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Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes in that his character follows the model of Shakespeare's other tragic heroes. He is an admirable, powerful, and well respected member of his society, a society in which he occupies a high position. (This can also be said of King Lear, Brutus, and Hamlet, for example.) Like these other tragic heroes, Macbeth's character is flawed, and it is this character flaw that leads to his destruction. Macbeth, like Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, is ultimately responsible for his own destruction.
The nature of Macbeth's fall is epic. From his former position of great respect and admiration, he descends--step by step--until he becomes even more than a villain; he becomes a monster. I've often wondered why Shakespeare makes Macbeth so thoroughly detestable among his tragic heroes. I think the answer lies in Macbeth's crime (regicide) and the English political structure of Shakespeare's time (monarchy). The play develops a very strong statement about killing one's king out of political ambition.
The question of whether Macbeth is a villain or a tragic hero is a difficult question, and one which depends on how one understands the character. One popular argument about the play is that it charts Macbeth's fall from heroism into villainy. At the opening of the play, Macbeth demonstrates a fair amount of heroism. He has fought bravely and been loyal to his king. He embodies nobility and seems to possess virtue. He also possesses certain characteristics that we might associate with a tragic hero, in particular a fatal flaw. In the case of Macbeth, that fatal flaw is his ambition for power. Macbeth, however, quickly becomes something of a villainous character. He commits murder and puts his entire kingdom in danger. Still, many of his evil acts are committed while he is under the influence of the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth, who are often considered to be the true villains of the play. At the end of the play, Macbeth realizes the evil he has committed and seems to feel sorrow for such. Because of this realization Macbeth is often viewed as a tragic hero, for tragic heroes almost always recognize the errors they have committed by the end of their stories and seek, in some manner, to atone for them.
According to Aristotle, the tragic hero is a character of noble stature but is not perfect. The hero's downfall is created by his imperfection and the result of free choice. The tragic hero must also possess nobility and virtue as part of his innate character. Shakespeare creates the character of Macbeth to fit this model.
While Macbeth is certainly presented to the reader as a true action hero in the beginning of the play, his noble stature goes beyond his actions on the battlefield. He is a loyal kinsman to Duncan. We see his struggle over the decision to kill the king, but by his own choices his ambition gets the better of him and leads to the murder and his own downfall.
Many will debate whether Macbeth is a victim of fate or his own ambition, but the three witches have only limited power as evidenced in their discussion of the sailor’s wife and the fate of the Tyger. They can only introduce Macbeth to the path of his self-destruction. His imperfections are what spur him down that path.
A tragic hero can most certainly also be a villain. Once his ambition consumes him, Macbeth transforms into a spectacular villain who is capable of murdering his best friend and sacrificing his entire country to secure his future
Macbeth is indeed a bit too complex to be categorised as a villain or a hero. The supernatural sisterhood of the three witches strike the key-note of the play at the very outset--'Fair is foul, and foul is fair'. This paradoxical formula summarises the Macbeth-world and also the character of the protagonist: Macbeth is both fair and foul, both villainous and heroic.
Macbeth earns enviable admiration in winning the battle against the rebel Macdonwald & the invading Norwegian king. He is acclaimed as 'valour's minion' & 'Bellona's bridegroom'. King Duncan rewards his 'peerless kinsman' by conferring upon him the title of the Thane Cawdor. In grateful admission of Macbeth's service, Duncan visits Macbeth's castle.
But this trusted general of Scotland nurtures within himself a 'vaulting ambition' to become the king. Provoked and allured by the witches, and ably supported by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth kills Duncan and usurps the throne. He suffers from the pangs of conscience, from a sense of insecurity, from fear. Macbeth sends murderers to kill Banquo & Fleance; Banquo dies while Fleance escapes. Further on, Lady Macduff and her son are eliminated by the killers sent by Macbeth.
Thus Macbeth may be heroic as a soldier, but because of his killing of Duncan and usurpation of the throne, because of the tyranny unleashed by him, he cannot be called a tragic hero.
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