Macbeth is a Shakespearean Tragedy
Macbeth is considered to be one of the greatest Shakespearean tragedies written by William Shakespeare. According to A.C. Bradley, it is the “most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps we may say the most tremendous, of the tragedies” (Bradley 333). Macbeth, written by Shakespeare is a Shakespearean tragedy because it has a tragic hero, mathemata, and a hamartia. These three characteristics are crucial to have in a Shakespearean tragedy and prove that Macbeth is indeed one. More specifically, the tragic hero is one of the most important of the three because without the hero, sympathy cannot be evoked.
Macbeth is a tragedy because it contains a tragic hero. In a Shakespearean tragedy, it is imperative that the tragic hero is of high estate, affects the whole nation and evokes pity and fear from the audience. The tragic hero in Macbeth is Macbeth himself. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is introduced as the Thane of Glamis and “a general of extraordinary prowess” (Bradley 44) in Duncan’s army. When a battle takes place, Macbeth bravely defends Scotland in the battle and is victorious. When he returns home, King Duncan praises him:
O worthiest cousin!
….Thou art so far before….
Only I have left to say,
More is thy due than more than all can pay. (Shakespeare 1.4.17-24) Duncan states that Macbeth is his worthiest kinsmen and has done so much for him that he owes Macbeth more than he can ever repay. The audience can identify that Macbeth is a significant character of high estate because he is already Thane of Glamis, and is well respected by the king of Scotland. Macbeth’s high social standing evokes pity and fear from the audience because his sins and downfall are emphasized. The audience suspects him to be virtuous, therefore arousing fear when he commits sins. Also, he has a lot more to lose than a regular citizen; Macbeth eventually loses his mind, wife, house, reputation, and kingship. Since Macbeth is a character of high estate and evokes pity and fear for the audience, he is the tragic hero in Macbeth.
Macbeth is also a tragic hero because he is a character of high estate in two additional ways. After the victorious battle, Macbeth is greeted by two noblemen of Scotland sent by the king: “He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor. /In which addition, hail, most worthy Thane, /for it is thine” (Shakespeare 1.3.111-113).When the Macdonwald, the Thane of Cawdor, commits treason, he is executed and a new Thane is chosen. After hearing about Macbeth’s success in the battle, King Duncan appoints Macbeth as the new Thane of Cawdor. As a result of Macbeth’s nobility, loyalty and bravery, he earns his title as Thane of Cawdor thus proving he is of high estate.
When King Duncan dies, Macbeth is chosen to be King of Scotland. Usually, when a king dies, their heir becomes king. However, since both of Duncan’s sons fled the country for their own safety, Macbeth is chosen to be King. This shows the audience that Macbeth is well respected by the citizens of Scotland because he appears to be the best king, second to Duncan’s sons. As the new King of Scotland, Macbeth’s fate evidently has an affect on the welfare of the whole nation. In conclusion, Macbeth is a tragic hero because he is of high estate in several ways, evokes pity and fear from the audience and affects the welfare of the whole nation. When the nation is negatively affected, order must be restored. This is done through the resolution of the plot, also known as mathemata.
Mathemata is an extremely important characteristic of a Shakespearean tragedy because it re-establishes the moral order of the world in the play. In Shakespeare’s play, order is restored when Macbeth is killed: “Behold where stands/The usurper’s [Macbeth’s] cursed head. The time is free” (Shakespeare 5.8.55-56).Macbeth is considered as the evil defilement and ‘sickness’ of Scotland because he perpetrates a series of murders, and more significantly violates the natural order of the universe at the highest level by killing Duncan. Since Macbeth causes the entire situation “he must end in destruction and despair” (Ribner 57). At the end of the play when Macbeth ends in ‘destruction and despair’, Scotland is finally “cured” and order is restored.
The natural order of the universe is also re-established because Malcolm replaces Macbeth’s position as King. Scotland is no longer ruled by Macbeth’s tyranny; instead it is ruled by Malcolm, an extremely honourable man:
Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth. (Shakespeare 4.3.109-112)
Although Malcolm may not appear to be virtuous in this scene, he is very much so. At the beginning of the play, Duncan does not test the loyalty of Macdonwald and Macbeth. As a result, Duncan is betrayed by these two men who appeared to be honourable. Malcolm learns from his father’s mistakes and tests MacDuff’s patriotism. Malcolm states he does not contain any qualities of a virtuous king and that he would destroy all peace on earth. When MacDuff has a passionate outburst, Malcolm reveals the truth that he is in fact an honourable man because he is able to identify that MacDuff is a “child of integrity” (Shakespeare 4.3.129).
