Macbeth- Tyrant or tragic hero?

Categories: Macbeth

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies, but it has been considered so unlucky that some actors will only refer to it as ‘The Scottish Play’. They believe that saying the actual name will bring bad luck. The play tells the story of a respectable military leader, Macbeth, and his rapid downfall towards the end of the play.

It follows the traditional layout of a tragedy, with a hero who has a fatal flaw that, in the end, leads to his downfall.

But there have been many debates about whether Macbeth’s character actually is a hero, or if his true side is that of a villain.

Driven by his desire to bring forward destiny, Macbeth decides to take the matter into his own hands. Encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, he goes about killing King Duncan and taking the throne for himself. However, that was just the beginning of his tyrannical reign. After more prophecies by the witches he ends up killing others in order to keep his kingdom to himself.

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Following the usual pattern of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, the first qualities that account for the heroic side of Macbeth are that he is a ‘noble man’ who enjoys his status and prosperity in society.

Macbeth is very well respected at the start of the play, as he is ‘cousin’ to King Duncan and is also a General of the King’s Army. He is extremely good at his job and shows a natural flair for physical courage.

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This is shown when, at the start of the play, Macbeth leads the Scots to victory in a battle against the Norwegians. An injured captain explains in Act I Scene II how Macbeth and Banquo ploughed on in battle, despite the Norwegians beginning ‘a fresh assault’. He also compliments Macbeth and declares, ‘for brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name’.

You might argue that Macbeth is worthy for the title ‘brave’, as he displays his loyalty and nobility to the King by defeating the Norwegians. But later on in Act II Scene II, the audience learns that Macbeth is not as brave as thought before. He relies on Lady Macbeth greatly following the killing of Duncan, and anguishes that ‘Cawdor shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more’.

This is a very prophetic line because, since then on, Macbeth never gets another night’s sleep. It is as if he has murdered sleep altogether and this shows through his slightly more sinister side.

After the battle seems to be the height of Macbeth’s success in life, when King Duncan learns in Act I Scene II how Macbeth has defeated the rebel Macdonald, and captured the ‘disloyal traitor, the Thane of Cawdor’. Macbeth has even managed to obtain a ransom of ‘ten thousand dollars’. King Duncan is overwhelmed by his ‘valiant cousin’, but equally dismayed by the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor. Without delay, he tells Rosse to ‘pronounce’ the Thane of Cawdor’s death, ‘and with his former title greet Macbeth.’

Here, Macbeth is spoken of with the highest praise by all of King Duncan, Rosse and the injured captain. This is very much in contrast to the end of the play in Act V Scene IX, where Macbeth has lost all respect, status and prosperity, but instead is described by Malcolm as ‘…this dead butcher’.

But, even though being extremely heroic, Macbeth carries a fatal flaw. The reader learns of this weakness in Act I Scene VII, when Macbeth is contemplating whether to kill Duncan or not. He states that he has ‘no spur’ to complete the deed, other than his ‘vaulting ambition which overleaps itself’. This is what eventually leads to Macbeth’s downfall towards the closing stages of the play. Other characters in the play also play upon his weakness. The supernatural intervention of the Witches can be considered, and also that of his own wife, Lady Macbeth. They know how to make him bend to their will. They play with his emotions and his masculinity in order to achieve their goals.

The letter from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth in Act I Scene V reveals both of their characters. In her first scene, Lady Macbeth describes her husband as ‘…too full o’th’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way’.

Here, she exposes the kindness of Macbeth’s character and that he lacks something to drive his ‘…ambition’. She also utters an important phrase that gives the audience a different perspective on Macbeth, ‘…thou…wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win’.

Everyone would like to have things that they do not deserve, especially if this could be done without any misdeeds. Lady Macbeth applies this to Macbeth, and this shows that he cannot be a villain because he fears doing wrong, despite the outcome being that he could become King.

The scene, Act I Scene V, arouses an alternative analysis that highlights the part of Lady Macbeth, rather than that of her husband. She expresses that she will ‘pour’ her ‘spirits’ into Macbeth’s ears, ‘and chastise with the valour of’ her ‘tongue’. This is due to her ‘fear’ that he will not go far enough as to kill King Duncan. So Macbeth is naturally a good man, but is lured into doing evil deeds by a deceitful wife. This interpretation suggests that Macbeth is the hero, and it is Lady Macbeth who is in actual fact the villain.

‘When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man’

In Act I Scene VII, Lady Macbeth speaks this when Macbeth doubts his ability to Kill Duncan. She is basically saying ‘you are not a man until you commit this deed. You have said you are going to do it, you cannot change your mind’. This plays with his masculinity. He is a very masculine man and being told that you are a coward or not very manly is extremely insulting for him.

