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Is Macbeth a true tragic hero? Essay

Amongst all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is the most inconsistent and fragmented. Like the mental state of the protagonist, the tragic structure of the play is in disarray from the very onset. According to Aristotle, all tragedies must follow a certain set of characteristics, and the most important of these is the presence of a tragic hero. This tragic hero must possess a tragic flaw, or hamartia, which is a good quality taken to such an extreme that it now exhibits immoral behaviour from the hero. He must also draw sympathy of his plight from the audience. Macbeth, although the protagonist, is not a tragic hero because he does not possess this hamartia. This significant absence of a flaw leads to his actions being without justification, drawing no sympathy from the audience. Because Lady Macbeth’s love for Macbeth acts as a tragic flaw by ultimately bringing about her downfall and extracting a great amount of sympathy from the audience, she exhibits attributes more tragically heroic than Macbeth.

Macbeth is the protagonist of Macbeth because the play is inexorably tied to his actions. A protagonist is defined as “the leading character of a literary work”. In Shakespearean tragedies, the protagonist must also be from the nobility and possess exceptional character and vitality. One need not look farther than the title to determine Macbeth’s importance in the play. While the title does not necessarily provide fair judgement of content, Shakespeare has an uncanny habit of titling his tragedies with the name of the protagonist: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Othello are examples.

As the play commences, farther evidence of Macbeth’s importance is apparent through the witches’ subject in the very first scene: “There to meet with Macbeth” (I.i.7). It is for Macbeth that they will gather upon the heath, and he upon whom their efforts will be focused. In the next scene, Macbeth’s nobility is confirmed through Duncan’s heartfelt “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman!” (I.ii.24). The exclamatory nature of this sentence testifies Duncan’s affiliation with, and high regard for, Macbeth. After the victorious battle, Ross describes Macbeth as “Bellona’s bridegroom” (I.ii.54), an allusion meaning the husband of the Goddess of War, thus establishing him to be of exceptional character and vitality. Macbeth’s role as the protagonist is therefore legitimized through other’s perception of him and his own noble character.

While Macbeth is the protagonist and therefore meant to be the tragic hero, the glaring absence of a tragic flaw in his character prevents his recognition as thus. A tragic flaw must be a good quality taken to such an extreme that it now exhibits immoral behaviour. Macbeth has many flaws, a hunger for power and a belief of superiority among them, yet none of these are tragic flaws because they do not have the ability to be virtuous qualities. This leaves ambition and imagination as the main competitors. Ambition cannot be Macbeth’s tragic flaw because he recognizes it in his confusion soliloquy even before he kills Duncan:I have no spurTo prick the sides of my intent, but onlyVaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,And falls on the other. (I.vii.25-28)When Lady Macbeth questions Macbeth’s intentions right after the deliverance of this soliloquy, the recognition of his ambition leads him to a decisive “We will proceed no further in this business” (I.vii.31).

The reason he later kills Duncan is because Lady Macbeth appeals not to his ambitious nature, but to his pride. She accuses him of being “a coward in [his] own esteem” (I.vii.43) and weak in manliness: “…you would/Be so much more the man” (I.vii.50-51). It is not ambition, but a wounded pride and an inbred impulse to unquestioningly follow his wife that leads Macbeth to finally commit the deed that ultimately brings about his downfall. Yet pride is also not his tragic flaw because it does not spur any of his other great crimes. While pride triggers, but is not the cause of, Macbeth’s downfall, an active imagination is not the tragic flaw because it merely serves as an instrument to illustrate that a character is in a confused state of mind. Macbeth is self-doubting all through the first three acts of the play; in his lines following the witches’ initial prophecies, he states “Come what come may” (I.iii.146), portraying his lack of wilful decisiveness.

Yet after the witches’ second set of prophecies, he takes decisive measures to “crown [his] thoughts with acts” (IV.i.149), and his imagination vanishes. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s first statement of “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promis’d” (I.v.15-16) establishes her steely resolve. She is practical and untroubled by any visions. When she realizes the extent of the damage she has caused, however, her imagination takes full reign. In the sleepwalking scene, she is depicted as a broken figure, tormented by imaginative hallucinations. In both cases, imagination comes along when the character is in a disorderly state of mind; therefore, imagination, like ambition, is not Macbeth’s tragic flaw, testifying that Macbeth does not possess one and therefore is unrecognizable as a tragic hero.

Macbeth’s lack of such a flaw deems all his heinous actions without justification, and as a result, draws no sympathy from the audience. The blame for his lapse in character can be placed upon nothing but his own non-tragic flaws. He is depicted as a cowardly man: he kills Duncan because of his inability to make decisions for himself; Banquo out of paranoia: “our fears in Banquo/stick deep” (III.i.49-50) he says, before ordering the murderers to kill his former friend; and Lady Macduff and her son out of spite: his true quarrel is with Macduff, however as he realizes that the nobleman has escaped his clutches, he proceeds to “give to the edge o’ the sword/[Macduff’s] wife [and] his babes” (IV.i.151-152). Macbeth’s central desire, the want to safely be king, is born of nothing more than despicable cowardice. The audience gets a sense of this despicability in Macbeth’s character firstly through the witches’ mention of him: “There to meet with Macbeth” (I.i.7).