This proves that Malcolm is in fact a virtuous king because he is not easily fooled like Duncan. Instead, Malcolm is a cautious and knowledgeable man who is likely to be a successful king. With a new honourable and sincerely virtuous king, and the death of Macbeth, the order of the universe is finally restored and the play is resolved. Not only is the death of Macbeth recognized as the resolution of the plot, however, it is also recognized as his tragic end which is caused by a hamartia.
For a play to be a Shakespearean tragedy, it must have a hamartia. A hamartia, also known as a tragic flaw, is a good quality in the protagonist which eventually goes somewhat awry and causes their disastrous demise. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition. Macbeth’s ambition can be recognized as a desirable quality because it causes him to be a great warrior. However, when Macbeth is told by the witches that he will become future king, he has thoughts of killing Duncan. Already, Macbeth’s ambition goes somewhat awry. At first, Macbeth states that he does not want to kill Duncan because “this Duncan/Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels….” (Shakespeare 1.7.16-18) and admits that
I [Macbeth] have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself
And falls on the other. (Shakespeare 1.7.25-28)
Macbeth realizes the only reason he has for murdering Duncan is his ‘vaulting ambition’ which does not rationalize the act of killing a virtuous king. Although Macbeth is aware that his vaulting ambition will only lead him to disaster, he still commits the crime. At this point, the audience is fully aware that Macbeth’s ambition is no longer a desirable trait because his ambition, “which is also his greatness, is fatal to him” (Bradley 9). His ambition allows him to “hide what the false heart doth know” (Shakespeare 1.7.92) and overcome the thought of killing a virtuous king.
Although some scholars may say the witches and Lady Macbeth cause Macbeth’s downfall, he commits and instigates all of the murders himself; it is his own actions that lead him to his tragic end. If Macbeth was not so ambitious for status and did not allow his flawed trait to overpower his morality, he would realize it is irrational to kill the king. Without doubt Macbeth’s ambition acquires him kingship, however, it leads him to death of several innocent people and is the major cause of his downfall.
Macbeth’s hamartia is also evident later on the play when he kills Banquo and attempts to kill Banquo’s son. After the witches predict that Banquo’s sons will become kings, Macbeth feels threatened as the new king of Scotland: “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus” (Shakespeare 3.1.54). Macbeth determines that the only way to be ‘safely thus’ is to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. Macbeth’s great ambition for power causes him to have a greed for power and stop at nothing to secure his position as king; even if it means he must kill his best friend and challenge fate: “Rather than so, come, Fate, into the list,/And champion me to the utterance!” (Shakespeare 3.1.77-78). Macbeth’s ambition causes him to believe he can defeat the prophecy of the witches. Macbeth believes that if he kills Banquo and Banquo’s sons, his position as king will be protected.
However, by murdering more people, Macbeth’s life, conscience, and kingship is jeopardized instead. Eventually, Macbeth faces the consequences of his own actions as a result of his ‘great’ ambition and is killed. If Macbeth was not so ambitious, he would realize it is impossible to defeat fate, ultimately preventing his tragic end. Although Macbeth’s ambition begins as a virtue, it goes wrong and eventually leads to his tragic end. All of Macbeth’s actions have led himself to his death and aroused several emotions within the audience; thus proving Macbeth has a hamartia and ultimately is a Shakespearean tragedy.
Macbeth is said to be one of the last tragedies Shakespeare ever wrote. None the less, it “has increasingly impressed twentieth century critics” (Hawkes 50). Macbeth has a tragic hero of high estate and a hamartia that leads to the hero’s tragic end. Last but not least, when order is restored, there is mathemata. With the three most imperative characteristics of a tragedy, Macbeth fulfills the title as the “most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps we may say the most tremendous, of the tragedies” (Bradley 333) and proves it is indeed a true Shakespearean tragedy.
Arif, G. M. Javed. “Macbeth’s Identity Crisis: Shakespeare as the Saviour.” Academia.edu. N.p., Dec. 2000. Web. 15 Dec. 2011. Bloom, Harold, ed. Major Literary Characters: Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. Print. Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905. Johnson, Vernon E., ed. Power in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2009. Print. Shakespeare, William. The Global Shakespeare Series: The Tragedy of Macbeth with Related Readings. Eds. Dom Saliani, Chris Ferguson, and Dr. Tim Scott. Albany, N.Y.: International Thomson Pub Nelson Canada, 1997. Print.
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