As a reader, am I supposed to feel sad when MacBeth is killed?

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wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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This simple question evokes several responses and clarifications needed:

  1. Did the playwright take his readership into consideration, or was he only interested in reactions of a live audience at the theatre? 
  2. Is “sadness” a legitimate term to use in analyzing theatre or literary reactions?
  3. What does “supposed to” mean in our society?


This play is an Elizabethan tragedy, by which is meant that it conforms to Aristotle’s criteria for a tragedy as laid out in his Poetics: A high figure falls from a high place, affecting a community, bringing “catharsis.” This last term means a cleansing, a coming back to balance, both for the affected community and for the audience (or readership). Catharsis is not exactly “sadness” but could be considered “seriousness” or “somberness.”  “Sadness” is really a personal feeling of sorrow connected by empathy with the sufferer.  Finally, modern literary critics and writers question the “supposed to” of literature, finding the reader’s response, whatever it is, to be self-arguable.

      Having said this, the character of Macbeth is not directly a sympathetic character.  After his initial military victories, he does little or nothing “honorable” or selfless.  Whether the reader subscribes to the interpretation that Macbeth has a tragic flaw, or that Lady Macbeth’s ambitions are the cause of the play’s outcome, or that the witches’ equivocation is the real culprit, Macbeth’s final “Lay on Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold, enough!’” and the defiance it represents, would not be considered sympathetic behavior.  So, no, sadness is not required of a modern reader.

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