By associating him with the witches so early, Shakespeare foreshadows Macbeth’s later affiliation with them. Lady Macbeth recognizes cowardice and ineptitude in Macbeth: she calls him “Infirm of purpose!” when he is unable to carry out the plan of killing Duncan to her perfection. It seems that Shakespeare attempts a sympathy-inducing endeavour through Macbeth’s “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?” (II.ii.60-61). This attempt backfires however, because instead of showing Macbeth in a remorseful light, the irrepressible imagery of blood only serves to farther exemplify the wrongs he has wrought and how disastrous they are to his moral being.

As the plot furthers, Macbeth’s crimes pile up, from belittlement, to hypocrisy, to bare-faced lying, and finally to treacherous murders. Even in catharsis he is despicable; his first words upon realizing the truth about the witches are “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so” (V.viii.17), cursing others instead of himself for the dreadful deeds he has committed. This is not pitiful, but repulsive. These crimes all sprout from the regicide at the beginning, and since this first terrible crime lacked purpose, the others do so too.

From the very onset, Lady Macbeth is sharply contrasted with Macbeth because she possesses this purpose, driven forward by her love for Macbeth. This love is her tragic flaw because it leads to her ultimate downfall. She does not want Macbeth to be king because of some ulterior motive; she wants it for his benefit. Nowhere in her first soliloquy, in which she speaks to herself and need not hide her true thoughts, does she mention the want of greatness for herself; instead, she refers to Macbeth and says, “Thou wouldst be great” (I.v.18) and “Thou ‘ldst have [the crown]” (I.v.22), proving her loyalty to Macbeth’s cause for his sake. She proceeds then to call upon “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” (I.v.40-41) to rid her of all kindness, gentleness, sensitivity, sweetness, and pity that accompanies her womanly nature, all the better to kill Duncan.

This is not a small sacrifice on her part, as seen later through the repercussions it has on her conscience. After Macbeth becomes king and begins isolating Lady Macbeth, the once resolute woman is portrayed as a powerless being, unable to survive without the husband that once loved but now alienates her: “why do you keep alone?” (III.ii.8) she asks him after having to request a meeting to speak with him. During the banquet, she is seen to jeopardize her reputation as a graceful hostess to protect Macbeth: “Stand not upon the order of your going,/But go at once” (III.iv.85), she says to the noblemen. It is Lady Macbeth’s tragedy that she sacrifices so much for the love of a husband that will not confide in her anymore, and this love is much more sorrowful than the alleged tragedy of Macbeth, which is born from his cowardice.

Because her tragic flaw is something pure and good, her demise is so heartbreaking, so utterly tragic, that it draws an unequalled amount of audience sympathy. The infamous Sleepwalking Scene, the last presence of Lady Macbeth in the play, shows that she has reached the very bottom of the pit of tragic downfall that she started falling down at the beginning of Act III. It is a reflection of her mental and emotional state that she speaks in prose instead of iambic pentameter in this entire scene. While Macbeth, previously occupied by horrible hallucinations, has now dulled his ability for feeling horror, Lady Macbeth has done the opposite. This role-reversal leaves her in a state of severe trauma, exposing her inner thoughts and feelings. The gentlewoman’s words of “This is [Lady Macbeth’s] very guise, and, upon my life, fast asleep” (V.i.20-21) depict Lady Macbeth’s trauma as being so great that she cannot escape it even in sleep. This is decidedly more sympathy-inducing than Macbeth, who, the last we saw of him, had ordered the brutal murders of an innocent lady and her unguarded son (IV.i.150-154). While Macbeth seems intent upon bloodying his hands remorselessly at every opportunity, it is ironic that Lady Macbeth vigorously rubs her hand to get them rid of Duncan’s blood: “It is an accustomed action with [Lady Macbeth], to be seen thus washing her hands” (V.i.29-30).

This irony excites audience pity for Lady Macbeth as she is clearly disillusioned and has reached her tragic recognition much earlier and more genuinely than Macbeth does. The imagery of blood that is present throughout the play now reaches a climax as well: Lady Macbeth’s obsession with her figuratively blood-stained hand is revealed through her anguished cry of “Out damned spot!” (V.i.35); she rhetorically asks, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V.i.39-40), then notes that “the smell of the blood” (V.i.50) is still rampant.

This blood symbolizes the guilt that she is burdened with, even years after the murder she helped orchestrate, contrasted with the remorselessness of Macbeth. The gentlewoman, innocent of the crime her lady has committed, still says, “I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body” (V.i.54-55). It can be deduced that the status-deprived gentlewoman does not wish to have the status of a queen if it means feeling the sorrow of Lady Macbeth. This clearly illustrates that our heroine, the true tragic character of the play, is very broken, only because of the great love she has for her husband. Love is not a crime, and this makes her predicament all the more sympathetic.

Macbeth is clearly a tragedy, yet it is tragic more because of the role of Lady Macbeth than that of Macbeth himself. The love that propels her change from a strong, sensible character to one overwrought with guilt is much more tragic than Macbeth’s character change, propagated by his cowardice and incompetence. In a play about disorder and ambiguity, where “fair is foul and foul is fair” (I.i.11), it is only fitting that the role of the tragic hero is also clearly ambiguous. It seems that Shakespeare involved himself so much in creating perfect ambiguity that he let the tragic structure of the play become quite ambiguous as well.


Agnes, Michael, ed. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 4th ed. Foster City: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2001.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Mississauga: Canadian School Book Exchange, 1996.

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