Macbeth is a tragedy of character rather than of deeds. Discuss.

Expert Answers
Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When you talk about Shakespeare's Macbeth being a tragedy of character instead of a tragedy of deeds, you are talking about character motivation:  why the characters do what they do, or what makes the characters do what they do.  And any decent narrative reveals motivation for its characters (with a few exceptions, of course, when that is the point).

Ambition is the motivator for the murders, of course, and ambition is a fault in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  There is not much disagreement about that, and it's pretty obvious.  The previous commentators are correct in their assessments.

At the same time, emotions, desires, etc. don't kill people.  Lady Macbeth doesn't really do anything in the play except talk.  (Neither do the witches, by the way, but that's for another study.)  If Lady Macbeth were next in line for the thrown and a widow, and didn't have anybody to talk into doing her dirty work for her, Duncan would still be alive.  And she would not be guilty of anything except nasty thoughts.  Macbeth does the deed.  And that action makes him guilty of more than thinking. 

Thoughts don't land people in prison and kill people.  Actions land people in prison and kill people.  So in that sense one could not say that the play is a tragedy of character, rather than a tragedy of deeds.

This is from my "For Whatever it's Worth" file.   


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would concur with the statement.  The deeds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are fairly awful.  There is little else to say about them.  Yet, I think the rationale behind why these deeds are done, the moral and spiritual implications behind it, as well as the toll these beliefs take on both characters allows the play to be one of character.  In the end, the reader does not speak much to the deeds done, but rather how the characters of both characters change over the play.  The reader is struck by Macbeth's ambiguity and moral questioning at the start of the play, but his resolute and decidedly evil positioning at its end.  Likewise, Lady Macbeth's fierce and driving nature at the commencement of the drama and her completely emotionally withered state at its end proves to be noteworthy to the reader.  In the end, the reader is more taken aback with the character of each than their deeds.

coachingcorner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In discussing the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare in terms of characters and deeds it is difficult to separate the two. Psychologically and spiritually it is a bit of a Chicken Or Egg scenario. The character's personalities and frailties influence their deeds - and, without certain characteristics, some of the deeds would never have been carried out.  One characteristic I would definitely pick out in MacBeth himself is his suggestibility. Psychologically, the way in which the witches small comment about his kingly future has such a profound influence on his later deeds suggests to me an illness or propensity regarding manipulation. He is open to this not only from Lady MacBeth, but also from the witches.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In a way, I would say that most tragedies are tragedies of character rather than of deeds, but I suppose this one is especially that way.

If you look at the two main tragic characters, Macbeth and his wife, you see that it is their characters that lead them to their tragic ends.  They are both people who want a lot of power and glory.  But they are also flawed people with greedy characters.  They want to have power and they do not care what they do to get it (this is their flaw).

Because they have this flaw in their characters, they do all the evil deeds and end up paying for those deeds with their lives.

surajverma8 | Student

It is, indeed, that Macbeth is a play set in action but its core setting lies in character. The action of Macbeth is executed in the colours of action but it is prompted by characters. The desire of Macbeth that is being king is the real character that augments the play at its real destination. It is a tragedy of character because of the deep and dark desire of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Not a single scholar of the world can proclaim that without any character any action takes place in the play.