Macbeth As An Aristotelian Tragic Hero Essay
, Research Paper
In tragedy, more specifically; in the creation of a tragic hero, there are certain standards and structural guidelines by which a playwright or an author is to follow. One such standard is the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. This definition paves the way for a dynamic character who can portray and extremely tragic situation. William Shakespeare may have utilized this structural formula to create Macbeth, the hero in The Tragedy of Macbeth. The intention of this discussion is to prove by breaking down the structure of Aristotle s tragic hero, and comparing it with the structure of Macbeth s attributes in William Shakespeare s The Tragedy of Macbeth, that the protagonist s life parallels that of an Aristotelian tragic hero.
In his book, “Poetics”, Aristotle devises a set of requirements which he feels all tragic heroes should achieve. The first quality of an Aristotelian tragic hero is that “the hero must be good but not perfect, he must be like us in order to gain out sympathy” (House 481). The hero is a person of higher social standing, in essence, better than average people, yet he still possesses only human characteristics. The hero makes a fatal error in judgement that is caused by his fatal flaw, or hamartia (House 83-97). Then “a reversal of ignorance” (Else 438) takes place in which he experiences a “realization and recognition of the events that conspired” (Barnet 111-112). The play is almost always ended at the complete destruction of the hero, either by death or total emotional devastation (House 96-97). This allows for the purging of emotions which lies in Aristotle s corresponding definition of the tragedy itself. The tragedy, as Aristotle defines it, consists of the following elements: A hero of high importance, usually someone of nobility, and this hero has a hamartia or a fatal flaw. There is then a
reversal of fate for the protagonist and a catharsis, or purging of tension. The tragic flaw results in the hero s ultimate downfall in which death or utter emotional destruction of the character takes place (Barnet 111-113). These things in combination with the general decency of the tragic hero, are very important to the plot of an Aristotelian tragedy.
In relation to the plot of each tragedy, the initial goodness of the protagonist is essential. For Aristotle, the tragedy is fundamentally a “play in which great moral issues are involved matters of the greatest possible importance to human life: and these cannot be plain except in characters who are basically and mainly good” (House 85). In order for the audience to feel pity for the protagonist, he must be essentially good , for if the hero is simply an evil person, it makes the audience dislike the character. As it is stated by Humphry House, “[a]n evil man has already a habit of evil; and if this kind of action altogether controls the play, it is either merely horrible or a comedy” (86). However the hero cannot be completely virtuous because “the entirely good man passing from happiness to misery is not fear inspiring or piteous, but simply odious to us” (85). In Aristotle s description of the tragic hero, “[he] was not to be pre-eminently virtuous and just “because he meant for the protagonist to be less than that (House 86). After establishing the goodness of the main character, one must be sure that he is also an appropriate character.
There are many interpretations of the word appropriate in Aristotle s definition of a tragic hero. He chooses to state that the character must be appropriate without elaborating enough on what he means. The general consensus is that the character should be suitably better than normal people (Else 481). “tragedy makes it s personages better than the men in the street” (92). In other words, the hero should not be a common person. The protagonist must only possess the characteristic indigenous to the his position in society as well as to basic human nature. In support of this, House translates, “[the] character must be true to life, natural” (House 91). Basically the character must fit appropriately into his social class, and not possess any super-human powers or abilities. Perhaps the definition of verisimilitude is derived from Aristotle s use of the word appropriate as well. By gaining believability in the eyes of the reader, the protagonist continues to be made more true to life through his historical likeness to the person being depicted.
The likeness of character furthers the plausibility of the main character. In House s translation of Aristotle s Poetics, Aristotle is translated saying, “The third [point] is to make [the tragic hero] like”, which has been interpreted as likeness to the original (91). The idea of historical likeness to the hero is created. In a tragedy, the protagonist should be a representation of a human being from some historical account who holds significance as a tragic person. These people usually led tragic lives due to some tragic flaw or hamartia.
