In Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, who is responsible for Macbeth's downfall?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There can be a great deal of discussion about who causes Macbeth's downfall in Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth.

Macbeth is a man of honor, a valiant and loyal soldier in the Scottish army, serving King Duncan. At the beginning of the play, he is described in battle as a force to be reckoned with:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
…with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
…carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave…
Till he unseam'd him…
And fix'd his head upon our battlements. (I.ii.18-22, 24-25)

There is no question that he is Duncan's man. This is one of the reasons that Duncan is so vulnerable because up until this point, Macbeth's only ambition has been to serve king and country.

In Act One, scene three, however, three witches who serve Hecate (queen of the witches) show up (as they previously arranged) to speak with Macbeth and Banquo on the moors as they return from battle.

The witches' job (and the Elizabethan audience would have believed this wholeheartedly) is to trick human beings so as to win their immortal souls to eternal damnation. It is in this scene that the hags offer their first set of predictions to Macbeth, in order to win his confidence. Banquo dismisses the predictions they offer him, and warns his best friend that sometimes the powers of evil will win one's confidence with little details, only to betray one later when something really important is at stake. (And this is exactly what happens.) However, Macbeth starts to ponder their words and what they might mean to his life, in particular the news that he will one day be king.

One might argue that the witches are responsible for tricking Macbeth. I would disagree: Macbeth is obviously a smart and experienced solder. He knows the difference between right and wrong. Even his best friend warns him to be cautious of the witches. Hecate tells the Weird Sisters (the witches) that a man's biggest enemy is a false sense of security

He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear 
His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear: 
And you all know, security 
Is mortals' chiefest enemy. (III.v.30-33)

It is true that the witches' six predictions seal this illusion in Macbeth's mind, but it is only because he first gives in to his worst character flaw that he willingly considers the witches' words. In giving rein to this flaw, he ultimately develops a false sense of security.

Some might argue that Lady Macbeth is at fault. It is true that she pushes Macbeth to commit murder because she wants to be queen. She insults her husband and questions his bravery. She is a frightening character when he begins to change his mind about their agreed upon plan, saying that had she promised to do so, she would have killed her nursing child, and not think twice about it. However, though it seems clear that Macbeth loves his wife, can one believe that this stalwart and fearless warrior that has seen the worst of death and destruction on the battlefield would ultimately be forced by a nagging wife to kill his king? If he had been unwilling, he would have put a stop to the plan.

The fault can be found first and foremost in Macbeth's flawed character.

Macbeth is considered a tragic hero according to Aristotle's five characteristics—one is that the character must have a tragic flaw, and Macbeth readily admits to his: his vaulting ambition.

I have no spur 
To prick the sides of my intent, but only 
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself 
And falls on the other — (I.vii.25-28)

In order to realize his ambition to be king, Macbeth will do anything. He even gives away his most precious possession—his soul—to the devil.

...mine eternal jewel 
Given to the common enemy of man... (III.i.67-68)

Hecate (an unlikely judge) comments on Macbeth's character: he is selfish—he wants what benefits him and cares for nothing else, including the witches. (This angers Hecate because Macbeth has no fear or respect for the witches.)

Macbeth murders Duncan, his guards and Banquo (his best friend who suspects that Macbeth murdered Duncan). The murder of Duncan speaks directly to the depravity of Macbeth's character: for Duncan was not only his king, but also his friend and his cousin. He was also Macbeth's guest. The King's safety should have been guaranteed while under Macbeth's roof according to a long-established and recognized rule of hospitality.

It is Macbeth's flawed character, galvanized forward by selfish ambition that causes his defeat. He is responsible for his downfall.

km4050 | Student

macbeth as a reputed and great warrior never had dreamt of becoming the king of scotland. it was kindled by the violent desire of lady macbeth. she has the royal blood mixed with the evil spirit. no desirable quality of a wife found in her.atleast the three witches predicted macbeth's elevation of power rather than the down fall. but lady macbeth played a vital role in the murder of duncan as well as the death of macbeth ,the great army general. the portrayal of her chracter was worse than the three witches in the play . km