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There are 17,121 words, 2162 lines, 40 characters, 28 lines, and 5 scenes in the tragedy of Macbeth. It is Shakespeare’s forth shortest play and one of his most famous. First performed in 1606, The Tragedy of Macbeth tells the dramatic tale of noble Macbeth, a Scottish thane and war hero. When three witches tell Macbeth he is destined to become king, he descends down a path that leads him to kill multiple friends including the current King, Duncan. By the end of the tale, Macbeth becomes a mad and ruthless tyrant whose head is perpetually on a pike.
Macbeth’s story is a that of a man driven to his demise, and if the reader pays attention they can see that. The pressures of personal ambition, coercion from his wife and knowledge of his fate, all influence Macbeth making him a cruel and tragic hero. When analyzing Macbeth’s arch as a tragic hero, it is clear that one of the greatest influences is his own personal ambition.
In order to determine if Macbeth is a tragic hero, it’s important to understand what a tragic hero is. “In ancient Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, the tragic hero is the main character – an outstanding person whose downfall is caused by his own flawed behavior, the tragic hero is caught up in a series of events that inevitably results is his downfall. Because the protagonist is neither a wicked villain nor an innocent victim the audience reacts with mixed emotions both of pity and fear…” (Prentice hall literature 293, R19).
This description very clearly matches Macbeth. The first time the reader is given a description of Macbeth is in Act I, scene II, where after a battle, an injured captain, regals King Duncan with tales of Macbeth’s strength and bravery in battle, describing him as being scared of the enemy the same way eagles are of sparrows or lions of hares. From the beginning, one can see that Macbeth is set up to be the perfect hero, one the reader would be proud to follow as he sets out on his goals, but as the story goes on it becomes clear that Macbeth is not purely good. The reader’s opinion of Macbeth begins to shift when he decides to kill Duncan. At this point Duncan has been shown to be nothing but a kind, just king, beloved by his noblemen, thus the reader feels very conflicted when their hero kills him simply for being on the way of his ambitions. They may attempt to rationalize it by thinking of how guilty Macbeth feels, but they can no longer believe Macbeth is the perfect hero they saw him as in the beginning.
However, by the time, Macbeth has called for Macduff’s entire family to be murdered the reader has completely turned against him. In no way does he remain the valiant hero he was at the beginning, by then he is cruel and blinded by his need to preserve his crown. However, if it truly is only Macbeth’s ambition that drives his actions it leaves the reader to wonder why he does cruel deeds after he becomes king. For instance, his decision to kill Banquo and his son. He does this because it was prophesized that Banquo’s descendants will become king, but at this point he already holds the highest office he can as king, and while Lady Macbeth states “ I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me”(Act 1 Scene 7), Duncan and Macbeth both clearly state that Macbeth had no children of his own, ergo there is no one to inherit his crown regardless, so why should he have a problem with the descendants of one of his good friends inheriting the crown after him. The answer is clear and explains why Macbeth continues to grow crueler as time grows on. It can be summarized by his line in act 3, scene 4 “I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.
At this point Macbeth has committed so heinous a deed in killing Duncan that he feels redemption is not a possibility, so what is the point in trying to do any good. He has sacrificed his soul for his crown, how would it be fair and just for Banquo’s descendants to profit when they have not paid the price he has. As time goes on the more heinous a crime, he commits the more uninhibited he feels to commit worse crimes. What has started as a matter of ambition has put him on a path from which he cannot move. While it is Macbeth’s ambition that influences him in his journey as a tragic hero, Lady Macbeth has a significant role in the fall of her husband. She fans the flames that burn away at their legacy. Our introduction to Lady Macbeth comes in act 1, scene 7, where she is reading a letter from Macbeth detailing the recent events in his life including meeting the weird sisters and becoming Thane of Glamis, soon after reads his letter, Macbeth enters the room and she first seeds the idea of killing Duncan. Here the reader begins to see her character, she much like her husband is driven by her dangerous ambition, and when Macbeth’s loyalty to Duncan takes him off the path of murder, Lady Macbeth manipulates him back on course. Macbeth has second thoughts of killing Duncan and he goes to Lady Macbeth to tell her about his change of heart, but Lady Macbeth’s own ambitions will not allow it she questions his masculinity saying “When you durst [kill the king] then you were a man and to be more than what you were you would be so much more the man” (act 1, scene 7).
