William Shakespeare wrote four great tragedies, the last of
which was written in 1606 and titled Macbeth. This “tragedy”, as it
is considered by societal critics of yesterday’s literary world,
scrutinizes the evil dimension of conflict, offering a dark and
gloomy atmosphere of a world dominated by the powers ofdarkness.
Macbeth, more so than any of Shakespeare’s other tragic protagonists,
has to face the powers and decide: should he succumb or should he
resist? Macbeth understands the reasons for resisting evil and yet he
proceeds with a disastrous plan, instigated by the prophecies of the
three Weird Sisters. Thus we must ask the question:
If Macbeth is acting on the impulses stimulated by the prophecies of
his fate, is this Shakespearean work of art really a Tragedy?
Aristotle, one of the greatest men in the history of human
thought, interpreted Tragedy as a genre aimed to present a heightened
and harmonious imitation of nature, and, in particular, those aspects
of nature that touch most closely upon human life. This I think
Macbeth attains. However, Aristotle adds a few conditions.
According to Aristotle, a tragedy must have six parts: plot,
character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Most important is
the plot, the structure of the incidents. Tragedy is not an imitation
of men, but of action and life. It is by men’s actions that they
acquire happiness or sadness. Aristotle stated, in response to Plato,
that tragedy produces a healthful effect on the human character
through a katharsis, a “proper purgation” of “pity and terror.” A
successful tragedy, then, exploits and appeals at the start to two
basic emotions: fear and pity. Tragedy deals with the element of evil,
with what we least want and most fear to face, and with what is
destructive to human life and values. It also draws out our ability to
sympathize with the tragic character, feeling some of the impact of
the evil ourselves. Does Macbeth succeed at this level? Can the reader
feel pity and terror for Macbeth? Or does the reader feel that Macbeth
himself is merely a branch from the root of all evil and not the poor,
forsaken, fate-sunken man, according to Aristotle’s idea of tragedy,
he is supposed to portray? Can the reader “purge” his emotions of
pity and fear by placing himself in the chains of fate Macbeth has
been imprisoned in? Or does he feel the power and greed upon which
Macbeth thrives, prospers, and finally falls? I believe the latter is
the more likely reaction, and that the reader sees Macbeth as a bad
guy, feeling little or no pity for him.
Aristotle also insists that the main character of a tragedy must
have a “tragic flaw.” Most tragedies fail, according to Aristotle,
due to the rendering of character. To allow the character to simply be
a victim of unpredictable and undeserved calamities would violate the
complete, self-contained unity of action in the tragedy. If that is
so, and if we assume that the group of three witches is a realistic
possibility, then is not Macbeth such a victim? Does he really deserve
the misfortune that is brought him by his fortune? After all, Macbeth
is introduced to the reader as an honest and humble leader. His fate,
once having been revealed to him, drives him to greed, elevates his
lust for power, and coins a conceited and misguided trust in his
seemingly eternal mortality. Diction, the expression of the meaning in
words, is near perfect in Macbeth, simply because it is written by
William Shakespeare, the inventor of perfect diction. Thought-the task
of saying what is possible and pertinent in the circumstances of
the play-can not be disputed. Spectacle and Song are the effects that
highlight the play, and are pertinent in providing an emotional
attraction. Such elements are easily found in Shakespeare. Macbeth is
written with the style and grace that only Shakespeare could provide.
Thus, these elements of tragic drama can not be challenged in this
While we need to consider that Macbeth strives on power, and in
doing so loses his values of humility and humanity, it should not be
forgotten that Macbeth does, at certain times, feel remorse for things
he has done.
In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth confides in Lady Macbeth after the murder
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”? I had most need of
blessing, and “Amen” Stuck in my throat.
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder
sleep,” the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the
raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s
bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief
nourisher in life’s feast-
Macbeth shall sleep no more. In this scene, he shows great
turmoil over the deed he has done. Thus the reader is shown that
Macbeth is acting out deeds that go against his conscience, that he
regrets his actions, and that the prophecies are unfolding.
But is this apology enough to stimulate pity within the reader? After
all, the man just committed his first of many murders! His
contrition seems to fade as his want of power flourishes.
So Macbeth continues-the powers of evil feeding on every move he
makes-to make way for his advancement as prophesied by the witches. He
hires his men to eliminate Banquo, a threat to his cumulative reign.
Having Banquo out of the way, Macbeth surges with the sense of power.
There is no doubt that he is acting on the impulses that were
stimulated by the first prophecies of his fate. In Act 4 Scene 1, he
returns to the three witches, desiring more information regarding his
fortune. They in turn assure him that “none of woman born shall harm
Macbeth.” Invincible power! Macbeth forgets the other two prophecies:
Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife…
Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care Who chafes, who frets, or
where conspirers are. Macbeth shall never vanquished be
until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him.
