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If Macbeth is evil, why do/should we pity him and how does Shakespeare shape our pity...

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heartbreak-wa... | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted February 27, 2010 at 11:10 PM via web

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If Macbeth is evil, why do/should we pity him and how does Shakespeare shape our pity throughout the play?

I that we do because he is a tragic hero and it's one of the requirements-catharsis. But how does  Shakespeare draw us in to Macbeth? Do most readers pity him?

Tagged with literature, macbeth, pity, tragedy

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drrb | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted February 28, 2010 at 12:33 AM (Answer #1)

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Shakespeare showed Macbeth to be a victim of overvaulting ambition which Milton calls 'the last infirmity of the noblest mind'. This infirmity turns to naught all the nobility that Macbeth had in him. But Shakespeare has not shown him to be a villain althrough. First of all, he is given a very good image in the opening scenes where he is 'Bellona's Bridegroom', 'worthy gentleman' 'noble kinsman' and similar other celebration of his heroism. He is patriotic in the eyes of the bleeding captain. Then he is shown as fighting against the rebels like Macdonwald and the Thane of Cawdor and the King of Norway who invaded the kingdom for assisting the rebels. Shakespeare has justified Macbeth's assassination of Duncan indirectly by showing the biased behaviour of the king in passing rule of Cumberland to his son's hand while Macbeth as his younger cousin could claim it especially after the outstanding victory. Shakespeare has not shown the assassination of Duncan on the stage. Moreover, he has shown the sufferings not of the king who is killed but that of Macbeth who suffers the pangs of conscience and psychological conflict. To show the murder by Macbeth would make the audience antagonistic to Macbeth. The other murders are committed through hired murderers. All the time there is the mental crisis reflected in the soliloquies of Macbeth. The sleep-walking scene also helps the audience to think positively in favour of Macbeth and his wife. They were not born criminals. After Lady Macbeth's death, Macbeth speaks philosophically about the futility of life. Macbeth is a poet who turns criminal and our high opinion about him is not totally lost till the final Act where he still seems to be bold and courageous. He never justifies his evil action but only wades in the river of blood because it is tedious to go back to good life. Macbeth admires the golden opinion of the people. He thinks sensitively to all the murders and suffers more than the persons murdered. Then there are the roles played by the witches and Lady Macbeth the fourth witch. Thus Shakespeare does not present Macbeth as a die-hard criminal. We feel pity for the downfall of such a great man.

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted February 28, 2010 at 12:31 AM (Answer #2)

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In the play 'Macbeth' by William Shakespeare, the author invites us to pity Macbeth a few times - these times are usually illustrated by the use of certain images and language. If Macbeth is genuinely sick in the mind, then surely we can pity him as we would any paranoid or schizophrenic patient that was going through mental anguish ahd hell. The images used to evoke pity usually involve symbols of helpless innocence such as infants and babies and things associated with them - suckling, breast milk, 'the milk of human kindness' and so on. The darker images are saved for evil and menacing beings such as sexless creatures, witches or weird sisters.The annoying thing is that we never really know how much Macbeth is 'sad' and how much he is 'mad.

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dstuva | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted February 28, 2010 at 2:16 AM (Answer #3)

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When we read or watch Shakespeare's Macbeth, any knowledge we have of tragedy and catharsis should be irrelevant.  It isn't of course to anyone who's studied tragedy, but it would be unknown to many, in the past or present, who read or watch the play. 

Any playwright of tragedy would naturally attempt to create the pity and fear that leads to catharsis.  A writer wouldn't rely on a reader forcing pity and fear.

That said, there are elements of Macbeth's personality and experience that can lead one to a catharsis. 

Macbeth loses his wife and, at least briefly, falls into nihilism.  He sees existence as meaningless.  In his "Tomorrow" speech, he says:

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!

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.  (Act 5.6.17-28)

  Whatever Macbeth has done, losing his wife and realizing everything he has done is meaningless creates pity, particularly if the first scene of the play in which they meet (Act 1.5) is imagined or performed with much affection between Macbeth and his wife.   

Also, by the conclusion of the play Macbeth is trapped.  He feels like a baited bear, a bear chained to a tree then attacked by a pack of dogs for the viewing pleasure of the audience.  His doom is all but assured, yet he continues to fight and refuses to give up.  There is a noble side to Macbeth that can be admired.

Finally, I've focused on the "pity" element in catharsis, but the "fear" element is just as important.  And Macbeth certainly creates fear in Scotland, and, by extension, the reader or audience. 

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