You will find that Lady Macbeth is one of the most commanding and awe-inspiring Shakespearean characters of all time. She shares Macbeth’s ambitions but is much more determined than he is to achieve them. Macbeth appears to recognise her strength too, and in Act I Scene VI suggests that she shall have ‘men-children only’ because her ‘undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males’. Lady Macbeth also understands the nature of her husband well, and is able to coax and entice him into doing most things.

‘I have given suck and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done this.’

In Act I Scene VII she is encouraging him further by telling him that she would kill her own baby, if she had promised to do so like he has done. Lady Macbeth is insinuating that she is braver and more a ‘man of their word’ then he is. She is basically telling him he cannot back out of this, now he has promised to do it.

But can all the blame be placed completely on Lady Macbeth? It is true to say that Lady Macbeth is able to persuade Macbeth to kill Duncan. In his soliloquy in Act I Scene VII, Macbeth decides against the ‘horrid deed’. But Lady Macbeth knows how to make him see sense, and attacks his manly hood. She calls him a ‘coward’ and enquires ‘…art thou afeard?’ However, she does not take part in all of Macbeth’s wrongdoings, and cannot be held responsible as the villain behind them.

For example, in Act III Scene II, Macbeth says to her ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’. This is after he has devised and planned the murder of Banquo completely unaided, but does not tell her. Either he is trying to deceive Lady Macbeth, or more favourably trying to protect her. Whatever the notion, the villainy of Lady Macbeth seems to disappear after the killing of Duncan where she has had the lack of foresight to think that ‘a little water clears us of this deed’. This forms retrospective irony in Act V Scene I; Lady Macbeth cannot stop ‘washing her hands’. She is ridden with guilt and distresses ‘…will these hands ne’er be clean?’

When she says this, I believe, she is referring to her soul. She cannot clear herself of the evil deed. No amount of ‘washing’ will cleanse her spirit. She will bear this mark, forever reminding her of what she has done.

The witches also manipulate the weakness of Macbeth. It is considered that his downfall begins when he first meets the witches in Act I Scene III. Interestingly, Macbeth’s first line in the play links him to the witches. He uses the words ‘…foul and fair’ to describe the day. ‘Foul’ being the state of the weather, and ‘fair’ being the victory of their battle against the Norwegians. In the Witches’ first scene, they proclaim ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’. This could suggest that Macbeth does have a side of malevolence, as he is linked with supernatural beings. Maybe it is this malevolence that accounts for his worst deeds later on in the play. It also brings across a thought that he was destined to meet the Witches and that has fate had already been sealed.

In Act I Scene III, the Witches greet Macbeth as ‘… Thane of Glamis…Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘…hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.’

They also predict Banquo as ‘lesser and greater’ than Macbeth, ‘not so happy, yet much happier’, and also that Banquo ‘…shalt get kings, though thou be none’. The two are amazed by these prophecies, and Banquo considers ‘…have we eaten on the insane root…?’

But later in the scene when Rosse and Angus confirm that Macbeth is indeed now the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth’s fertile imagination begins to run away with him. In his aside speech, he talks about ‘…that suggestion’ and an imagined ‘murder’. But the Witches made no suggestion, they simply acknowledged him with three titles, and one was ‘…king hereafter’. They did not mention murder, but Macbeth specifically links the title to murder. Possibly the Witches have triggered off a thought that Macbeth had had before? More is learnt of this matter during the course of Act I Scene VII when Lady Macbeth asks, ‘what beast was’t…that made you break this enterprise to me?’ Therefore, Macbeth had already promised to murder Duncan before. This makes you think that the Witches cannot be held responsible for Macbeth’s actions, as they did not mention murder and Macbeth already had the idea in his head. It was not brought on by the Witches’ prophecies.

Macbeth has secret ambitions and lies to Banquo, in Act I Scene III, that his ‘…dull brain was wrought with things forgotten.’ Instead he is really thinking of the implications of the Witches’ prediction. The fact that Macbeth may have contemplated killing Duncan before makes him a villain and a false character right from the start of the play. But the audience can sympathise with Macbeth because he is told something that he might have always wished for, and finds it hard to let go of the Witches’ prediction. There are things that we would all like, and others might go further to get them than others. Maybe Macbeth’s character symbolises how we can all fall into temptation, and how difficult it is to get out once we have already been drawn in. Everyone has a weakness and it is just unlucky for Macbeth that his weakness is taken advantage of, but this shows his heroic quality.

