How is Macbeth a tragic hero?

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literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Macbeth is a tragic hero because he meets three of the four criteria as outlined by Aristotle.

According to Aristotle in the Poetics, the following characteristics are representative of a tragic hero:

1.  The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness.  This should be readily evident in the play.  The character must occupy a "high" status position but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character.

In Macbeth, Macbeth can be seen as a tragic hero based upon this characteristic.  He does occupy a high status and, initially, embodies virtue.

2.  Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect.  Otherwise, the rest of us--mere mortals--would be unable to identify with the tragic hero.  We should see in him or her someone who is essentially like us, although perhaps elevated to a higher position in society.

Another characterisitc where Macbeth falls into that of a tragic hero is #2: many other characters see him as great- higher than the typical character in the Macbeth society.

3.  The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate.  In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero's lack of perfection noted above.   This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as "tragic flaw.

Again, Macbeth meets this criteria of the tragic hero.  His downfall is his own fault.  While some may argue that others were potentially responsible (the witches and Lady Macbeth), he ultimately made the final decisions regarding his actions.

4.  The hero's misfortunate is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.

Here is where Macbeth parts from the typical tragic hero.  Macbeth, is eye for an eye is believed, deserved his outcome. His punishment (he is killed) does not exceed his crime (murder).

While some may argue that Macbeth is not a Tragic Hero, based upon Aristotle's definition, he meets three out of four requirements.

Here is a video summary of the play:

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ssengupta | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

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Macbeth is considered a tragic hero because, despite the apparently predestined nature of what transpires in the play, he is nevertheless responsible for his own actions. True, the witches "proclaim" his becoming King -- and he does! But throughout the play, Shakespeare artistically and artfully has Macbeth realize the crime he is contemplating --the murder of King Duncan. He has, says Macbeth, been the epitome of gentleness; kind and generous to him. Nothing justifies the assassination.

Yet Lady Macbeth concludes at once that the murder is necessary. Macbeth agrees but is not willing to kill the king.  He has a conscience, but his wife seems to be completely bereft of it. Together, they plot the murder and Macbeth kills the king.

Everything goes downhill after that. Muder begets more murders; lies beget lies. "Naughts are all spent/Where our desire's got without content," says Lady Macbeth.

What Shakespeare does, with great artistry and humanity, is give Macbeth a free will. Life will have its propositions, even temptations. But a person, especially one with the social stature of Macbeth, is expected to weigh the good with the bad. Never in the play does he once doubt the sin he was about to commit. But his ambition, spurred on by the witches and his wife, came to be his downfall.

Macbeth is a tragic hero because he exhibits all the characteristics of a tragic hero of the Elizabethan age: a person from a noble family, basically good, but, plagued by his ambition, ends up committing a henious act, bringing about his own downfall, filling us, his audience and readers, with pity and terror.

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brendawm | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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A tragic hero is a person of noble birth with heroic or potentially heroic qualities. Macbeth is a classic example of a Shakespearean tragic hero. He seems fated by the Gods or by some supernatural forces to doom and destruction or at least to great suffering. This tragic drama involves choices or free will and results in a paradox,is it Fate or Free Will which is primarily responsible for the suffering in the hero's life? Though fated the hero makes choices that bring about his destruction. In addition, tragic drama usually reveals the hero's true identity. The hero's suffering, however, is not gratuitous because through great suffering the hero is enlightened. Such heroes learn about themselves and their place in the universe. Pride is chastened. Though destroyed the hero is at peace intellectually. Many factors contribute to Macbeth’s description as a tragic hero. The prophecy which was told to him by the witches, how Lady Macbeth influenced and manipulated Macbeth's judgment, and finally Macbeth's long time ambition which drove his desire to be king. Macbeth's growing character degenerates from a noble man to violent individual. Exploring to a greater extent these ideas that lead to a tragic hero should help you.