The next step in Aristotle s definition would be that the main character contains some tragic flaw, or hamartia. Aristotelian scholars agree that “hamartia means an error which is derived from ignorance of some material fact of circumstance” (Long 27). Hamartia is not a question of morality, but a “specific error which a man makes or commits.” The misfortune brought upon the tragic hero is by some error of judgment (Bloom Interpretations 152). The whole concept of hamartia hinges on the fact that the characters perform the action themselves, through action” (Elliot 247) This action performed by the tragic hero is usually due to hubris, which is oftentimes interpreted as excessive pride and/or ambition (Barroll 151). The tragic flaw of the protagonist leads the way to his reversal of fate.
Hamartia by way of the domino affect, leads to an eventual peripety or reversal. This is in reference to reversal of fate, “Peripety is a real reversal brought about by force of circumstances or by the action of the other characters” (Barroll 147). The tragic hero through action of his own, or through the actions of others is forced to see the results of his own doings. “The action is complex because it moves on two levels, as it appears to the doer and as it really is” (Elliot 70). This is why the peripety can be in reference to reversal of fate or reversal of intention. The reversal from ignorance to knowledge is what creates the “discovery” for the protagonist (Barnet 112). The discovery, the direct result of peripety, is a minor, yet important part of the tragedy.
The discovery in the tragedy is simply the product of the reversal. Once the protagonist has been affected by the peripety and has gone from ignorance to knowledge, he is in a state of awareness, which has been defined as discovery. Over the course of the tragedy, the hero experiences all of the stages within the definition of an Aristotelian tragic hero.
Macbeth, the protagonist in Shakespeare s The Tragedy of Macbeth, is a prime example of an Aristotelian tragic hero. In Aristotle s Poetics: The Argument, Else states that “undoubtedly Macbeth is built in heroic proportions, with great possibilities – [he] could be nothing other than [tragic]” (451). To further prove the tragic nature of the play, Wain speaks of Macbeth in saying that ” he is wholly tragic” (86). The first characteristic of Macbeth that will be used to prove his Aristotelian structure, is his general goodness of character.
In adhesion with Aristotle s definition of a tragic hero, and the need for the character to be basically good, Macbeth States “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent ” (I,vii,25). What he was trying to achieve was what he believed to be the proper ends; he did not want to cause others pain if it was unnecessary. Basically this proves that his intentions were not so evil, rather, they were merely misguided. In a twisted way, this reflects his underlying goodness. King Duncan described Macbeth as “valiant” and a “worthy gentleman” (I,ii,24) and at a time during the first Act he does fit these praises. Macbeth was a brave warrior, “like valor s minion carved out his passage ” (I, ii,19). Before Macbeth commits his first murder, the murder of King Duncan, he actually decides against the act “because of its incalculable results, the treachery of such action from one who is both kinsman and host, and Duncan s own virtues and greatness as king” (Hawkes 14). Macbeth realizes exactly what is bad about killing the king and obviously has the ability to reason what is right and what is wrong. After the deed is done, and Duncan has been killed, Macbeth shows that he is still not completely evil because, “[he] has at least the grace not to claim for his doings any tinge of grace” (Elliot 75). In addition to his being partly good, he shows similar characteristics to the historical Macbeth of Holinshed s Chronicles.
The requirement for the appropriateness of character is fulfilled in The Tragedy of Macbeth, because Shakespeare s Macbeth is appropriately true to life. Macbeth is illustrated by Wain to be intellectually powerful (81). He is an individual of high status; already thane of Glamis, he is named Thane of Cawdor by the king (I,ii,67). As a person Macbeth is ” great, magnificently great, in courage, in passionate indomitable ambition in imagination and capacity to feel” (Hawkes 15). He is shown to be superior in almost all respects and is therefore appropriately better than ordinary people. Alongside his higher social status, his similarities with the true Macbeth are also evident.
