and the decreasing reliance of religion in society.
After having explored the prospect of Lady Macbeth being Macbeth’s harmartia it is also possible that his ambition is also a main flaw of his. Macbeth says ‘Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see’ shortly after Malcolm has been proclaimed heir to the throne. This shows his sudden decision to willingly push all morality aside despite knowing that killing Duncan in order to become king is wrong which is why he feels it necessary to hide his ‘dark and deep desires’.
Shakespeare has used ‘dark and deep’ to portray ambition as something that is dark and ugly, thus implying this is Macbeth’s fatal flaw. The fact that Macbeth has two possible harmartias infers that he, to a larger extent, is a tragic hero. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s personality changes continually. Killing Duncan has a large impact on Macbeth with his initial response being shock and denial: ‘I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on’t again I dare not’ Here, Macbeth admits to Lady Macbeth the cowardice that she had previously accused him of.
He also refuses to admit to the crime he has committed which is shown through Shakespeare’s use of ‘I am afraid to think what I have done’. Macbeth’s guilt first shows through here, this is further shown when Macbeth talks about sleeping. “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth doth murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care” Here, he infers that he fears he won’t be able to sleep again.
Shakespeare has used “Macbeth doth murder slee”’ to emphasise that Macbeth has not only killed Duncan but also “murdered” his ability for him to sleep. “The innocent sleep” describes not only sleep, but possibly also the innocence of Duncan. Shakespeare uses “ravell’d sleave of care” to infer that if Macbeth loses sleep he will also lose the competence to care, furthermore implying that it may become easier to commit murder. Therefore even though Macbeth is shown immediately feel guilt, Shakespeare tells the reader that Macbeth may develop into a particularly careless being.