Macbeth: A Tragic Hero Essay, Research Paper
Macbeth is seen as a tragic hero, he compromises his honor and neglects moral responsibility to attain power and position resulting in his tragic end. The significant events that are mentioned in this paper are events that are unfolded to show the path that led a misfortuned man to lose his honor in his tragic end.
A Tragic hero is defined as someone whose life is determined by four important elements: The first and most important of these elements is fate. Fate is defined as the power or force held to predetermine events. Fate is another word for one’s fortune and destiny. The word fate is first mentioned in the play when Lady Macbeth receives Macbeth’s letter telling of the witches’ prophecies. She is afraid that he will not take advantage of his opportunity to take the crown, “Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem to have thee crown’d withal”(1.5 29-30). Macbeth faces his fate at the end of the play after he himself created the monster within.
The second element is Macbeth’s weakness, which is fear. We often see this in Macbeth’s character. Being a tragic hero often involves fear because without fear Macbeth would not be human. He himself causes the fear that eats him alive. It is fear that in the end returns and takes the life of this unlawful king. In Shakespeare and the Craft of Tragedy by William Rosen states, “Macbeth’s fear is not the fear of conscience, it is the terror that springs from his inability to control his fate.”(90).
The third characteristic of a tragic hero is Macbeth’s poor decision making which results in his tragic end. Macbeth is constantly acting without thinking first because of his lust for power. Throughout the play, Macbeth will make many decisions that lack an honorable outcome. He does not care who his choices will affect as long as he gets what he wants.
The fourth and last characteristic of Macbeth as a tragic hero is his realization of his flaws, but being unable to prevent the tragedy. When the end of the play, Macbeth realizes that the prophecies have indeed come true. These prophecies led him to drown in his flaws. In the end Macbeh acknowledges his flaws, by then it is too late.
In the beginning of the play, Macbeth indeed has allegiance for Scotland and Duncan. His head was not filled with the idea of taking over the throne or the kingdom. He was loyal to his king and to his friends, and he showed his honor during his battle Macdonwald in the beginning of the play. The ironic thing about his killing of Macdonwald is how Macbeth kills him. He slits him from his navel to his jaw, and then not being satisfied he cuts of Macdonwald’s head. This action by Macbeth foreshadows the brutal and malicious person that he really becomes as the play unfolds.
Macbeth also goes into battle with the King of Norway. He succeeds and wins the battle over the Norwegian army. Macbeth truly succeeds in his goal to win the battle, and Duncan responds by giving Macbeth a new and important title, which is Thane of Cawdor. He then orders the present Thane of Cawdor to be executed because of betrayal. King Duncan bestows his honor upon Macbeth and states his “great happiness” on the events of Macbeth’s accomplishments.
Here is where one of the most important scenes of the play occurs. The three witches are introduced and are already talking about the events and future events of Macbeth’s life. In the first scene, the witches create an evil tone and mysterious setting. Scene one creates an atmosphere of evil that will continue throughout the play. It was known that in Elizabethan times, witches were traditionally thought of as evil and connected to the devil’s work.
The witches enter and state that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This statement simply means that “what is good will be bad and what is bad will be good.” To allude to the initial prophecy of the witches, the first line that Macbeth states in the play is, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen, (1.3. 38). This repetition links Macbeth to the witches. The witches’ prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo lets them know of their future outcome. The ‘weird sisters’ greet Macbeh with this title, not yet knowing that he is now Thane of Cawdor. The witches also tell Macbeth that he is also to be King of Scotland. This prophecy leads Macbeth into a state of mind that he cannot control. He is now thirsty for power and the only way that he can get that power is to kill the king.
The witches tell Banquo that he will be lesser and greater than Macbeth; they tell him he will never be king, yet his sons will. His response to the premonitions of the ‘weird sisters’ was still clueless. He doesn’t know what to think and he advises Macbeth to forget about the evil that they have just heard. In Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An Introduction, Dieter Mehl states, “In contrast to his source, Shakespeare lays great stress on the different reactions of Banquo and Macbeth and this alone should make perfectly clear that the ‘weird sisters’’ power over human will is very limited; they can suggest, not direct, and they do not directly circumscribe the freedom of their chosen victim.”(109).
As the play continues, Macbeth returns from his unusual encounter with the three witches and meets King Duncan. King Duncan greets Macbeth with respect and honor and then announces that he is naming his own son, Malcolm to succeed him as king. This creates a conflict for Macbeth because Malcolm will now be another obstacle to overcome in order for him to achieve his goal of succeeding Duncan as king.
