What are the merits and shortcomings of the structural elements of Macbeth?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a fan of Shakespeare, it is hard for me to find shortcomings with Macbeth, but there are many merits to his work.

Macbeth is a powerful tragedy about a strong and loyal general in Duncan's army who turns his back on King and conscience in order to steal the throne. It is riveting to watch the Macbeths, who seems so caring for each other at one point, trade places and lose touch with each other.

The audience's awareness of Macbeth's mistakes (listening to the witches in the first place) heightens the impending sense of doom in Act One, scene one, as the witches set the dark mood. The play has some wonderful soliloquies that allow us to follow Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the heart of madness and obsession.

There is action off-stage with the murders of Duncan and most of the Macduff family, and Lady Macbeth's suicide. Nothing is lost by this, but these scenes are generally accompanied by a powerful soliloquy or an especially moving scene. When Macduff's family is killed, Macduff is torn apart, but rages on—now for revenge. The "dagger" scene precedes Duncan' death, and comic relief occurs just before Duncan's murder is discovered. By the end, Lady Macbeth, once confident, has become a shadow of her former self, sleepwalking and reliving various murders. This famous soliloquy of dreams precedes Lady Macbeth's suicide.

The presence of the witches was a deliciously scary element for an Elizabethan audience who believed witches were very real, dwelling hidden among them.

The plot development is easily followed. Macbeth's character is believable in that he has set out on a path that is not sanctioned by God (for Elizabethans believed that God ordained who would be king—not man). His unnatural acts rip him apart emotionally and mentally, until he is so "steeped in death," that he says it's just as easy to move forward as turn back. His ambition blinds him to the witches' half-truths—but by the end, Macbeth shows a glimmer of the warrior he once was, dying in battle rather than killing himself or running away.

If I had any concern, perhaps it would be that Macbeth's tragic flaw is not fully developed enough for me. He admits to a  "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself;" he would need this to be a decorated general in Duncan's army, but because his initial resistance to Lady Macbeth's plan to kill Duncan seems genuine enough, his tragic flaw doesn't ring true as it does, for example, with Hamlet, in Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name. I would think if Macbeth's ambition were that great, he would have shown few reservations about killing the King—acting more like Lady Macbeth.

One source points out the difficulty of taking a great man, turning him into a monster, and maintaining the audience's sympathy for his mistakes—so they are relieved for him when he dies at the end. In other words:

…take a "noble" man, full of "conscience" and "the milk of human kindness," and make of him a "dead butcher", yet keep him an object of pity rather than hatred.

It is easy to see how terribly wrong his life goes by discarding his values. Macbeth was an admirable man at one time, and he does "fall," making him not only tragic, but unbearably human: to watch greatness dissolved in one instant is not out of the realm of possibility.

Macbeth is a rousing play, with excellent elements, superb writing, and believable characters. I struggle with the transition so quickly from "great" to "greed" with the presence of overly developed ambition.