MacBeth can be considered a Shakespearean tragedy because this play by William Shakespeare meets several of the most important criteria of such a tragedy. The plot moves from good to bad, as the tragic hero demonstrates hamartia, or character weaknesses that lead somewhat to his own downfall, and poetic language, prose and verse are used in significant ways.
In every Shakespearean tragedy, the plot starts off on a very positive note for the main characters and then it usually moves quickly from good to bad. In the first act of MacBeth, many things are going well, for everybody. Scotland has just won a major battle and MacBeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. Then the Weïrd Sisters enter and, with their foreshadowing revealed to MacBeth and Banquo, these three witches irrevocably stir up and thicken whatever is in their pot (the pot being metaphorical for the plot).
Banquo learns about his paradoxical life, but he doesn’t really care; he is content with his life. The major influence on the negative twist of the plot is MacBeth, who starts to toy with his fate when he steps aside in Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 140-155, (“…why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair and make my seated heart knock at my ribs against the use of nature? Present fears are less than horrible imaginings. My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes so my single state of man that function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not…”) and starts to contemplate acts of aggression he wouldn’t have dreamed a possibility for his character. After MacBeth kills the king, Duncan, there is no looking back, and MacBeth then feels compelled to eliminate Banquo as a possible threat. MacBeth is tormented the entire play thereafter. He becomes an insomniac, a recluse, paranoid, and sees visions. Things come to a boiling point in Act 3, Scene 4, (“… [To the ghost] Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me… [To the ghost] Lo, how say you? Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too. – If charnel houses and our graves must send those that we bury back, our monuments shall be maws of kites…”) when Banquo’s ghost enters the room and only MacBeth can see it, indicating that MacBeth is starting to crack underneath the pressure.
By the end of the play, MacBeth is all alone, his wife having committed suicide. But MacBeth refuses to commit suicide; he would rather that more people die as a result of the things he has done, saying, “Why should I play the Roman fool and die on mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes do better upon them.” (Act 5, Scene 8, Lines 1-3) Shortly after uttering these words, MacBeth is killed by MacDuff. Clearly, MacBeth fits this aspect of the Shakespearean tragedy as the plot moves quickly from good to bad.
MacBeth focuses on one tragic hero, and that is MacBeth. He is the tragic hero in MacBeth because throughout the play he proves himself to be neither completely villainous, nor exceptionally virtuous. Even to himself, MacBeth believes “…Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” (Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 78-81)
After he kills Duncan, MacBeth is overcome with guilt and remorse, which demonstrates that his character isn’t totally evil. MacBeth’s guilt and remorse pop up at unexpected moments, such as in Act 3, Scene 4, when the ghost of Banquo enters, triggering MacBeth to lose his sanity temporarily and to start talking to the ghost.(“… [To the ghost] Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me… [To the ghost] Lo, how say you? Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too. – If charnel houses and our graves must send those that we bury back, our monuments shall be maws of kites…”) But as the play progresses, the audience sees that MacBeth has pushed aside his guilt and remorse in favour of keeping his position as king.
MacBeth is a tragic hero, and all tragic heroes of the Shakespearean kind are noblemen who have unsettling hamartia, or character weaknesses, that everyone can relate to and that contribute to their ultimate downfall. MacBeth’s hamartia are the very relate-able characteristics of ambition, arrogance and greed. Before the he hears the Weïrd Sisters’ prophesies in Act 1, Scene 3, MacBeth is a happy man and a good man. He has it all: Thane of Cawdor, Thane of Glamis, Duncan’s favour, and a nice, cozy castle. But because of his hamartia, ambition, arrogance, and greed, by the end of the play MacBeth is completely miserable.
MacBeth exemplifies ambition in his willingness to murder repeatedly. He exhibits his first sign of fear of the unknown when he turns to Banquo and says, “…Do you not hope your children shall be kings when those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me promised no less to them?” (Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 128-131) It may sound as though MacBeth is simply curious, but it seems more likely that MacBeth is wondering and worrying about his future security as king, should Banquo’s descendents become kings. MacBeth then decides that being Thane of Cawdor is not enough for him, and he begins to scheme to ensure the fulfilment of the Weïrd Sisters’ prophesy, that he, MacBeth, will become king. MacBeth’s ambition must be in overdrive, because not only does he kill the king, he also kills his best friend, Banquo, to keep Banquo from telling the rest of the world that MacBeth has killed the king to become king himself. Ambition rears its ugly head again in Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 55-60, when MacBeth realizes that he must also remove Malcolm from the picture, as he is the Prince of Cumberland: “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down or else o’erleap, for in m my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” MacBeth has a certain amount of courage, but only in the battlefield. The murders do not take courage; they take MacBeth’s cold-hearted ambition.