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pg0612 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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A tragic hero is "a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat". Macbeth fits that definition perfectly. At the onset of the play, we see Macbeth victorious in the battlefield. The warriors with Macbeth praise him on the battlefield.  King Duncan hears about Macbeth’s bravery and awards Macbeth the title Thane of Cawdor after the previous Thane had committed treason. In other words, it seems as if Macbeth is destined for great things…all on his own merit.

Yet, once the witches appear to Macbeth and Banquo, Macbeth wants to take matters into his own hands. He gets in his own way. Aristotle’s concept of hamartia is evident here. Macbeth makes a miscalculation. He wants to rise to the top through wrongdoing which of course makes him a tragic hero. Also, hubris is at work here as well. Macbeth has overwhelming pride and, this too, leads to his downfall. He thinks he is greater than all others as he is gullible and believes the witches’ prophesies. They are there to lead him down a path of destruction, and he willingly follows to gain success.  He will stop at nothing to attain the kingship. Of course, all of this actually leads to his demise making his one of the most tragic heroes in British Literature.

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Macbeth is something of a tragic hero because at times he seems a victim of preordained fate. Though he is definitely guilty of pride and greed, there is a certain doom implied in the witches' prophecies. When Macbeth goes to the "weird sisters" demanding a prophesy, they answer his demands by showing him the future, but in a cryptic way.

The first appartaion is that of an armed head, which warns thim to "beware Macduff,", the second is a bloody child who eerily says that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth"; the third is a crowned child who says Macbeth will be safe until "Birnam Wood moves against him."

In Act V, Macbeth is told that Birnam Wood *is* moving against him, his Queen has taken her own life, and lastly, Macduff informs him that he is not of "woman born" but was "from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd."

Macbeth falls to Macduff's sword, beheaded. A tragedy, indeed.

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gurden | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Honors

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Macbeth is a tragic hero and the beginning praise by Duncan about his military skills proves it. Also, in regard to the witches, they merely predict what will happen, but never are we given the impression that the witches have actually INFLUENCED Macbeth to do anything. So yes, the methods and ideas are from his own mind, but what do we see throughout Macbeth?

We see a man, once noble and honorable, praised by the king, a cousin of him as well, suddenly sell his humanity to ambition. 

...I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

He knows what he's doing and he's in full control, but we see the struggle in his eloquent poetry. We see the conflict between his moral self and his ambition. Ambition wins out, and Macbeth embraces immorality. 

Once he gets what he wants, the crown, he realizes he is not happy. He can't trust anyone, and no one will trust him. His wife is mad, and a lot of people are...well, dead. This is his reversal of fortune. 

Macbeth soon loses his vigor in the speech in Act V Scene V. (too lazy to quote it. *sweatdrop*) where he speaks of how futile Life is.

Macbeth is a tragic hero through and through. However his actions cause resentment amongst the audience, so instead of feeling sorrow at his demise as we would for Othello, Hamlet, or King Lear, we feel relief that such a tyrant is dead. But in truth, there was a story, there was a human inside this tyrant. He is literary proof as to the dangers of ambition. 

That's a tragedy. __________________

"Life's but a walking shadow
A poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more;it is a tale
Told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

- Macbeth
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johncyjohn | College Teacher | (Level 1) eNoter

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Shakespeare's  tragic heros find an eminent position in society. According to the Aristotle the tragic hero is one who purifies the soul/heart of the readers/audience. Macbeth has served his duty sincerely in this aspect.He has remarkable qualities of head and heart for which he is praised as'Valour's minion' & Belladona's bridegroom'.

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cutiepie29 | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 1) Honors

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Macbeth fought honorably for Duncan against the invading forces at the beginning of Act I. He is noted for his bravery on the battlefield which is why Duncan makes him Thane of Cawdor. His tragic flaw is that he allows his wife to manipulate his ambitious desires. His downfall is when he turns his back on honor and murders his king.

