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Macbeth as a Tragic Hero

Macbeth as a Tragic Hero must have some potential nobility, some good qualities that make his downfall terrifying. He must be examined as a human being with human weaknesses. Is he one who, as Lady Macbeth says, Act I, Sc. v, “is too full of the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way” or is he the “butcher” that Malcolm considers being in the final scene of the play? Or is he a victim of his ambition or of moral weaknesses or of his limited concept of manliness, or even of a combination of circumstances that cause him to fall? From the opening scene Macbeth is chosen as a target for temptation; the witches, as agents of evil plan their trap; so the stage is set for his downfall.

  • Brave – We learn of his physical prowess and bravery on the battlefield – “brave Macbeth”, “valour’s minion”, “valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!”, he is an eagle, a lion, “Bellona’s bridegroom”. These are the outward signs as seen by the Captain, Duncan and Ross, Act I, Sc.ii.
  • Prone to Tempation – Yet in the following scene we observe his interest in the Witches’ predictions. He is tempted – “Your children shall be Kings” ; but temptation is not guilt. When Ross tells him he has been made Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth asks, “why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” Does this suggest that, at this stage, he wants no honours that are not rightfully his?
  • A Materialist – In this soliloquy (aside) in Act I,Sc. iii we see how the fulfilment of the first prediction is working on him. Does he show himself to be a materialist here, looking for success and closing his eyes to the fact that achievement and goodness do not necessarily go together? Is this what Lady Macbeth sees in him when she says in Act I, Sc. v, “wouldst not play false And yet wouldst wrongly win?”
  • Virtuous or Hypocrite – He is aware of his duties as a subject “…and our duties Are to your throne and state children and servants, Which do but what they should, by doing everything Safe toward your love and honour.” Is this an inclination of his virtue, or is it hypocrisy?
  • Conscience? – We can see the moral struggle within him when Duncan nominates Malcolm as his successor. He calls on the stars to hide their fires so that his evil thoughts will not be seen. Is this a sign of a delicate conscience? Is he a victim of circumstance in that Duncan announces his successor and indicates his intention to visit Macbeth’s castle almost in a single breath? Remember he is still in the throes of temptation: he has not yet committed wrong.
  • Compassionate – Lady Macbeth, who knows him best of all people, says in a soliloquy that he is “too full of the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way”. Does this suggest that he is compassionate? She says he is ambitious but “without the illness ( the badness)” that should accompany ambition. Although this is a contrast to the picture of the bloody and ferocious warrior of whom we have been told in Act I, Sc.ii, yet it may still be true. When she says “what thou wouldst highly That wouldst thou holily” does she mean that he would not commit evil to achieve his ambition? Does this suggest nobility? Yet when she adds, “wouldst not play false, And yet wouldst wrongly win”, is there an indication of moral weakness in him? Is her determination to persuade him to murder another circumstance that helps towards his downfall.
  • As a Husband – What is his relationship with Lady Macbeth at this time? Does his letter to her show a deep affection – anxiety to share his good news – “my dearest partner of greatness”? Or might he be trying to impress her with his bravery and achievement – to prove to her that he is a man? At the end of this scene (Act I, Sc.v) he is not committal to her proposal – he says “We shall speak further”. In his soliloquy in Act I, Sc. vii we see his dilemma. He is well aware of the reasons why he should not kill Duncan. Does he show himself to be a materialist as he foresees the consequences, in this life, of the murder? Is this the deterrent? He says he would risk the life to come.
  • Public Opinion – Is he concerned only with what the world thinks of him when he tells Lady Macbeth they will “proceed no further in this business” because he is well thought of by others and does not wish to lose their good opinion? Is this vanity or fear? What do you think persuades him to agree to the deed? Is he afraid that Lady Macbeth will consider that he lacks manliness? Does he value her opinion of him so highly that he dare not lose it? Is this a moral weakness – an understandable one? Or is he afraid of the consequence of failure? Does his own addition to the murder plan – that the chamberlains be marked with blood and so be blamed for the murder – show that he is actively involved in the murder? His final words “I am settled, and bent up Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” imply a total commitment to the murder. Is the dagger in Act II, Sc.i, a figment of his imagination? If so, is it the result of a guilty conscience? Does this give the notion that he is not altogether evil? Is this guilty conscience emphasized in the scene that follows? Is he morally horrified at what he has done? Is it because he could not say ‘Amen’? Are his words, “I am afraid to think what I have done” a sign of remorse? Is this borne out by, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!”? Could one really believe, at this stage in the play, that Macbeth is a butcher? In Act III, Sc.i Macbeth plots the murder of Banquo and Fleance. Does this show a deterioration of his character? Does it show that his double standards i.e. his acceptance of the Witches’ predictions in respect of himself and his refusal to accept them in respect of Banquo, are irrational? He uses L. Macbeth’s arguments to persuade the murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance i.e. he challenges their manliness. Is this hypocrisy, or is it that he does not really ‘know’ himself.
