To what extent is "Macbeth" a typical tragedy?To what extent is "Macbeth" a typical tragedy?

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robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thank you for the apology, but you are still generalizing a little.

We don't actually know whether Aristotle's Poetics were written by Aristotle: the extant manuscripts we have of them might be a student's lecture notes, Aristotle's own notes, someone's transcript, or the draft of a work to be circulated. We just don't know.

What we do know is that there's at least one whole section of the Poetics (discussing comedy) missing in the manuscript we have, and some of the discourse on tragedy (which we know exists from other sources) isn't there either.

So we don't know for certain what Aristotle's definition of tragedy actually is. The whole text is subject to interpretation and re-interpretation by critics, who hugely disagree about what Aristotle meant and intended.

You're right to say that Aristotle thinks that "Oedipus Rex" is the quintessential tragedy. But you can read that play as not actually corresponding at all to Aristotle's description of a man who makes a mistake and falls from high status into ruin.

That interpretation would sound like this: Oedipus' situation is predicted by an oracle before his birth, and he carries it out entirely unknowingly. It's not a tragedy of human agency or fallibility. He just couldn't help it.

So Aristotle - no matter how you read him - is never really fully consistent with Sophocles; and thus, is certainly never consistent with Shakespeare (who probably never read either Sophocles or Aristotle!).

Tragedies rarely have specific elements. Give me a list of those elements and I'll show you a handful of famous tragedies which don't fit the bill. There's just no such thing as a "typical tragedy".

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. At the University of Cambridge, a compulsory exam is set for all final-year English Lit students with the title "Tragedy", and one of its key aims is to discuss the many, various ideas of tragedy as presented in Aristotle.

The paper has been running for thirty years, and students still sit it today. Clearly there is no easy answer.

robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator


As you'll have seen from the above comments, there's really no such thing as a typical tragedy. It just depends whose idea of tragedy you're using, and how you interpret the play.

Aristotle's Poetics argue (though this is by no means the only way of reading them) that a tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending in which a man falls from high status and renown to disaster due to a mistake which he makes (which is, all you tragedy-generalisers, the correct translation of hamartia: not "tragic flaw", which is a million miles from what Aristotle wrote).

But even with a definition in hand, you have to interpret the play. If you think Macbeth brings about his own downfall, then the play works quite well as Aristotelian tragedy; if you think that the witches are controlling him to some extent, then "Macbeth" is one of the least Aristotelian plays ever written.

Whether or not you think he is at fault determines whether the play counts as an Aristotelian tragedy.

robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

morrol (and alayisha, to a lesser extent):

Tragedies DO NOT always have specific elements, and academics have been fighting for hundreds of years about precisely what would count as a definition of tragedy.

Stephen Booth, academic and writer, famously asserts that "The search for a definition of tragedy has been the most persistent and widespread of all nonreligious quest for definition". He may exaggerate a little, but it makes the point that there certainly is no consensus.

So stop pretending otherwise. And stop making inaccurate generalisations. If you mean Aristotle's definition of tragedy (which comes from the Poetics - a deeply ambiguous, incomplete work about which we know very little) please say so. Stop generalising!

morrol eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Sorry for the over-generalization. I was referring to Aristotle's poetics. Aristotle based his ideas of what constitutes a tragedy on the Oedipus trilogy. He considered, and I don't think it is too much of a generalization to claim that Oedipus Rex is the quintessential tragedy. When we use Oedipus as a standard for tragedy, there are certain elements that stand out among other works as well.

You are right. Tragedies don't ALWAYS have specific elements, but if a teacher asks a high school student "to what extent is Macbeth a typical tragedy", he is asking what elements it shares with Aristotle's definition of tragedy.
morrol eNotes educator| Certified Educator
I appreciate the nuance that you use in this discussion, but I also hope that you appreciate that the student is in 10th grade, and the question she is trying to answer does not call for citing graduate level literary theory. You are absolutely right in your analysis, but it is also important to recognize the grade level of the student who you are tying to help. This student is obviously learning about elements of drama (tragedy verses comedy), and too much nuance (I've learned from teaching high school) can easily confuse students.
morrol eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Tragedies always have specific elements.

1. Tragedies always have a "tragic hero" who falls from a place of nobility because of his Hubris, or excessive pride.

2. The hero doesn't necessarily have to die in the end, but he must undergo a change of fortune. He must realize something about human fate or destiny.

Macbeth is a typical tragedy in these respects.
robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I understand what you're saying, but the point I'm correcting you on is not a question of nuance, but of fact - and, no matter what the grade, I personally don't believe it's helpful to teach students fundamentally incorrect versions of key literary terms.

stuart13 | Student

Macbeth as Aristotelian tragedy?? I hardly thinks so!  You can bend the defintion as much as you like, and most will accept it, but Macbeth does not follow the formula as Aristoelian tragedy for two (simple) reasons: 

1. Macbeth's character is not royalty -- he is a baron, a thane. 

2. Catharsis? Are you kidding me?

There is no repentance,no real moment of clarity and thus amends-- just some slight awareness on Macbeth's part that he has turned his life into a wasteland- and yes, I actually sort of like Macbeth. I do agree he is a tragic hero; however, I urge you to look to Nietzsche's definition of tragedy (The Birth of Tragedy),  and I think you'll find a better fit. In as much as Malcolm and company think they are restoring Scotland, they are succumbing to England to bail them out-- hardly a "victory" for a free Scotland.  If we read the text carefully, we see that the feudal system is already crumbling under internal rebellion, making Scotland perfect for external picking from Norway. All that Malcolm can do is to hand Scotland over to England in some measure in order to ensure its safety. Catharsis for Malcolm and Macduff, yes; for the audience... not so much. Seems like it's just the new dawn of the same OLD day-- one that was in decline to the point Macbeth was able to usurp the king through murder. 

aliyasha | Student

well, Macbeth is a typical tragedy because the main character gets pulled down from a great, or good person , which finds him/herself in a degrading state of mind.

 Macbeth also has one thing which all tragedies have: a tragic hero, or a tyrant, as he may be considered in this case, which is pulled by his ambition, and their fatal flaw, which in the end, does indeed lead to their death, which is another resemblance of a typical tragedy, the death of the main character/s in the plot.

So, the main story line is like the base of any tragedy, what makes it difficult to see are the other problem and prophesies which blend everything into the plot, making it hard to tell appart, the tragedy, from the ambitions and things.