The witches have spoken again, with unforeseeable truth. Macbeth
leaves the dreaded sisters, blinded by his own ambition. Let
the players play! He is assured that he is indestructible, for how
could Macduff, a man of woman born, hurt him? How could the Birnam
Wood come to Dunsinane Hill?
Preposterous! Macbeth leads on, confident, bold, and unvictimized. He
flashes his power, exalts himself, and fears no one, not even himself.
He no longer cares that he does not sleep. Act 5 Scene 3 opens with
Bring me no more reports. Let them fly all!
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm? Was he not born of
woman? The spirits that know All mortal consequences
have pronounced me thus:
“Fear not, Macbeth. No man that’s born of woman Shall e’er have power
Then fly, false thanes,
And mingle with the English epicures! The mind I sway by and the heart
I bear Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear.
Having possession of all the confidence in the world, or at
least thinking he does, Macbeth proceeds in a boisterous manner.
His fate, once prophesied to him, has now acquired complete control.
He has the titles promised him. He has found protection in the
strength of witch’s words.
How can the reader pity such a fool? The only thing to do is
laugh at him, for it can be sure that these prophecies which Macbeth
has ignored will come to pass; Macbeth will no doubt fall. And he
does. Macduff, figuratively but not literally of woman born, holds the
rest of the confidence in the world. Macduff, the Arnold
Schwarzenegger of Shakespearean lords, does the impossible and brings
the wood to the hill, and brings the fall of the great and powerful
Macbeth. A tragic ending? I’d say not. A tragic ending would have been
for Macduff to fall under Macbeth. A tragic ending would have seen
Lady Macbeth take Macbeth’s life. But for Macduff to do what he had to
do, the prophecy was fulfilled, and the only winner is Fate. This does
not make a Tragedy.
Who do we feel sorry for? Maybe only Macduff, who was untimely
ripped from his mother’s womb. We praise Macduff for conquering
Macbeth. Maybe some readers feel some pity for Lady Macbeth. But we
certainly don’t feel pity for Macbeth. Yet Macbeth could have been a
victim. He lost control of himself, and allowed himself to be led by
Fate. Perhaps Shakespeare fails to supply a “tragic flaw” as insisted
on by Aristotle. Macbeth does not try to resist Fate, he runs with it.
He does not heed warnings of potential hazards. The Macbeth we were
introduced to certainly could not have predicted his fortune. Being a
man of honesty and humility, he couldn’t have deserved his dilemma.
But he succumbed to his fate, and was no longer an honest and
I think that even the most humble and honest person in the
world, except Jesus himself, could be swayed to corruption. The
Macbeth Empire could be compared to Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg. In
comparing Macbeth to The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, we might be
able to see Macbeth as a satirical comedy. Macbeth, honest and humble,
was corrupted by the powers of fortune in much the same way that the
people of Hadleyburg, also honest and humble, were corrupted by the
same powers. The reader could not possibly pity the community of
Hadleyburg, and would typically cheer at its fall. Isn’t it the same
with Macbeth? The townspeople of Hadleyburg felt remorseful when they
realized they’d been had, in much the same way that Macbeth surely
felt when he learned of Macduff’s method of birth. The people of
Hadleyburg thought that no harm could come to them, because they held
proper character; they were in proper form. But behind closed doors
they planned their strategies to acquire the power, provided in the
form of a monetary inheritance. This greed/lust for power was the
Hadleyburg downfall. Their own greed was their own enemy.
Likewise with Macbeth. A strong leader, upheld by his loyal
comrades, could do no wrong. But once he learned he was to acquire
some great fortune, he was his own enemy. His lust for power drove him
to his bitter end.
Satire may be defined as a genre that uses mockery of society to
shock that society into an honest look at itself. Do we consider the
Hadleyburg tale a tragedy? No. We see it more as satire. It is a
sarcastic view of society’s morals and values, and how hypocritical
people, including ourselves, can be. Putting Macbeth on a parallel
with this entertaining American short story allows us to view the play
in a different light. We now can see Macbeth as a hypocrite, and we
can see him resembling ourselves. How often can the power of want, the
desire for more, lead humanity to destruction and despair? The same
motivational tool that drives a college student into a career can
someday break him. So let the critics of yesterday have their
tragedy. Let them read their own literary mortality in Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from
day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our
yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out brief
candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and
frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
I am sure even Aristotle would have allowed Macbeth into the
“Tragedy Hall of Fame.” But if a man has the gift of foresight
and is aware of the risks but chooses to ignore them and runs after
his fate, what tragedy is there? If Fate wins, it cannot be considered
a tragedy if Macbeth succeeds in meeting it. Today we have put out
this tragic candle. I’m not of much importance in this mortal world of
ours, but if I’ve given you something to reconsider and to ponder on,
then this task is finished.