“A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall” (Aristotle). Aristotle theorizes that a Tragic Hero will effectively evoke both one’s pity and one’s terror. Eventually, a Tragic Hero dies a tragic death, falling from great heights, while creating irreversible mistakes. The hero must courageously accept their fate with honour. Such a person suffers a change of mindset, from happiness to misery due to their own tragic flaw. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, evidence of this Tragic Hero is displayed as the protagonist, Macbeth possesses the three qualities critical to obtaining such a title. Macbeth’s loyalty to Scotland, his over-confidence (which is triggered by both the three witches and Lady Macbeth), and his realization of his flaw (which leads to his tragic demise) all contribute to the inevitable conclusion that Macbeth is a Tragic Hero.
One can argue that Macbeth is a treacherous villain. However, he is portrayed to be a noble gentleman in the beginning of the play. Prior to his shift in mindset, he displays loyal qualities which the king of Scotland, Duncan, becomes aware of and admires. During Macbeth’s act of bravery in the battle against Norway, he defeats the traitor of Scotland, Macdonwald. A Soldier delivering the news of his heroic feat speaks:
For brave Macbeth-well he deserves that name-
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements (1.2.18-25).
The Soldier who is speaking of Macbeth to the king emphasizes that he well deserves the title of being “brave”. He states that Macbeth “challenges fortune”, risking his life for Scotland. The solider continues to say that Macbeth faced Macdonwald, the traitor, until he became victorious. To honour his country, Macbeth cuts Macdonwald from his navel to his cheeks, and places his head on the top of Scotland’s fort wall. In this, Macbeth portrays the loyal qualities one must possess to earn the title of a Tragic Hero. Macbeth also portrays his loyalty to Scotland as he converses with Duncan, the king of Scotland at the beginning of the play. As King Duncan reveals he feels guilty for not thanking Macbeth enough for his duty, the king states that he owes Macbeth more than he can ever repay. Macbeth replies by saying, “The service and the loyalty I owe / In doing it pays itself. Your highness’ part / Is to receive our duties” (1.4.25-27). Macbeth is not aware of Malcolm, Duncan’s son, being crowned as Prince of Cumberland. Although Macbeth is contemplating murdering Duncan, he thinks he should wait and trust fate as his other prophecy, to obtain the title of Thane of Cawdor, came true just as the three witches promised. Now that he sees Duncan for the first time after being given the prophecies, his loyalty shines through and he means what he says.
In addition to Macbeth’s loyalty to Scotland, his over-confidence that is triggered by both the three witches and Lady Macbeth, significantly contributes to his later demise, demonstrating Macbeth’s greatest flaw. Not only is Macbeth responsible for his own actions, but it can be argued that several other characters play a significant role in his demise, allowing him to be known as a Tragic Hero. Prior to meeting the three witches, Macbeth has no desire to become king of Scotland. Macbeth bumps into three witches who speak of prophecies, one of which was that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor. Shortly after they inform him of this, it came true. Macbeth speaks to himself saying, “Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (1.3.137-139). Macbeth says that the witches have told him two prophecies and they both came true. One title he already had, Thane of Glamis, and a new title, Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth surmises that if the witches speak of two events that became true, then the third prophecy of him becoming king is also likely to happen. This allows Macbeth to become overconfident. Similar to the three witches, Lady Macbeth also contributes to Macbeth’s over-confidence, using persuasion towards him, inevitably leading to his tragic demise. Lady Macbeth is the one to provoke Macbeth to kill Duncan, leading him to believe that he is invincible. However, his over-confidence begins to cloud his judgement causing him to make irrational and impulsive decisions. This impulsiveness can be seen through the words of Macbeth, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed” (3.2.50-51). With the efforts of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth becomes independent in committing murderous acts. Macbeth states that Banquo’s son Fleance, who also receives a prophecy, will one day be king. Macbeth feels vengeful that Fleance is still alive and he will therefore get in the way of him living peacefully. Macbeth sends both Banquo and Fleance to the woods, knowing they are never going to return. Macbeth converses with his wife on this matter, being unclear of what is to be done. When Lady Macbeth asks what it is, he suggests that she should not worry about what he is doing. Macbeth portrays his over-confidence as he no longer needs his wife to help him make decisions, although she is the one to actually fuel his flaw.
After Macbeth acts with over-confidence, the realization of his flaw leads Macbeth to his tragic downfall and demise, which ultimately fulfills his defining moment as a Tragic Hero. Macbeth realizes he is too confident in himself, and is appalled by his behaviour, as he knows he is not a murderous villain. Macbeth explains to himself, “ I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er:” (3.4.167-169). After Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, he is pushed even further into guilt. Although others are watching, Macbeth cannot resist acting crazy. He begins to realize that his over-confidence is changing him as a man. He is turning into a murderer, while ridding himself of his noble qualities. Macbeth cannot properly comprehend how he is executing so many crimes just so he can reign as king. He recognizes that his over-confidence is leading him to extreme guilt. This development is a clear representation that Macbeth wishes he can take back what he has done but has “stepped in so far”, that things will never be the same. In relation to Macbeth’s actions after he witnesses the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth is beginning to realize he has deceived everyone, and has no one left, as his wife rids her guilty conscience by committing suicide. While comprehending his unfortunate reality, Macbeth calls for Seyton, a servant, while saying:
My way of life
is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have (5.3.25-29).
Macbeth concludes that his whole life is beginning to wither, fall away, and die like a yellowing leaf in autumn. He states that there are certain things that go along with old age such as honour, love, obedience and loyalty. However, Macbeth recognizes that he is never going to have any of these things because of his flaw, which is over-confidence. He realizes that he has nothing more to live for and is now accepting his downfall. His over-confidence leads to his tragic demise as Macduff, Thane of Fife, returns to Scotland and murders Macbeth for all the sorrow he wrought upon him and Scotland, by murdering so many harmless individuals, including Macduff’s family. The realization of his flaw, which led to his death, is the final chapter in Macbeth’s journey that makes him a Tragic Hero.
In conclusion, Macbeth fulfills his role as a Tragic Hero. His loyalty to his country, his tragic flaw of over-confidence and the final realization of his flaw, leads him to his tragic death. It is clear that Macbeth does not let fate reveal itself to him but rather he forces time and creates his own destiny. The play follows a path that is both surprising and inevitable at the same time, and the Tragic Hero is powerless to stop the fate that befalls him. This Tragic Hero truly fulfils Aristotle’s theory, drawing us to both pity and fear the hero all at once.
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