Another attribute of the Shakespearean tragic hero is that he is faced with dilemmas and difficult choices. Often he makes the wrong choice and this sets a series of events that make his fall from grace and death inevitable. In the case of Macbeth, he has the choice to kill or not to kill King Duncan. He chooses to kill, and this sets the scene for a number of bad things to come.

There is great dramatic irony in Act I Scene IV where Duncan is oblivious to Macbeth’s plans. He ruminates that it is hard to see ‘the mind’s construction in the face’, and states that the former Thane of Cawdor ‘was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust’. Little does he know that the new Thane of Cawdor is not to be trusted either? How can Macbeth even consider killing such a genuine and honourable man? Only a villain could be capable to carry out such a deed.

The reason why Macbeth kills Duncan is one that can be used in the argument that he is a villain. First of all, here are the reasons against him killing Duncan. King Duncan is his relative as well as his monarch. You are not supposed to kill your relatives. You should protect them. If you killed your kind you were a traitor and it was believed that this would upset the ‘natural order’ of things. The Elizabethans believed that if such a terrible deed happened on earth, it would be reflected in nature and supernatural happenings would occur. Duncan was also a guest of the castle, therefore it is Macbeth’s duty to ‘…against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife’ himself. This is the typical law of hospitality. There is also the fact that Duncan has been a good king, despite all the dishonesty that power can usually bring. He has stayed ‘…clear in his great office’ and ‘…borne his faculties so meek’. He has only ever praised Macbeth and is highly respected by everyone.

Despite all this, Macbeth denies his ‘duties’ to Duncan’s ‘…throne and state’ as previously promised. Instead, he becomes the ‘…disloyal traitor’ that the former Thane of Cawdor once was, and allows his ‘vaulting ambition’ to guide him in the deed. All this is with the help of Lady Macbeth. But it can be argued that if Macbeth was so set against killing Duncan, then he should not have given in to her taunts. Also, in the world today ‘ambition’ is considered as a virtue.

This was not the case in Shakespeare’s time.

The Elizabethans considered ambition to be a sin, because it implied a sort of impatience against God who was considered responsible for your position in life. Therefore, this reason for murder is an inadequate one but good enough for the villain of Macbeth it seems.

The act of Duncan’s murder marks the beginning of Macbeth’s descent into guilt, paranoia, psychological turmoil and tyranny. As feared, the deed does ‘…teach bloody instructions’ as Macbeth is taken over by his ruthless ambition for supremacy and continues to eliminate everyone that he considers as a threat to his throne.

Some members of the audience might think that Macbeth is fully in control of what he’s doing, and is just a merciless man who seeks all power due to his greedy ambition. This is the view of him as a villain. But others might think that he is just a tortured soul who possesses a flaw that is anything but inhumane. This weakness is taken advantage of and leads Macbeth down the wrong road, never to return. This shows him to be a hero and also blameless for his downfall.

Macbeth’s worst acts are the hired assassination of his friend Banquo and the massacre of the family of Macduff. The only reasons why Macbeth plots to kill Banquo are that Banquo has ‘…wisdom that doth guide his valour to act in safety’ and that he will be ‘…father to a line of kings’. This is revealed in his second soliloquy in Act III Scene I. Macbeth worries about his ‘…fruitless crown’ and even reveals that there is no one else except for Banquo ‘whose being I do fear’.

One might think that just being king is enough, but Macbeth wants it all and cannot stand to think that his position as king might not be stable. He doesn’t want anyone to get in the way of him having a smooth reign. He has grown so insecure that he can’t even trust his good friend Banquo. All the people close to Macbeth slowly desert him as the play goes on. This is especially evident at the end of the play, when he is left to fight Siward and Malcolm on his own, as everyone else has deserted the castle.

These points can show Macbeth both as a hero and as a villain. He is shown to be a hero in that he is not in the right frame of mind and has been tortured so much by killing Duncan, that he has ‘…terrible dreams…nightly’ and is no longer fully in control of his actions. On the other hand, his plan to kill Banquo is devised completely on his own without influence or help from anyone else. Lady Macbeth does not even know about his plans. He has adopted the capability for cruelty and cannot release himself from the ever-growing bloodbath that he is creating. This gives the impression of Macbeth as a villain, and a very competent villain too as he continues his cunning works.

The massacre of Macduff’s family is another terrible deed that Macbeth himself commits. At his second visit to the Witches, Macbeth is shown three Apparitions. Their messages are to ‘…beware Macduff’ but also that ‘…none of woman born shall harm Macbeth…until Great Birnam Wood’ comes to Dunsinane.

