In The Poetics, Aristotle thoroughly analyzes greek tragedies and concludes that tragic dramas should involve a heroic protagonist with a vulnerable weakness or frailty. This weakness is known as hamartia, or more commonly called the “tragic flaw.” The protagonist’s hamartia hinders the person’s progress and ultimately leads to the protagonist’s downfall through a series of events. Although Aristotle used the word hamartia for Greek tragedy, it can be found in many later works of literature, such as William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this play about a Scottish king, the unfortunate character Macbeth carries the tragic flaw, or rather, flaws, which involve his tremendous guilt, ambition, and gullibility, leading him to his downfall.
Shakespeare does a magnificent job by using Macbeth to show the terrible consequences of unchecked ambition and a guilty conscience. Those elements, combined with a lack of strong character, distinguish Macbeth from Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes, such as King Lear and Richard III, both of whom are strong enough to overcome their guilty conscience. Before Macbeth murders Duncan, he is plagued with anxiety and almost does not follow the plan. It takes his wife, Lady Macbeth, persuasion to complete the plot. When he is about to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger covered in blood floating in the air, representing the bloody course he is about to take. After Duncan is murdered, however, her power-hungry personality begins to fade, and Macbeth becomes more and more bloodthirsty. He fluctuates between moments of fervent killing and times of extreme guilt, as shown when Banquo’s ghost appears to him during a dinner party.
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Macbeth speaks to the apparition, who is invisible to the rest of the guests. The ghost disappears soon after Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth to snap out of his trance. As he offers a toast to the company, however, Banquo’s ghost reappears and shocks Macbeth. Soon afterwards, the ghost vanishes and Macbeth is relieved: “Why, so; being gone, I am a man again. (III. iv. 107-108)” This encounter pierces his conscience and becomes a gruesome reminder that he murdered his former friend. Both instances of hallucinations are uncanny signs of Macbeth’s guilt. When Macbeth is first told by the three hags that he shall soon become the Thane of Cawdor and king, he is skeptical and hesitates to believe their prophecy. However, once King Duncan delivers the news that he shall become the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth’s desire for power skyrockets.
This ambitious nature prevents him from becoming aware of when to stop because he is never delighted. Macbeth’s judgment is impaired since he only agrees to the ideas that will benefit him in obtaining his desires. In his twenty-eight-lined soliloquy, Macbeth expresses his doubts and fears about killing Duncan and admits that the only thing motivating him to do so is his “vaulting ambition. (I. vii. 27)” Macbeth also claims that he has already gone so far that stopping his murderous acts is now not an option; he must continue doing what he’s doing: “I am in blood, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. (III. iv. 135-137)” His dangerous ambition seems to have no boundaries, and he does whatever it takes to secure his place on the throne. At the play’s opening, the three witches prophesy to Macbeth and Banquo that Banquo will be the “father” of many kings.
Upon remembering this event, Macbeth becomes uneasy and feels that “to be thus (or king) is nothing, but to be safely thus – our fears in Banquo stick deep and in his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared (III. i. 49-51)” To solve this problem, Macbeth plans to have Banquo, and his son Fleance murdered. Their deaths exemplify Macbeth’s uncontrollable ambition because Banquo went from being Macbeth’s best companion to his worst enemy. These killings eventually turn into a slippery slope as Macbeth commits one murder after the other. Finally, after finding out from the apparitions presented to him by the three witches that Macduff will be indeed another real threat, Macbeth has his whole family brutally slaughtered. The death of Macduff’s family is also an example of Macbeth’s dangerous ambition.
Gullibility, combined with guilt and ambition, is Macbeth’s third and final tragic flaw. He allows himself to trust the three witches’ premonitions completely and believes that the hags gave him his good fortune and not fate. When the three hags were giving Banquo and Macbeth a glimpse of their future, Macbeth was the one who easily trusted the hags’ prophecies. At the same time, Banquo thinks, “’tis strange: and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence. (I. iii. 122-126)” Macbeth fully trusts that the witches are a source of good fortune but is too ignorant to realize that the witches are evil beings. This leads him to lose all his belief in the natural order of things, thus causing him to become distant from the other people in his life. Macbeth also displays his gullibility when he consults with the hags a second time. The witches convince Macbeth that he will not be killed by a person who was not woman-born, which causes Macbeth to think he is invincible: “Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth. (IV. i. 79-81).”
This act of easily believing what the witches prophesied eventually leads Macbeth to his death when Macduff, who was “ripped from his mother’s womb,” stabs Macbeth on the battlefield at the end of the play. Unlike many other heroes in classic literature, whose flaws involve arrogance and pride, Macbeth’s ambitious nature is was not exactly harmful or considered a bad thing in any way until his uncontrolled ambition and inability to remain emotionally tough after committing the crimes were met with his gullibility. This fatal combination turned Macbeth into almost a madman, motivated solely by lust for fame and power. However, it is exactly his great ambition and extreme gullibility that ultimately leads him to his demise. Thus, Macbeth, an individual who started as an honest and loyal soldier, becomes a murderous human being because of his character flaws, thus making this play one of the greatest tragedies in the world of literature.