To be described as like the historic figure that the tragedy is based upon is a requirement in the definition of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Macbeth is like the real Macbeth as described in Holinshed s Chronicles, in that he “was a relative [of Duncan] by marriage as is stated in Shakespeare s Macbeth. The true Macbeth actually served under Duncan as a general, and did take control of Scotland by killing him (Wain 135). Shakespeare s Macbeth followed basically the same path as the true Macbeth, and was even attacked by Northumbrian forces, just as the true Macbeth had been (136). Although other details of the tragedy do not correspond with the historical documentation that Shakespeare had apparently referred to, his Macbeth is relatively consistent with the account.
In addition to his likeness to the true Macbeth, he can also be viewed as true to life because of the presence of human emotion inside of him. He shows human emotion when he tells his wife to act normal to hide their guilt, “make our faces vizards to out hearts, disguising what they are” (III,ii,33-34). He says this because they desperately need to mask their guilty conscience. Macbeth obviously feels deep remorse for the crime he committed. Constantly haunted by the dastardly deed, he says “o, full of scorpions is my head, dear wife!” (III,ii,36). Exclaiming to his wife his human feeling of paranoia, he is overcome by is conscience following the murder of a greatly loved person. These feelings are created due to the murder of King Duncan, which was inspired by Macbeth s hamartia.
The hamartia of Macbeth is what is commonly referred to as hubris . Macbeth, in a long speech, admitted to having “vaulting ambition” (I,vii,27). This ambition is the hubris and the downfall of Macbeth. Part of the reason for his error in judgment is that he is “morally weak” and although he does have morals (Wain 481), he is able to twist them in order to give himself the ability to kill the king. In order to so Macbeth may receive his misdirected ends. Macbeth who wishes for these ends “does in fact will the means” to get the ends (81). Because of his actions, Macbeth continually mistakes “the anguish of conscience for fears of selfishness, and thus, as a punishment of that selfishness, plunging deeper into guilt and ruin” (85). At this, Macbeth s hamartia destroys him. Peripety, a part of the Aristotelian tragic which is directly linked with hamartia is the next topic for analysis.
The peripety ,or reversal, is closely related to the discovery. The reversal itself creates the
knowledge required for the protagonist to become aware of his fatal error. The reversal in The Tragedy of Macbeth, is foreshadowed in the first scene by the witches, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I,i,10). These words illustrate the peripety of Macbeth s fate. This statement by the witches represents the reversal of accepted values (Hawkes 6). Macbeth, looking back on the situation would, if he had the choice, rather have had everything he wanted, innocently (Wain 81). In retrospect, Macbeth feels that his ends did not justify his means.
As aforementioned, the outcome of the peripety for a tragic hero is the final discovery. When Macbeth finally becomes aware of his fatal error, he is completely devastated to point of full emotional destruction. It is not until he is confronted by MacDuff in Act V that he is fully aware of the true horrors and consequences of his actions. Macbeth is constantly in a state of fear up through Act III when he discovers exactly what position he is in, ” we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep in the affliction of these terrible dreams that shake us nightly” (III,ii,17-19). Constantly being haunted by nightmares, his actions take their toll. Once Macbeth is confronted by MacDuff at the close of the play, he becomes completely aware of his imminent destruction and he is told how he basically, through his own actions, lost all the allies he ever had.
“Siward and MacDuff, representing wide range of human society, tell him
plainly and strongly that he has become a servant of hell and the devil In the close of the play, for the first time in his career, he has to hear himself utterly condemned to his fate for his wickedness After he is chastised, Macbeth does not utter a single word of repudiation of that verdict” (Else 75).
It is obvious, through Macbeth s lack of repudiation, that he is totally aware of these truths, and he is unable to defend himself because he understands is degeneration has caused his fall.
Through careful and thorough evaluation of Aristotle s definition of a tragic hero, and the consistencies within Macbeth s character, it can be conclusively stated that Macbeth is in truth, an Aristotelian tragic hero. His consistency with the Aristotelian definition, from his high place in society to his hamartia and his eventual destruction, are examples of why Macbeth holds the characteristics necessary to be labeled as an Aristotelian tragic hero..