  • Alone – Why does Macbeth now “keep alone” as L. Macbeth asks him? Is it because he is a victim of remorse, or because his children will not be Kings? Does he plot the death of Banquo alone because he does not want L. Macbeth to become involved further in murder? Or is he trying to prove his manliness to her, to show her that he can conceive and carry out a plan unaided?
  • Coward? – Does Macbeth show himself to be a poor ‘criminal’ in the Ghost Scene, in so far as he cannot conceal his guilt? Does his fear of the Ghost show him to be a coward or a conscience-stricken human being? Is his notion of manliness associated with physical bravery only? When he says, “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.” is he really showing fear that he will be found out?
  • Despair? – When he announces, “I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as going o’er” (Act III, Sc.iv) he is making a deliberate decision to commit himself to evil. He has full knowledge of what he is doing. Has he fallen into despair because he considers that his people will not forgive him? Or has he become so hardened that he can now think only of himself? Is this the turning point? When he visits the Witches again he decides to murder all Macduff’s relatives. Is this a sign of his brutality or is it a sense of self – preservation? In Act IV, Sc.iii, Malcolm describes Macbeth as ‘treacherous’ and Macduff refers to him as a tyrant. Malcolm further calls him “…bloody, Luxurious (i.e. lustful), avaricious, false, deceitful, Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin That has a name.” Examine these charges. How many do you consider apply to Macbeth? Is Malcolm an unprejudiced witness? Is he judging Macbeth by his actions only, unaware of the circumstances that have joined together to produce Macbeth’s evil deed? Examine also the “King becoming graces” set out by Malcolm. Is there any evidence in the play to suggest that, in other circumstances, Macbeth might have been a good King? In Act V, Sc.ii, Caithness, speaking of Macbeth, says “Some say he’s mad: others, that lesser hate him, Do call it valiant fury.” Is he mad? Note how he treats his Servant in Act V, Sc.iii, and the Messenger in Act V, Sc. v. Does ‘valiant fury’ better describe his attitude? Is he raging against his Fate? In Act V, Sc. iii when he says “And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honours, breath Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.” Is he showing himself overcome by self-pity, or is he facing up to reality?
  • Defiance of His Enemies?- Is his defiance of his enemies in Act V, Sc.v a reflection of his bravery or is he still full of confidence in the prophecies of the Apparitions? Does his rejection of life as something “full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing” suggest that deep within himself he realizes that there is no hope? In the final scene his reluctance to fight Macduff maybe because his conscience still bothers him, “my soul is too much charged With blood of thine already.” Is his refusal to fight after he had learned that Macduff is not “one of woman born” a sign of cowardice? Why then does he fight him? Is it because Macduff calls him “coward” and his concept of manliness cannot stand this? Or is it because he cannot bear to be humiliated in public and so forfeit his pride? Is there despair in his final words, “Yet I will try the last” ? Or is he heroically accepting Fate, knowing that he must die? Dead butcher or Tragic Hero? Given similar circumstances what might we do?
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Lady Macbeth is a controversial figure. She is seen by some as a woman of strong will who is ambitious for herself and who is astute enough to recognize her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, and ruthless enough to exploit them. They see her in her commitment to evil and in her realization that the acquisition of the Crown has not brought her the happiness she had expected, and finally, as one who breaks down under the strain. Others see her as a woman ambitious for her husband whom she loves. She recognizes the essential good in him and feels that, without her, he will never win the Crown. She allies herself with the powers of darkness for his sake, but here inherent(congenital) femininity breaks down under the strain of the unnatural murder of Duncan and the alienation of her husband. She is seen as simple and realistic where Macbeth is complicated and imaginative. She can see what must be done; he visualizes the consequence.