Here Lady Macbeth blatantly manipulates her husband to get her way by attacking his manhood and it works. In the time they live in, a real man should not be limited by small things like guilt and morals. This theme of the being limited by gender expectations is not exclusive to this scene, throughout the narrative characters seemingly limit themselves to what is expected from their gender. After Lady Macbeth receives the aforementioned letter from her husband, she calls on spirts to come and “unsex her” to take away the womanly aspects of herself, because she believes in order to properly go forward with her plan she cannot be soft like a woman. The Macbeths seem to have very restrictive ideas on what a man and a woman should be and considering that they end the story as the villains, it would seem Shakespeare is trying to say that they have the wrong idea. If we look at Macduff, who after killing Macbeth, appears to be the stories hero we get an example of what a man should be according to Shakespeare. “’All my pretty ones? (…) At one fell swoop?’ ‘Dispute it like a man.” ‘I shall do so, But I must also feel it as a man.’” (act 4, scene 3) these lines come after Macduff receives news that his entire family has been murdered by Macbeth, he is understandably devastated. Malcolm who is with him tells him to man up that men do not cry, but Macduff responds that it is because he is a man that he feels so he feels so strongly. “[Men] don’t cry? Not so, says Macduff. He can be a man and also mourn the brutal murder of his wife and children.” (Shmoop Editorial Team, 4) a sentiment neither of the Macbeths feel. Of course, it isn’t surprising that they agree “His wife and he have lived together for so long that they are exactly intuned with one another.” (Chapman 151).
As unhinged as the two are the reader questions very rarely their love for one another, and towards the end when Lady Macbeth dies of probable suicide, Macbeth laments “life a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”. They both have gone mad, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks imagining a stain of blood she can’t remove, and her husband is haunted his sins. They share ambitions, plots, guilt, and an unhappy ending. As a final point, it stands to be discussed that while Macbeth’s ambition acted as a fuel and Lady Macbeth acted as a fan for the fire, it is the premonition given to Macbeth by the three strange witches that spark the flames that turn him into a tragic hero. When the story begins Macbeth has already been thane of Glamis for what the reader might assume is a number of years, he’s been the cousin of the king for his entire life, so that leave the reader to wonder why it is only now that Macbeth’s ambition would point him towards assassination. At least, it would if there was not a clear inciting incident, that being, Macbeth having his fate told to him by the witches also referred to as weird sisters. In fact, the story of Macbeth starts and ends with fate. It would seem Shakespeare is trying to make a statement on the discussion of free will versus predestination that was so prevalent in the Elizabethan period it was written in, however, his definitive opinion on the topic is hard to say. Considering the all the premonitions given to Macbeth follow through but he makes choices that contribute to them. Banquo also receives a fortune stating he will descend a line of kings, and while we don’t see the fate play through within the realm of story, in real life Banquo was an ancestor of the King of England and Shakespeare’s patron King James VI.
However, the argument can be made that Shakespeare leans more in the way of free will with the story of Macbeth. After all, “The weird sisters put nothing into Macbeth, they only bring out what was already there, they seem to draw to him indeed, by the secret sympathy which evil naturally has with evil (Hudson, 13). The witches place no spell on Macbeth, they simply tell him fates that may or may not be true, he is the one who uses these fates as an excuse to do things he has likely long to for a long time letting it guide him. For comparison, we can look at Banquo. He too is given a prophecy by the weird sister, yet he disregards it easily. This proves two things: one, the witches used no, magical influence to make Macbeth due what they wanted if they did it would have likely affected him as well, two it shows that if Macbeth had not chosen the path of murder, he may have still inherited the crown.
But instead of viewing his fortunes like a promise, he instead uses them like permission slips that give him the right to the what he pleases because ‘it is what is intended’, he also uses his fates to protect him from the shame he may feel. Undoubtedly Macbeth is a tragic hero and the reader can see how the pressures of personal ambition, coercion from his wife, and knowledge of his fate all influence Macbeth and make him a cruel and tragic hero. However, his demise was avoidable and brought on by his own obsessions with power. This infamous tale acts as a warning to the reader, to be loyal, content, and moral, lest they too recount our lives as a story told by a fool.
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