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bashaer | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) eNoter

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Some of the tragic elements explained by Aristotle in his “Poetics” apply to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. The plot of “Macbeth” revolves around a serious subject which is treason, murder, battle, predictions, etc. The protagonist of the play is a person of significance. Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis and later of Cawdor as well. At the end of the play, the suffering and the tragic fall of the protagonist arouse pity and fear in the audience. They feel pity because Macbeth begins as a noble man who is very loyal to his king but he loses all that towards the end of the play. The audience will also feel fear at the end of the play because what happened to Macbeth might happen to them too. He is neither all good nor all evil according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Macbeth is just like one of us. However, Shakespeare does not observe all three unities in his play. “Macbeth” does not have a unity of place because the playwright keeps changing the setting of the action. In addition, the actual events in the play exceed 24 hours and thus “Macbeth” does not have a unity of time either. Yet, it does have a unity of action since it has one main plot (no subplots), and Shakespeare does not mix between tragic and comic elements in this play.

Finally, because Macbeth (the protagonist) does not fulfill all of the characteristics of the tragic hero as Aristotle explained in his essay he (Macbeth) cannot be considered a tragic hero. Macbeth is neither all good nor all evil, is an important influential person in society, and has a hamartia which is greed and it leads to his tragic fall. Macbeth’s greed is what makes it easy for his wife to persuade him to kill the king. He becomes Thane of Cawdor rightfully but it is not enough for him. He becomes greedy for more and murders the king for the throne. However, Macbeth does not gain wisdom through his suffering. He does not learn a lesson for his losses and thus he does not reach the tragic status of the tragic hero.

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jaydee12 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

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A tragic hero is a character that has a flaw. This flaw sets off a series of events that lead to the tragic hero's downfall or utter ruin.

Macbeth's tragic flaw is his ambition. He becomes Thane of Cawdor but once he hears the witches' apparitions he instantly wants to become King. His ambition is never satisfied. He always wants more than he already has. Macbeth sacrifices his reputation, relationships, honor, life, and his mind just to have power. His ambition leads to his ruin which is his death by Banquo.

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zumba96 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Nobility: Macbeth fought honorably for Duncan against the invading forces at the beginning of Act I. He is noted for his bravery on the battlefield which is why Duncan makes him Thane of Cawdor. His tragic flaw is that he allows his wife to manipulate his ambitious desires. His downfall is when he turns his back on honor and murders his king.

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florine | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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     It'd be of some interest to compare Richard and Macbeth. According to a critic, "Richard is a villain that becomes a hero" whereas Macbeth is "a hero that becomes a villain." Other critics stress the idea that Macbeth, as opposed to Richard III insists on the hero's free will. Consequently, Macbeth is a truly tragic hero. Nevertheless, Macbeth has also been said to be "a statement of evil". Macbeth is a thoroughly evil character at the end of the play and like Richard, he now is similar to the "anti-chtist", the Vice since he is doomed to be the "show and gaze o'the time."

    "We'll have thee as our rare monsters are ,

     Painted upon a pole, and underwrit

    Here may you see the tyrant." 


   So, Macbeth is far from being a tragic hero that corresponds to the Aristotelian definition, which is based on "pity and fear". We do not feel that he does not deserve his fate. We are not sympathetic, we do not feel any pity.

   The pitiable state Lady Macbeth is in makes her a truly Aristotelian tragic character, but not Macbeth. The function of Lady Macbeth's delirium is germane with Macbeth's bouts of madness in the banquet scene. The roles have been reversed at the end. Maybe, the only way we can consider Macbeth as a truly tragic character is when we keep associating him with Lady Macbeth, because of the sexual desire she aroused. It is the "dead butcher (like Richard) and the fiend-like Queen", V.IX.35, we cannot but pity because they stand for sexual passion, for desire. 

  It's true that there is catharsis and the purgation of passions plays a major role in the final act but I think Macduff's arresting image of Macbeth becoming the "show and gaze of the time" and the vision of the wicked royal couple are compelling arguments that go against the Aristotelian formula.  



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acompanioninthetardis | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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Macbeth is a tragic hero for many reasons.

1. His downfall was because of his own pride. Macbeth didn't see it but he died because he believed that he would never die.

2. Macbeth is also a tragic hero because he desired too much power.

3. Shakespeare made the audience sympathize with Macbeth.

4. His own ambition led to his downfall

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