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There is a vast difference between Macduff’s “O gentle Lady ‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak The repetition in a woman’s ear Would murder as it fell.” ACT II, Sc.ii and Malcolm’s assessment of her as a “fiend-like queen” (Act IV, Sc.vii). So we must examine the text. To Macbeth, in his letter to her, she is his “dearest partner of greatness”, an indication of love and trust. We see her as she analyses his virtues and weaknesses and decides to overcome his scruples, “hie thee hither That I may pour my spirits at thine ear” Is there any evidence here as to why she wishes him to be king?

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Overcome By Ambition – When she calls on the powers of evil to unsex her and make her cruel, does this imply that she fears her own womanliness and realizes the unnaturalness of the murder of Duncan? Is she, like Macbeth just an ordinary human being overcome with ambition? Does she really lose her womanliness? Do the words(Act I, Sc. ii) “Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done” imply that she is still a woman with a woman’s tenderness? Does she show herself strong-willed and more determined than Macbeth, Act I, Sc.vii, as she argues and demands his agreement to the murder? Is she alloy by exploiting his love for her when she makes his consent to murder a test of his love? Is she being cynical when she inverts logic and reality in asking him if he is afraid to be what he wants to be and in suggesting that to be a true man he must take what he wants? Must she take some of Macbeth’s guilt here? In the murder scene (ActII, Sc.ii) she resorts to wine to give her courage. Does this also show that she has not been filled from top to toe with “direst cruelty”? She is aware, too, that dwelling on the moral aspect of the murder “will make us mad”.

The Better Criminal? – She seems to be the better criminal; she remembers the details that Macbeth has overlooked, “Why did you bring these daggers from the place?” and shows her as she brings the daggers back. Does she really despise Macbeth when she argues him for wearing “a heart so white”? Or is she afraid for him that he may betray himself? In Act II, Sc.ii, when she calls for help does she do so because of her feminine weakness, or is she afraid that Macduff may question Macbeth further as to his killing of the chamberlains? If the latter, does it again illustrate her quick thinking?

Unhappiness – In Act III, Sc.ii, Lady Macbeth is coming to realize that the Crown has not brought happiness, “Nought’s had, all’s spent, Where our desire is got without content.” Is she suffering from remorse here, or does she think that the murder of Duncan has alienated Macbeth from her? “How now, my Lord! Why do you keep alone?” Is she worried that he is unhappy? She tries to console him, “what’s done is done.” and to rally his spirits. She again shows her presence of mind in the Ghost scene when he becomes ‘unmanned’, but then, she does not see the Ghost. She uses the old strategy of appealing to his manliness, but without success. When the guests have departed she does not upbraid Macbeth, but makes excuses for him that he lacks “the season of all natures, sleep.” Does this show her gentleness and compassion towards him? Or does she feel that further argument would be useless?

The Sleep-Walking Scene – We do not meet her again until this scene. She has now been reduced to a poor, mad creature, broken by events. Our last view of her is her delusion of nearness to Macbeth. Is there a stress on her sense of guilt, her despair and, perhaps still, her determination? Macbeth’s few words about her (Act V, Sc.v) may be uttered in an indifferent tone, or even with a sense of something already lost. In the end, perhaps, we feel guilty for her, but we may still remember what appeared to be hardness and cruelty.

The influences of the Witches’ prophecies on Macbeth’s actions the three witches in the tragedy Macbeth are introduced right at the beginning of the play. They recount to Macbeth three prophesies. That Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis and King. These prophecies introduce Macbeth to ideas of greatness. Macbeth will eventually follow through on killing king Duncan, destruction of the natural order; it was sometimes thought that the witches had the ability to reverse the natural order of things. This brings into the play idea of fate and the role with which it has in the play. One can wonder if Macbeth ever had a chance of doing what was right after he met with the witches.

It is, however, more realistic to believe that Macbeth was responsible for his own actions throughout the play as in the end it was he who made the final decisions.