MacBeth’s arrogance becomes an exploitable crack when he tells Banquo that he is going to leave his being crowned king up to fate. (Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 157-159) (“…If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir…”) He might not consciously recognize it, but inside he really wants to be king, and feels he deserves the crown. That arrogant desire is what ultimately motivates him to commit the ultimate act of treason, killing the king. MacBeth also becomes understandably arrogant when the witches give him a distorted vision of his own indestructibility, where no man born of a womb can harm him, and that the only way he will be defeated is “…until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” (Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 105-108)
MacBeth’s greed is the hamartia that is very prominent throughout the entire play. MacBeth hears the witches’ prophesies and fervently wants them to happen. MacBeth’s greedy desire becomes inflamed during his discussion with his wife. When Lady MacBeth says, “O, never shall sun that morrow see!” (Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 71-72), it gets MacBeth thinking that he should take matters into his own hands to become king, and he decides to kill Duncan to gain the crown of Scotland. MacBeth’s greed leads him to make the witches’ prophesies come true, and then he becomes wistful, thinking of what else he could have. (Act 3, Scene 1-3 (Quote Scene 3, Lines 51-56)) (“…Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed. – Come, seeling night, and with thy bloody and invisible hand cancel and tear to pieces that great bond which keeps me pale….”) MacBeth’s greed does not stop at any discernable moment during the play. At the very end, when he is alone in the castle, MacBeth starts to feel sorry, but the fact remains that he has been greedy. In wanting everything he should not have, MacBeth has plotted and killed and grabbed, and he ultimately ends up being killed himself.
MacBeth’s circumstances result from bad decisions that stem from his tragic flaws: ambition, arrogance and greed.
Downfall of the Tragic Hero
MacBeth is partially responsible for his own downfall. He is not entirely to blame, but he plays a fairly major role. Other characters that aid in his downfall are Lady MacBeth, the Weïrd Sisters, and Duncan himself.
Lady MacBeth is partially responsible because she pushes MacBeth to commit the first murder, of the king of Scotland, Duncan. She belittles MacBeth, and says he is not a man. (Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 39-96) (“…Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art desire? Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,” like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?…”) In questioning his manhood, Lady MacBeth pushes MacBeth to validate himself in his and her eyes. MacBeth always has the choice, but her actions certainly influence his ego.
The Weïrd Sisters play an enormous role in the downfall of MacBeth. They open the door to MacBeth’s downfall and give him a swift kick down the stairs, making sure that he hits every step by giving him distorted prophesies, toying with his mind, and telling him at the outset that he will be king.
Duncan does not have time to play more than a small part with regard to MacBeth’s downfall, since MacBeth kills Duncan shortly into the second act. But if Duncan had not so readily named MacBeth the Thane of Cawdor, and had he looked at the scene objectively, he might have seen that perhaps Banquo was the better candidate. But Duncan gives the position to MacBeth, and thus feeds MacBeth’s greed and ego.
The last aspect of MacBeth that renders it a Shakespearean tragedy is the use of poetic language, prose and verse. Prose, as a rule, is reserved for ordinary conversation and common folk, (Act 2, Scene 3, Lines 24-26) (“…Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock, and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things…”) while verse is usually spoken by kings and other serious speakers. One specific character may use prose and verse, depending on the situation, their social status, and whom they are addressing.
This language aspect of tragedy is especially significant, because verse is used when something important is being or about to be relayed. Lady MacBeth’s famous line, “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements” (Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 45-47) is an excellent example of verse because it relays an important message, and is delivered by someone of higher social status.
The Tragedy of MacBeth is a tragedy in many ways. Death often feels tragic, and the downfall of a human being can be a source of great despair. This play fits the criteria of a Shakespearean tragedy by having the plot move from good to bad, featuring a tragic hero and his hamartia, with the tragic hero being partially responsible for his own downfall, and demonstrating the use of poetic language. All these aspects of tragedy are apparent in Shakespeare’s play MacBeth, which leads to the conclusion that it is, indeed, a Shakespearean tragedy.