Friday, September 15, 2006


Macbeth As A Tragedy

‘Macbeth’ is commonly known as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, but does it conform to the accepted conventions of a tragedy? Though most readings of ‘Macbeth’ meet the tragic conventions, especially the fatal flaw and the decline of a hero, it can also be interpreted as a non-tragedy due to the lingering question: was Macbeth’s tragedy the result of his ‘fatal flaw’ or was he merely the pawn of the Witches and Lady Macbeth?

To understand why ‘Macbeth’ is a Shakespearean tragedy, you must first know what that means. A Shakespearean tragedy is made up primarily of the following points: The protagonist must start at the height of his fortunes and fall fast from there, in the end he must die; all of this must be caused by a fatal flaw in the person’s character. Other factors are that the antagonist generally survives, the audience identifies with the protagonist and there is often god/fate in the mix. ‘Macbeth’ meets most of these points, particularly the fatal flaw and the fall from grace.

The play begins with Macbeth at the height of his fortunes. He has just gained his second thaneship, he is a loved and respected war hero, the king himself is simply ‘itching’ to give him further honours: “only I have left to say, / more is thy due than more than all can pay” as King Duncan exclaims to Macbeth in Scene 4 of Act 1. Till this point, Macbeth’s fortune had all been gained through lawful deeds, although there are suggestions that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had discussed the matter of kingship prior to the play: “What beast was’t then / that made you break this enterprise to me?” cried Lady Macbeth when Macbeth said that he would not kill the king. From the moment that Macbeth committed the murder, his mind degenerated until in the end it gave up and sent him on a suicidal confrontation with the enemy. Most tragedies possess this trait, including Hamlet and Oedipus, and it allows for a tragic tale, a great man falling from the glorious heights to the lowest he can go, in the case of Shakespearean tragedies, death.

A tragedy is not simply about the decline of an individual. It is about the decline of an individual through that person’s deeds and most particularly through that person’s fatal flaw. The fatal flaw is a trait in a person’s character, such as ambition, that most people possess but that the tragic hero has to an extreme degree. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition. His ambition is powerful, but until the prediction of the witches, it had been bound and kept at bay by his moral judgement. When he felt assured of the success of his ambition his morals and “milk of human kindness” began to lose the battle for control of his life. Macbeth’s mental battle can be chartered through his various soliloquies and conversations with his wife:

“If good, why do I yield to that suggestion,

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs

Against the use of nature?”

In this speech, spoken by Macbeth immediately after hearing the first of the predictions, you can see his morals beginning to waver in the face of temptation, and the idea of wearing a murdered king’s crown seizes his imagination. From there his morals slide into oblivion leaving only his ambition, which turns him into a murderer.

The question of whether ‘Macbeth’ is a tragedy arises from the possibility that Macbeth was not responsible for his own downfall. There are two other parties who could be considered responsible for Macbeth’s downfall: the Three Witches and Lady Macbeth.

It can be gathered from the text, especially the first Witch’s speech in Act 1 Scene 3; and from their predictions, that the witches can control the weather, predict the future and probably influence, but not control, people’s minds. Perhaps the witches knew how Macbeth would react to their predictions and what would happen to him if he listened? In this reading, the witches could be seen as controlling or forcing Macbeth to do the things he does, perhaps even summoning the dagger Macbeth saw in Act 2 Scene 1:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee:

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

However, the idea of Macbeth, an innocent man brought down by scheming witches, does not conform to the conventions of a Shakespearean tragedy. This reading of Macbeth would be uncommon in today’s society, as belief in witches has declined and people are more likely to believe that a man is capable of committing the terrible deeds that tarnish Macbeth’s name. But in Shakespeare’s times it is likely that much of the population laid the blame on the witches and their satanic powers.

The other person who could perhaps be blamed for Macbeth’s initial, fatal, action is Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth spends her time trying to break Macbeth’s moral code. She herself dreamt of being Queen, or King as she sometimes suggests (“Come, you spirits / that tend mortal thoughts, unsex me here” [Act 1 Scene 5]), and to achieve this she played upon Macbeth’s ambition and pride, two deadly vices. She called him unmanly and cowardly; forcing him to do the deed that went against every moral he’d ever known. Lady Macbeth knew exactly what to say to Macbeth to bend him to her will, laying the blame of Macbeth’s downfall upon her and away from him. The irony in Lady Macbeth’s usage of her husband is that she herself had not the strength he had. She calls him cowardly but, when she’s alone, she admits that she would have done the deed had not the king “resembled / My father as he slept” (Act 2 Scene 3), in this she admits her weakness. She goes further to confirm this when, after Macbeth has committed the crime and taken them beyond the point of no return, she snaps and her guilt breaks her apart: “Not so sick, my lord, / As she is troubled with thick – coming fancies / that keep her from rest” (Act 5 Scene 3) as the doctor says to Macbeth.

To conclude, I believe that in terms of the codes and conventions ‘Macbeth’ is clearly a Shakespearean tragedy. Though there is suggestion of his being pushed into his downfall by an outside source, I interpret it as being his fault, his fatal flaw, his ambition. He was conscious of his acts right the way through, he knew he was doing wrong and he still did not change his course. My reading reflects modern sentiment: the lessening of belief in the supernatural and the greater acceptance that people can do evil. These things show that the fault, and the tragedy, lies with Macbeth and no-one else.


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