Before Macbeth becomes king, he is in the process of deciding whether or not he should continue on with the plan of killing the present King of Scotland. Many things are going through Macbeth’s mind as he is contemplating the murder that he is about to commit.
In order for him to achieve his goal, he is deeply influenced by the power Lady Macbeth has upon him. Lady Macbeth has a plan, and that plan is to invite Duncan into their home, and then release his soul out of their home. She does not care about the death of the king, but she does care that Macbeth will succeed in his place. She vows to help Macbeth with his ambition to become king.
Macbeth debates Lady Macbeth’s plan with himself. He ponders on his thoughts of murdering Duncan, but a guilty conscience arises and he then questions his motives for killing the king. After all, King Duncan is such a gentle and caring king, especially to his loyal subjects. Questioning the outcome of his undone dirty deed, his wife steps in and questions him about his questions.
Lady Macbeth plays an important role in this play. If it weren’t for her influence on Macbeth, the play would probably have a different ending. Lady Macbeth is considered a fourth witch because of her continuous ambition to have Macbeth succeed as the next King of Scotland. She does this by questioning Macbeth’s manhood, calling him a coward, and persuading him to follow through with his plan. In Shakespearean Tragedy, H. B. Charlton states, “Lady Macbeth knows how searching for this test of human worth is the suggestion of cowardice. The sharpest instrument of reproach that she uses to spur the sides of Macbeth’s weakening intent is to accuse him of lack of courage, of fear and cowardice:”(149). Lady Macbeth certainly knows her husband’s weak points, and she uses them to buoy up his conviction. She desires as much as Macbeth to have the throne, maybe even more. Her greed leads her to forget about the compassionate nature of human beings.
After the influence of Lady Macbeth, her husband follows up with their plan. On the eve of the murder, Macbeth sees a floating dagger. He reaches for it, but is unable to touch it. The dagger is covered with the image of blood as Macbeth slowly approaches Duncan’s room. He thinks that his conscience is telling him that the bloody dagger has appeared to show him the horror of the act that he is about to commit. Although, Macbeth also believes that it appears to beckon him forward. As Macbeth is in this trance, Lady Macbeth’s signal of the ringing of the bell occurs and it provides Macbeth with the courage to continue on with the kill.
Duncan is murdered. Lady Macbeth knows that if all goes well, they will not be discovered. Yet, the act of murder and the guilty conscience cause her to jump at the screeching of an owl. Even if Macbeth is not caught, the murder of Duncan is a sin that already condemns Macbeth’s soul. Lady Macbeth is as guilty as Macbeth even though she did not commit the crime physically. She was unable to kill the king herself because she thought that the king looked too much like her father. In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, Norman N. Holland states, “Because Duncan resembled her father, she embodies, Sadger said, Shakespeare’s love for his father, but also his resentment and his unconscious impulse to get rid of him. (On the theory that John Shakespeare was a butcher, Sadger suggested that the poet would often have seen his father sticking animals with a knife-as Macbeth, in a way, does.)”. (96). Macbeth is unable to face the crime again, so Lady Macbeth takes the dagger back. She returns with her hands now covered with the blood of Duncan. This image of Lady Macbeth’s bloody hands shows that she is as guilty as her husband is even though she never committed the act of murder. Her thoughts and actions depict the kind of person that she is.
The king’s body is discovered the next day by Macduff and he sounds the alarm. Macbeth’s reaction to the news of the king’s death shows when he murders the two guards. He explains to his companions that when he saw the slain king he was filled with rage and anger that her murdered Duncan’s guards. He felt that they were the murderers because they were smeared with blood and they had daggers in their hands. Lady Macbeth plays a role in this scene of the discovery of Duncan’s body. While confusion and chaos are occurring, Lady Macbeth pretends to faint.
Duncan’s sons are furious and they fear and suspect that foul play had something to do with the murder of their father. They both flee from Macbeth’s castle in fear for their lives as well. Donalbain states that he will go to Ireland, while his older brother Malcolm agrees to go to England. Once they both have fled Scotland, they are now considered guilty for the murder of their own father.
Macbeth is now named the new King of Scotland. Duncan’s only heirs have fled and that is why Macbeth is now next in line. Macbeth is shown Duncan’s body, but is still unable to look upon him because of his guilty conscience. Macbeth then makes his way to Scone to be crowned King of Scotland instead of attending Duncan’s funeral at Colmekill.