Hearing this, Macbeth feels that he has got nothing to worry about, but to be ‘…double sure’ he decides to murder Macduff. It appears that Macbeth has gotten so used to destroying all obstacles in his way, that murder no longer seems to evoke the same pathetic words: ‘if we should fail’, from Act I Scene VII, before Duncan’s murder. When Macbeth hears that ‘Macduff is fled to England’, he does not change his plans. Instead, he decides to ‘…give to th’edge o’th’sword’ everyone at ‘the castle of Macduff’.

The killing of the Macduff family is one of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting Macbeth’s side of tyranny. He has no good reason to kill them but just decides to act on his first impulse. One could argue that the Witches, whose prophecies have all come true so far, influence this action. They warn Macbeth to watch out for Macduff, so he immediately decides to act because the Witches have been truthful so far. Who wouldn’t? But this does not give any excuse to kill Macduff’s innocent family who are not mentioned to be a threat at all by the Witches.

Macbeth later learns the truth of the Witches’ equivocations and that his life is not so ‘charm�d’ after all. Firstly in Act V Scene V, he finds that Birnam Wood is indeed moving towards Dunsinane, but in the form of Malcolm’s army camouflaged in the branches. Then in Act V Scene VIII when Macbeth finally faces his enemy, Macduff reveals that he ‘…was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’ But the way that Macbeth deals with these revelations is undeniably admirable. He turns to what he has always had since the start of the play, and that is his physical courage. Undeterred by the equivocations of the Witches, he determines to die fighting and this is truly heroic. Even when faced with a loosing battle against Macduff, Macbeth still fights like the soldier that he always has been and settles to ‘…try the last.’ Here, his heroic side outshines that of a tyrant.

Towards the end of the play, Macbeth has lost all his human feelings and is numb to emotion. He even pronounces that he ‘no longer knows the taste of fears’. One event that especially highlights his loss of all human qualities, is when Seyton momentously announces that ‘The queen…is dead.’ Macbeth’s reply is plainly that ‘she should have died hereafter’. There is no emotion in his reply at all. It’s as if he no longer cares for his life or anything in it. He has been so numbed by life it is as if he is a dead man walking. The audience will feel sympathy for Macbeth here, because it is very depressing to see any human being in such a detached state, regardless of what kind of life they have lived.

In Act V Scene V Macbeth compares life to light and forms a metaphor to explain life being like ‘…a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.’ This is like a premonition of his own death to come in Act 5 Scene 8. Upon Macbeth’s death the audience feels a sense of waste of a good man. Macbeth has lost all his respect from being the ‘worthy gentleman’ that he once was at the start of the play. Now he is reduced to descriptions such as a…’usurper’ and a ‘hell-hound’.

Macbeth has fallen from grace and the play seems to display the moral that once you get too involved in a bad deed, it is impossible to return back to your once innocent ways. But the audience feel an attitude of cleansing and can sympathise with Macbeth.

Macbeth is a play that represents one of the most extreme tragedies that Shakespeare ever wrote. The hero of Macbeth is shown through with his well-respected character and valour at the start of the play. His weakness is his ‘vaulting ambition’ and this diminishes him to a ‘dead butcher’ by the end of the play. But the Witches and Lady Macbeth play upon this weakness, making Macbeth’s downfall inevitable. But some people argue that there is also a side of tyranny to Macbeth’s character. This is considering the number of lives that have been lost at his hand, and the feeble reasons given for carrying out the murders. Macbeth also devises the majority of these murders on his own, so no blame can be given to any other character.

However, considering all the evidence given above, I would argue that Macbeth is indeed a tragic hero. Despite all his faults, it is always evident throughout the play that Macbeth suffers from extreme turmoil over his actions. He once confides in Lady Macbeth that his mind is ‘full of scorpions’, in Act III Scene II. He even appeals for the Doctor to help him in Act V Scene III and ‘raze out the written troubles of the brain’. The blunt reply he receives here is that ‘…the patients must minister to himself’.

Macbeth learns that he is truly alone but has lost all feeling to put right his ways. He is also tricked by the equivocations of the Witches and the dominance of Lady Macbeth. I also think it is symbolic that Macbeth does not take his own life, like Lady Macbeth. They are both in the same helpless state towards the end of the play, but it is only Macbeth who deals with this. He does not resort to suicide, like his wife who once sought to be filled ‘…from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty’, but strives on heroically against all odds. These are the reasons why I think that Macbeth is really a tragic hero and not a tyrant.

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Macbeth- Tyrant or tragic hero?. (2017, Oct 14). Retrieved from

Macbeth- Tyrant or tragic hero?

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