Prove or disprove this statment: "Macbeth is not a tragedy according to Aristotle's or other classic definitions."My essay topic, the only real concrete point I have for it is that macbeth is the...

Prove or disprove this statment: "Macbeth is not a tragedy according to Aristotle's or other classic definitions."

My essay topic, the only real concrete point I have for it is that macbeth is the quint essentail tragic hero according to the evolved Elizabethan definition.

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is a tragedy in accord with the definition of tragedy as it evolved from the time at which Aristotle held sway following the writing Poetics until Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, revolutionized the concepts of tragedy and tragic hero. For Aristotle, a tragedy was a dramatic work in poetic language that presents (according to the theory of mimetics) a serious and important action that is fraught with fear ans pity and that comes to a logical and satisfactory end that is befitting for the events. Aristotle's definition of tragedy does not include the tragic hero's death. Further, the tragic hero was one who, by some means or other, had failed to achieve moderation in living, and remember, the goal according to Greek philosophers was a measured and reasoned life of moderation. Aristotle's definition holds no indication of the concept of "tragic flaw." 

The Greek word used by Aristotle, which is usually taken to mean tragic flaw, is hamartia, which literally means missing the mark and, according to Dr. Larry A. Brown, applies to a wide span of mishaps from unintentional mistakes with unforeseen consequences to accidents to willful wrongdoing and sins. In Aristotle's use of hamartia, there is no notion of tragic flaw. This idea, the fatal tragic flaw, is part of the newly conceptualized understanding of Elizabethan tragedy and tragic hero that came about during the Renaissance. Further, the idea that the tragic hero must die is strictly an Elizabethan construct; Aristotle's tragic heroes did not need to die. Some were exiled; some did die; some had other fates. One thing that was crucial for the Aristotelian tragic hero was that he must realize his error (or whatever nature it was: ignorance, wrongdoing, accident etc.) and make amends for; he must learn from his tragedy.

What all this means is that Macbeth is not a classically Aristotelian tragedy, nor is the Thane Macbeth a classically Aristotelian tragic hero, not by a long shot. In Macbeth, Thane Macbeth's situation is so bad that he must die; it is doubtful that he learns, although he courageously faces up to final battle even though he has lost his sanity; he has at least one tragic flaw [gullible (who listens to weird sister witches who pop up out of nowhere!?); greedily ambitious; swayed by irrational rhetoric about promises and babies (who ever made any kind of marital promise that included regicide?); courage on the battle field and cowardice before his wife]. Nonetheless, according the tragedy and tragic hero constructs as revised by the Elizabethan dramatists, Macbeth is an Elizabethan classic tragedy with tragic hero.

One other point of difference between these two classic constructs is that for Aristotle the term 'catharsis," which he never defined,  seems according to Dr. Larry A. Brown, to imply a meaningful and logical resolution to the drama so the audience experiences a full release of dramatic tension, whereas, for the Elizabethans, catharsis came to mean an expunging of passionate emotions from the audience's hearts and minds so that they could live calmer, purer lives.

[A helpful resource is Dr. Larry A Brown's lecture notes on tragedy.]

ernie406 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As with most Shakespearean tragic heroes, there is no clear cut answer to this question, so a critic (or student) must make a decision where she/he will go with the argument.

To say that Macbeth is not an Aristotelian hero shortchanges a complete analysis of the character and the play.  There syands a strong argument that Macbeth does follow Artstotle's criteria for a tragic hero.  The hero must be of noble stature in some way, like a primce, king, or, yes, great military hero and powerful thane.  The hero should also not be perfect, thus, the "tragic flaw" inherent in his character - and we see this is Macbeth's ambition right from the start when Duncan names his son Malcolm as heir to the throne: "That is a step / On which I must fall down or else o'erleap, / For in my way it lies" (1.4.55-57).  This ambition blinds him from the Weird Sisters temptation to ruin his soul by suggesting that he would be King, and, as Banquo reminds Macbeth, that the "instruments of darkness tell us truths / [...] to betray's / In deepest consequence" (1.3.136-38).

Aristotle suggests the following formula for the tragic hero - that, from his tragic flaw, he makes what's translated as an "error in judgment" that leads to unintended consequences, downfall, and  death.  Macbeth, like all tragic heroes, is blinded by hubris, he cannot initially see (nor does he care to consider) the possible consequences of his mudering of Duncan.  He fulfills the applicable definitions of "hubris" - both the more modern "exhibition of pride or disregard for basic moral law," and the more classic Greek, "actions taken in order to shame the victim, thereby making oneself seem superior." (Think about the report of how Macbeth defeated Scotland's enemies). These consequences ensue immediately after Duncan's murder when Macbeth kills the King's guards (tpo cover up his crime) and when Malcolm and Donalbain leave Scotland, both suspicious of their father's death.

Aristotle also suggests that the tragic hero, before his death, faces an "anagnorisis," or "the point in the plot [...] at which the protagonist recognizes his [...] true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation" ( This is NOT an admittance of a mistake - it is merely a recognition of his true situation.  For Macbeth, it's not until Macduff enters and tells Macbeth that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped" (5.8.19-20).  We know how it ends.

Thus, a strong argument can be made that Macbeth does follow Aristotle's formula for a tragic hero.  Some critics will argue that Macbeth stands as a near-perfect tragic hero according to Aristotle's criteria.  All tragic heroes are influenced by something (in this case, the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth) - but, ultimately, the tragic hero makes the decision and commits the act that brings about his downfall.  It is Macbeth who goes into that room and kills Duncan, and the unintended consequences directly follow.

b-man | Student

anyone else

b-man | Student

If this is true, which seems to be so. Im going to have to reformulate my essay, great. Thanks alot for the hlep though. im not sure if some of the info you provided will even be valid with my teacher as he will be wondering how i came to know such things.

Also, after reading your response twice i cant help and get the feeling that this question all together isnt that valid. You clearly proved the Macbeth is not a tragedy according to Aristotles yet could we consider the Elizabethan definition a classic? Which would in turn mean that the questioned i posed was somewhat false because Macbeth is a tragedy according to some definitions, but not all.