A tragic hero should evoke our sympathy. Do you sympathize with Macbeth? Why or why not? Does his downfall evoke pity or a sense of justice? 

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question deals with an important aspect of the play. We feel some sympathy for Macbeth up to the point where he has Banquo murdered and has his agents try to murder Fleance along with his father. Then we lose all sympathy for Macbeth when he has his soldiers invade Macduff's castle and we see one of them murder one of Macduff's little boy's and the boy's mother. We tended to sympathize with Macbeth when he showed and expressed misgivings about murdering King Duncan. After his wife managed to persuade him to commit that crime of treason and murder, Macbeth becomes a different man. He feels as if he has sold his soul to the devil. He makes such statements as these:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.       (II.3)

For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind,
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
Put rancors in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!   (III.1)

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.    (III.4)

Macbeth has become such a monster of tyranny by the end of the play that we are not at all sorry to see him killed by Macduff and his dead body displayed for all to see. Shakespeare apparently wanted to have Macbeth turn into an exceptionally incompetent and tyrannical ruler in order to justify the military interference of the English King Edward. If Macbeth had been a good ruler, or even a halfway satisfactory ruler, then Edward would not have felt justified in raising a large, expensive army to invade Scotland. We know that Macbeth usurped the Scottish throne by murdering Duncan, but Edward does not know that. He has no particular sympathy for Malcolm, and Malcolm himself does not seem strongly motivated to succeed his father. Hence, much of the play after the murder of Duncan highlights Macbeth's moral decline and apparent growing insanity.

Shakespeare tries to shift part of the blame for Duncan's murder onto Lady Macbeth, but this only tends to make us feel that Macbeth is a weakling dominated by his stronger wife. Shakespeare also tries put part of the blame on the Three Witches for deceiving and entrapping Macbeth. They make it seem that his fate is predetermined and that he has to do whatever he does. This does little if anything to enhance our sympathy for Macbeth. He seems to have free choice in what he does.

We sympathize with Macduff rather than with Macbeth. Therefore Macbeth's downfall leaves us with a sense of justice having been done. Macbeth is far from being a classic Aristotelian tragic hero. Macbeth does not have a single tragic flaw but many flaws. He proves himself to be ruthless, treacherous, incompetent, deceitful, ambitious, superstitious, uxorious, and half mad.

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Macbeth

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