Macbeth as Tragic Hero
The heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies often had similar characteristics. They often were of a high rank, they had tragic flaws, and their tragic flaws were responsible for their downfalls. Macbeth is a play that meets these criteria, though some people might question Macbeth’s role as a tragic hero because of the role outside influences played upon him. Though he was subject to outside influences, Macbeth was ultimately responsible for his actions, making him a tragic hero.
Macbeth is necessarily a character with a high rank, because if he had not been, his story would have been of little consequence to the audience of his time. When the play begins, Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis: “All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis” (I.iii-48). However, he soon earns another title when the Thane of Cawdor proves to be traitorous: “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive/ Our bosom interest:–go pronounce his present death./ And with his former title greet Macbeth” (I,ii,72-74). If Macbeth had not held a place of honor with Duncan, then Macbeth would not have been given the title of Thane of Cawdor as well.. Also, without this higher position of being two Thanes, there would have been more people in his way to become king. As we can see, it was of utmost importance that the play centered around a character of high ranking.
Though Macbeth comes under the influence of the witches and his wife, Macbeth possesses ambition to a degree that it becomes his tragic flaw. The witches merely tell him that he is Thane of Cawdor and will be king: “All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!/ All hail Macbeth; that shalt be king hereafter” (I.iii.49-50). They did not tell him to do anything; they merely stated what he would become. His wife, however, did attempt to directly influence him to murder: “But screw your courage to the sticking place,/ And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep” (I.vii.68-69). Lady Macbeth, though rhetorically persuasive, merely played to Macbeth’s deep-seated ambition, the trait within himself that allowed him to commit this terrible act. In the end, Macbeth is responsible for his actions because he is the one that is ambitious and has the most to gain.
All the ambition in the world would not have made Macbeth king if he had not been a character of exceptional abilities that provided him the means by which he became king. The witches had a prediction for Banquo also: “Though shalt get kings, though thou be none” (68). Knowing that Banquo was supposed to be the father of kings, he realizes that he must eliminate him in order to keep his place: “It is concluded:–Banquo, thy soul’s flight,/ It if find heaven, must find it tonight” (III.i.154-155). He also shows bravery, Macbeth stands deserted at the end yet he persists in remaining defiant: “Before my body/ I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff;/ And damn’d be him that cries first” (V.viii.-36-38). Macbeth’s intelligence and bravery earned him the title of two Thanes, yet we can see how they also were then used for evil deeds.
Macbeth makes realizations that he shares with the audience throughout the play. These realizations show that he understands the consequences of his actions. Macbeth comments on the duplicitous nature of people, a fact he is very aware of as he realizes that he is an example if it: “And make our faces vizards to our hearts, Disguising what they are” (III.iii.38-39). Also, in perhaps his most famous speech, Macbeth comments on the transient nature of human lives: “Out, out, brief candle!…it is a tale/ Told by and idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing” (V.v.24-29). If Macbeth had not learned anything throughout the play, it would be more difficult to look at him in and say that he was a tragic hero.
Though Macbeth might initially seem to be a cold-hearted, ambitious murderer, it is because both he and the audience of the play learn from the experience that he can be seen as heroic. His high rank and considerable talents allowed him to be in a position to become king, but it was because of his tragic flaw, his ambition, that he proceeded to become king in a manner that led to his downfall. Macbeth is truly a tragic hero.
Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Borders, Group, Inc, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.