Now that Macbeth is on the throne, he worries still about the prophecies that the witches have foretold to him about Banquo and his sons. Banquo and Macbeth loved and trusted one another. Their friendship is no longer there because of the path that Macbeth has chosen to take. Fearing the prophecies of Banquo and his sons becoming the future kings, Macbeth hires two murderers to kill them. The murderers are unsuccessful because they were only able to kill Banquo. His son Fleance is able to escape the hands of death. Even though Macbeth’s hands were not the ones that killed Banquo, he is the one that is ultimately responsible for the death of his former friend. In The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies, Matthew N. Proser states, “Once again Macbeth has tried to hide from the world and himself behind an objective force with which he seemingly has no connection. He disguises himself, so to speak, as two murderers who kill Banquo for their own reasons and who at the same time are possessed of the “seeling night’s” dire cruelty, of which they become the agents.”(74).
After Banquo’s murder, a banquet is held honoring the new King of Scotland, Macbeth. During the banquet, Banquo appeared to Macbeth in a form of a ghost. This event startles Macbeth making him lose control of his inner thoughts. The vision of the ghost is horrible and Macbeth speaks openly to it. This is the first time Macbeth gives way to a public expression of his inner conflicts; which marks a turning point in the drama. During the course of this dramatic scene, Macbeth notices that Macduff is not present at his banquet and fears that he is up to something. Concerned about his absence, Macbeth becomes paranoid and feels that he must control everything that is in his path so he can secure his position and remain in power.
After Macbeth’s ghostly encounter with Banquo, he feels that he must consult with the witches about his fate, as they seem to foresee the events of his future life. Macbeth meets the head witch Hecate who knows that Macbeth will not question information given to him but will act upon it. The witches conjure up an incantation three times to make sure that the charm’s power will be strong. The three apparitions are as followed: The first apparition is that of an armed head saying that Macbeth should beware of Macduff. The second apparition is that of a bloody child, and it states that no man born of a woman will harm Macbeth. The third and final apparition is that of a crowned child holding a tree. This last apparition states that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”(4.1. 91-93).
After hearing the prophecies, Macbeth then plans on killing Macduff’s family. Macbeth is no longer capable of making rational judgments or distinguishing good from evil. He wants to destroy Macduff and his family to insure that the bloodline is stopped. Macbeth is now out of control and reacts without thought to his actions. He feels that he must spill blood in order to remain in control and in power. Once again he spills innocent blood and is left with no sense of remorse. Shakespeare allows this act of murder to be witnessed as it occurs, rather than having it reported, because it gives the audience a first-hand impression of the evil nature of Macbeth.
Fearing for the worst, Macbeth leaves for Dunsinane, England to fulfill the prophecy of the ‘weird sisters’. This is where the fate of Macbeth takes place and unfolds. This is also where he will meet his enemy face to face in a battle of good vs. evil.
The battle between Malcolm’s forces against Macbeth’s forces now comes to pass. The Dunsinane prophecy mentioned a crowned child holding a tree. This in fact is ironic because Malcolm and his forces are marching into Dunsinane through Birnam Wood holding branches from trees as a camouflage. The battle begins, and the witches prophecy is again fulfilled. Young Siward is the first to die in battle from the hands of Macbeth; he is now another tragic victim of Macbeth’s evil nature.
Macbeth finally comes face to face with his enemy Macduff. In this scene, Macbeth reveals the prophecies that the witches have told his to Macduff. Macbeth is so confident that no harm will come upon him because he feels that the witches prophecies of his fate will protect him. He laughs and tells Macduff that he cannot harm him because any man born of a woman won’t have the power to do the crime. Macduff then informs Macbeth that he was not born of a woman, but was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. Macbeth now realizes that what the witches have told him was half-true and that indeed their prophecies contained a double meaning.
Macbeth’s tragic end finally comes to pass with Macduff’s victory during their sword fight. During their quarrel, Macduff calls Macbeth a coward, kills him, and cuts off his head. Macduff then proclaims Malcolm as the rightful heir to the Scottish throne and the play ends with Malcolm’s coronation speech promising a new and peaceful kingdom from his reign as the new King of Scotland.
Macbeth is a tragic hero because he has the potential for greatness, but his greed and lust for power undercut it. The prophecies of the witches provide the spark by which Macbeth’s soul is set on fire. Loyalty becomes treachery and friends become enemies. Lady Macbeth’s own husband neglects even her own death. Macbeth’s road to ruin is twisted and branching. He is offered chances to reverse his course and save himself, but he chooses to stick to the path of personal ambition. The play finally comes full circle. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth defends the king from those who would overthrow him. In the end Macbeth, who has taken the crown by blood and deceit, is overthrown and rightful rule is restored.