Greek mythology gave birth to the idea of the tragic hero, in which the concepts of the hero play a tremendous role. Aristotelian thought indicates “the tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is ‘better than we are’, in that he is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a man is shown as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of a mistaken act, to which he is led by his hamartia (his ‘effort of judgment’) or, as it is often literally translated, his tragic flaw” (Zarro, 2001).
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There are two types of tragic heroes, those that are born into nobility with a tragic flaw inherent in their character who are therefore responsible for their own fate and doomed to make a serious error in judgment and those who have achieved great heights or esteem through hard work who eventually realize they have made a huge mistake causing them to face and accept their tragic death with honor (Zarro, 2001).
Greek tragedy abounds with examples of tragic heroes, as does much of Shakespearean tragedy. “Shakespeare wished to exhibit a more sublime picture – an ambitious but noble hero, yielding to a deep-laid hellish temptation, and in whom all the crimes to which, in order to secure the fruits of his first crime, he is impelled by necessity, cannot altogether eradicate the stamp of native heroism” (Bates, 1906: 36). In many ways, it can be argued that Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, was a tragic hero.
As the play opens, Macbeth’s nobility of spirit is revealed as reports come in to King Duncan regarding his exploits on the battlefield. The first two acts don’t even see Macbeth as he is busy on the battlefield, attempting to defend Duncan’s kingdom from the forces of Macdonwald, a man from the ‘Western Isles.’ Macbeth’s loyalty is shown in the fierceness of the battle being fought as it is reported by the wounded captain in Act I, Scene ii. He tells the king the battle was “As two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art” (I, ii, 8-9), indicating that the two sides were equally matched and Fortune was favoring Macdonwald. “But all’s too weak / For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name) / Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel … unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops” (I, ii, 15-17, 22).
In addition to fighting for his king, Macbeth is quickly and well rewarded for his efforts as King Duncan makes him the new Thane of Cawdor in addition to his already holding the title of Thane of Glamis. “According to Holinshed, Macbeth’s parents were Sinel, Thane of Glamis (whose existence is otherwise unattested) and a daughter of Malcolm II named Doada (again, modern genealogies mention no such person)” (Friedlander, 2005).
In addition to his supposed genealogy and position of rank, Macbeth himself demonstrates nobility of spirit as he considers the idea of assassinating King Duncan in his own home: “He’s here in double trust: / First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, / Strong both against the deed; then, as his hose, / Who should against his murderer shut the door” (I, vii, 12-15). Beyond this, he also knows that Duncan has been a good and fair king and killing him is unjustified.
However, once the idea that he might be king has entered his brain, thanks to the three witches, Macbeth can’t seem to shake it, particularly as his wife continues to press the issue. “One common form of hamartia in Greek tragedies was hubris, that ‘pride’ or overweening self-confidence which leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or to violate an important law” (Zarro, 2001).
Although he knows he has no reason to move against his king other than “vaunting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” (I, vii, 25-27), his commitment to his wife and his greed proves overpowering, forcing him to the act. “Lady Macbeth bitches at her husband and ridicules his masculinity in order to make him commit murder. She talks about a smiling baby she once nursed and what it would have been like to smash its brains out – she would prefer this to having a husband who is unwilling to kill in cold blood” (Friedlander, 2005).
Macbeth’s single evil action of killing his king thus commits him to further evil acts. “That same Macbeth, who once as a warrior could spurn at death, now that he dreads the prospect of the life to come, clings with growing anxiety to his earthly existence the more miserable it becomes, and pitilessly removes out of the way whatever to his dark and suspicious mind seems to threaten danger” (Bates, 1906: 37).
When Macbeth willingly participates in murder, this quickly escalates to massacres of perceived enemies and the propagation of lies and deceits as a means of maintaining the perception others have of him. His own deceit of Duncan forces him to consider the possible schemes of Banquo, thus leading him to order murder once again. In avenge himself on Macduff, he orders the massacre of Macduff’s family, and the evil flows on. In this process, he loses his heath and sanity.
Finally, after having made a mistake in judgment causing a fall from his nobility and high moral station, Macbeth is forced to participate in numerous other actions that continually wear away at his nobility and sanity until he is finally, mercifully, killed by a man who was not born of woman. “Macbeth is still found worthy to die the death of a hero on the field of battle. The noble Macduff is allowed the satisfaction of saving his country by punishing with his own hand the tyrant who had murdered his wife and children” (Bates, 1906: 38).
This, again, is something he has brought on himself as it was Macbeth who ordered the murder of Macduff’s entire household once he learned that Macduff had fled the country in search of justice for Duncan’s murder. “Holinshed spends a lot of time on the incident in which Malcolm (who became a popular king) tests Macduff by pretending to be mean when he is really nice” (Friedlander, 2005), thus establishing the difference between a noble man who would lie and cheat his way to the throne and a noble man who would lie and cheat to determine another’s honesty. In the end, though, Macbeth can be seen to be a tragic hero because he started noble, made a terrible decision based upon his own foolish pride egged on by his ambitious wife and finally died a disgraceful death as the result of his actions.
Bates, Alfred (Ed.). “Macbeth: An Analysis of the Play by Shakespeare.” The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906, Vol. 14: 34-39.
Friedlander, Ed. “Enjoying Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.” Pathguy. (2005). Web.
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Shakespeare. “Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Viking Books, 1969, pp. 1107-1135.
Zarro, Josephine. “More Terms Defined: Aristotelian Definition of Tragedy.” eGallery of Tragic Heroes in Literature and Life. (2001). Teach the Teachers. Web.