To what extent can Macbeth be considered a tragic hero?

Categories: Macbeth

You should show how Shakespeare uses language and plot to balance the audience’s reaction.

Macbeth’s story is essentially a tragedy: the audience sees an honourable and respected man fall from his high position in Scottish society to the depths of murder, betrayal and deceit when gripped by his so-called “fatal flaw” of ambition. Taken at face value, this seems to be a very plausible argument for the tragic nature of Macbeth. However, if Macbeth’s character is examined throughout the play, it can be seen that he is missing some of the vital characteristics of the tragic hero.

Macbeth’s ambition is not entirely responsible for his downfall. He is described as “brave Macbeth”, a “valiant cousin” and a “worthy gentleman!” and it is difficult to believe that this strong, honourable man would be swayed solely by the predictions of some mad women who even Banquo suggests are the product of having “eaten on the insane root.” Lady Macbeth tells us that she and her husband have already discussed the murder of Duncan when she says “Nor time nor place/Did then adhere, and yet you would make both”.

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Furthermore, she convinces him that he would “Be so much more the man” if he did kill Duncan and manipulates him by contrasting her femininity with his masculinity, and essentially calling him weak if he did not murder the King. Therefore, Macbeth’s ambition, which is quite normally suppressed, is heightened to an abnormal level by Lady Macbeth’s control over him.

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The witches also provide extra voices in his ear that effectively tell him to kill Duncan. As a result, Macbeth’s flaw is not actually directly fatal and he does not have the free will that is required to choose his own path to his demise.

Macbeth is really forced into doing something that he knows is wrong and which he probably wouldn’t have done had Lady Macbeth and the witches not influenced him. When these influences meet with Macbeth’s morals, a soliloquy which describes his thoughts while considering the murder is produced and he says that “This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good”. The juxtaposition of “ill” and “good” show that Macbeth’s thoughts of murder are running in his mind directly in parallel with his morals: it shows he has a conscience. When he does eventually murder Duncan, we see Macbeth despairingly questioning why he did it and he asks “Wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?”. The audience, therefore, have some pity on him because he shows much remorse after the deed. The fact that he cannot pronounce ‘Amen’ makes us sympathise with him because he knows that he is probably going to hell. However, at the same time the audience know that Macbeth ignored his conscience, because they saw it in his soliloquies, and they therefore condemn him more for knowing that he was doing wrong, but continuing nevertheless.

If Macbeth had not shown his conscience, then the murder still would have remained wrong and the audience still would have condemned it. However, with little moral education and by not recognising the evil of his actions, he would have been easier to forgive because the blame could have been attributed wholly to the evil of the witches and the influence of his wife. Despite this, he does have a conscience and shows more and more disregard for human life during the course of the play. It is tragic when people cannot see what they are doing is wrong, but Macbeth flatly refuses to even look, and knowing the truth says “Stars hide your fires,/Let not light see my black and deep desires” in some effort to expel the murderous thoughts from his mind. When he orders the killing of Macduff’s family, it is probably the point in the play where Macbeth is at the height of his evil, and it is difficult to forgive him for any of his actions.

The only way the audience can possibly feel any sympathy for Macbeth is by virtue of his education. He makes a classical association of the murder of Duncan “…with Tarquin’s ravishing strides…” in the Roman story. The audience think that if a man with this intelligence can be dragged down to such levels of evil, it is not entirely unreasonable to say that people without his sensitivity and perception might also become victims of his unfortunate circumstances.

After the murder of Duncan, the mental torture which Macbeth undergoes is probably not fitting for the crime that he has committed, given that he was pressured somewhat. However, after the experience, Macbeth receives exactly what he delivers in terms of suffering: he kills Banquo and he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost; he goes looking for the witches, and they show him the apparitions which depict his demise; and finally he kills Macduff’s family and he is killed by Macduff. The suffering is not disproportionate and in the end, the only fitting punishment for a tyrannical “butcher” such as Macbeth is to be killed himself. The audience, although possibly sympathising, simultaneously feel that justice has been done.

Macbeth’s story may be tragedy and it is possible to say that the waste of such a great man is, in a sense, tragic. However, the extent to which Macbeth can be considered a “tragic hero” is limited. In the end, he suffers only as a direct result of his personal choices after murdering Duncan and he could have put a stop to the suffering then because he knew inside himself what he was doing was wrong, but refused to think any more about it and let the evil consume him.

The audience, who may pity Macbeth because of his struggle with right and wrong, only really sympathise with him because they can feel in themselves that same struggle. They do not sympathise with him because of his seemingly “good” traits of honour and bravery, because they would feel insecure if such a good man were to be overrun so rapidly by evil. Instead of coming to terms with the evil that resides within them, the audience can externalise it, vindicating themselves in the process and balancing the evil on stage with the good that they feel within themselves after demonising the witches and attributing all the evil to them.

Most importantly, Macbeth does have the classic fatal flaw, but it is tenuously linked to his downfall by the murder of Duncan, which was arguably carried out under some duress. To be classically tragic, it should be the direct cause, and not the catalyst for his demise.

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To what extent can Macbeth be considered a tragic hero?. (2017, Oct 14). Retrieved from

To what extent can Macbeth be considered a tragic hero?

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