Banquo says in line 24, “The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray ‘s / In deepest consequence.” He thinks and says bad things about the witches. He calls them instruments of darkness and the devil. He might believe that these prophecies will only bring harm even before anything begins to happen. So Macbeth is warned by his best friend before he makes any decisions that the witches are evil, and what they suggest is evil.

The witches could foretell the future, they can add temptation, and influence Macbeth, because they had told Macbeth that he would be King he became impatient and tried to hurry it as quickly as he could. but they can not control his destiny. Macbeth creates his own misery when he is driven by his own sense of guilt. This causes him to become insecure as to the reasons for his actions which in turn causes him to commit more murders. The witches offer great enticement, but it is in the end, each individual’s decision to fall for the temptation, or to be strong enough to resist their captivation. The three Witches are only responsible for the introduction of these ideas and for further forming ideas in Macbeth’s head, but they are not responsible for his actions throughout the play.

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Lady Macbeth is shown early in the play as an ambitious woman with a single purpose. She can manipulate Macbeth easily. This is shown in the line “That I may pour my spirits in thine ear”. (I,V, 26) She is selfless and wants what is best for her husband. Before the speech that Lady Macbeth gives in act one scene five, Macbeth is resolved not to go through with the killing of the king. However, Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth’s self-esteem by playing on his manliness and his bravery. This then convinces Macbeth to commit regicide. It is like a child who is easily guided. Lady Macbeth knows this and acts on it accordingly.

Although Macbeth has the final say in whether or not to go through with the initial killing, he loves Lady Macbeth and wants to make her happy. Lady Macbeth is the dominating individual in the relationship which is shown in her soliloquy in Act 1 Scene. It seems that she can convince him to do anything as long as she pushes the right buttons. (I, VII, 39) She says ” Art thou afread / To be the same in thine own act and valour, As thou art in desire?”

On the other hand, as the play progresses, and Duncan is killed, there is a reversal of natural order, and Macbeth becomes the dominating partner again. Lady Macbeth becomes subservient. She becomes pathetic and only a shadow of her former self. Ambition plays a large role in this tragedy. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have “vaulting ambition” that drives them. Lady Macbeth’s ambition drives her to manipulate Macbeth into committing regicide. Macbeth’s fierce ambition is present before the witches’ prophesies.

He would never have thought seriously about killing Duncan without the witches. Yet the combination of both his ambitious nature and the initial prophesies leads him to kill the king. It is Lady Macbeth who states “Thou wouldst be great/ Art not without ambition.” Macbeth states that it is “his besetting sin: I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition.” Macbeth’s continued ambition is present in his wanting to have a succession of kings after him. Macbeth’s ambition is deep within him and because of this, both the witches and Lady Macbeth are able to sway him to evil. It is this ambition that gets him into so much trouble initially.

Once Macbeth kills for the first time, he has no choice but to continue to cover up his wrongdoings or risk losing everything he has worked so hard for. In the end, it all comes to Macbeth himself.

Everyone is responsible for his own destiny. This is an essential theme in this tragedy. Macbeth chooses to gamble with his soul and when he does this it is only him who chooses to lose it. He is responsible for anything he does and must take total accountability for his actions. Macbeth is the one who made the final decision to carry out his actions. He made these final decisions and continued with the killings to cover that of King Duncan.

However, whereas some facts show that the results were all of his own doing, in act IV he returns to the witches voluntarily to find out his fate in order to see what actions he should take. This shows that maybe the witches did have a great influence on his actions.

The killing of Duncan starts an unstoppable chain of events in the play that ends with the murder of Macbeth and the suicide of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth chooses to murder Duncan. Macbeth, in the beginning, had all of the qualities of an honourable gentleman who could become anything. This is all shattered when his ambition overrides his sense of morality. Although Macbeth is warned as to the validity of the witches ‘ prophecies, he is tempted and refuses to listen to reason from Banquo. When the second set of prophecies Macbeth receives begin to show their faults Macbeth blames the witches for deceiving him with half-truths. While the witches are not totally responsible for the actions of Macbeth, they are responsible for introducing the ideas to Macbeth which in turn fired up Macbeth’s ambition and led to a disastrous and unnecessary chain of events.

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