Macbeth as a Tragic Hero

Shakespeare must have conceived of Macbeth as a personality caught up between the old and the new world-views and ethos—the conventional one and the Renaissance one. The former defined man’s place on earth in terms of the biblical world-view presented in the first chapter of the Bible Genesis, which necessarily linked it to the concept of Great Chain of Being, and accordingly dictated the codes of conduct. The later yet to come out fully, on the other, was trying to supplant the old ones with the new and pseudo-scientific one, which was slowly but surely encouraging man to think beyond the traditional framework towards the direction of fullest use of the human potentials. The audience/readers feel sympathetic to Macbeth, not because he possesses the high stature of a tragic hero described by Aristotle. They understand that he is a villain and criminal, but at the same time they also share his “vaulting ambition”, which collides head-on with the ethical parameters in the play.

The play has been presented not only against this backdrop, but also against another situation, which much attention has not been paid to. Actually the play starts at the crucial juncture of Scottish history: the king Duncan has grown old and feeble and sensing this, the rebels and the king of Norway the kingdom attacked. Macbeth along with others must have been conscious of this opportunity as ambitious persons always look forward to. Much has been said and written about his association with the Witches, and even if we ignore them, we hear an echo of the Witches’ words from him on his first appearance on the stage:

“So foul and fair day I have never seen”

We may presume that the grand success in the battles with Duncan’s enemy whetted his ambition before his actual meeting with the Witches. And when he learns from them that “”, he gets greatly moved. His excitement at the “strange intelligence” from the Witches begins to transform into a potent ambition very soon at the fulfilment of the two prophecies as he is greeted by Ross:

“Glamis, and thane of Cawdor!

The Greatest is behind.”

Right from this moment Macbeth begins to feel a split in his personality created by the great pulls of morality on the one hand, and terrible anticipation of the royal reality:

“...why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair...”

Of course, Macbeth demonstrates his good sense when he comments on the prospect of his kingship:

“...Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings.”

Here it must be pointed out that the king does not act prudently in throwing out the proposal of holding communal feast at Macbeth’s castle in such a fluid condition in which a faithful man like the Thane of Cawdor betrayed his trust. This creates an unthinkable opportunity, which Macbeth must have thought a satanic one, if not providential, to seize upon, and his ambition begins to take the shape of a potent plan even before the hot-headed intervention of Lady Macbeth. Sympathetic critics tend to shift the blame on Lady Macbeth who, of course, resorts to emotional blackmail by underestimating his capability just to goad him towards curving out his way to the throne. But Macbeth, whom the bleeding Captain described with such superlative epithets as “valour’s minion”, “Bellona’s bridegroom” etc. should have withstood the insulting exhortations of his wife.

The real nature of Macbeth only comes out as soon as he commits the murder of Duncan and experiences the psychological and moral effects of the such a heinous act. Combined with this is Shakespeare’s presentation of the popular effects of usurping a rightful king. As Macbeth gets alienated from nature and faces the ordeal of the absence of divine grace, he does not learns from the prick of conscience. On the contrary he goes on to affirm his authority in a wrong way, and here again his authority gets snubbed by the intervention of Banquo’s ghost. It must be pointed out here that right from the Banquet Scene, Lady Macbeth’s powers also begin disintegrate and she cannot provide the same amount of support. However, while Lady Macbeth slowly shrinks from the external reality and recoils in her own personality, the opposite happens with Macbeth, who undergoes a total transformation of personality and becomes more and more dependent on the Witches. He becomes a tyrannical, treacherous and suspicious ruler. He emerges as a confirmed villain when he gets the wife and the child of Macduff killed. All these killings cannot be ascribed to the impact of the prophecies of the Witches.

At this point one is reminded of A.C. Bradley’s view that in Shakespeare’s tragedies character is destiny as a character like Macbeth is himself responsible for his downfall. But as Bradley was a Hegelian idealist, he did not consider the fact that the tragedy of Macbeth also involves the tragedy of the Scottish people who suffer just because of the misdeeds of a king. We are attracted to Macbeth because he shows something of a reflective nature and utters some wise words which arouse our sympathy because we share his human nature, his limitation and some of his flaws too. It is here in the theatrical phenomenon that the fall of the tragic hero effects the catharsis of “pity and fear”, that the character of Macbeth passes the test of the Aristotelian concept of tragic hero who vanishes from the scene forever leaving behind some greater understanding. The audience/readers learns from his experience that if not lived properly,

“Life’s but a walking shadow... is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”


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