Sunday, 16 September 2012

Why Does Macbeth do The Things He Does?

What makes Macbeth tick?
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragic heroes. At one time, a loyal soldier, he quickly falls prey to his own ambition and the persuasive predictions of a gang of witches. But what  really makes Macbeth tick?

Due to the fact Macbeth becomes a violent, murdering, paranoid, crazed, dictator, it is easy to forget that he begins the play as a respected general in the Scottish army.

So, how does this loyal and virtuous soldier, who is described as “…brave Macbeth - well he deserves that name…” become a regicidal usurper?

Macbeth’s Ambition

Often, it is claimed that Lady Macbeth initiates the plot to kill Duncan, but, while it is true she encourages the act, Macbeth does not shy away from murderous thoughts, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step,/On which I must fall down, or else o’er-leap,/For in my way it lies.”

Furthermore, after Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor, as the witches predicted, the ambition of ascending to the throne is firmly cemented in his psyche, “Two truths are told,/As happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme.”

Superstition in Macbeth’s Character

However, it is important to bear in mind that ambition alone does not result in Macbeth’s downfall. Many people point to the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy in Macbeth and it is fair to assume that, had he not met the witches, it would not have occurred to him to perform the act of regicide.

Therefore, there is an element of superstition in Macbeth’s character that should not be overlooked. This is particularly relevant in the later acts, when the witches prophecies become increasingly significant to Macbeth; dictating many of his actions - such as killing Macduff’s household, and sitting tight, even though Malcolm and the English army are looming.

Influence of Lady Macbeth

Is Lady Macbeth to blame for her
husband's evil deeds?
As mentioned above, it is erroneous to believe that Lady Macbeth is the instigator of the murder plot.

However, it cannot be argued that she has great influence over her husband and it is reasonably safe to assume that Macbeth would not have carried out the plan if it were not for Lady Macbeth’s provocation.

For more on Lady M, read my post 'Is Lady Macbeth a Bitch?'

What Makes Macbeth a Tragic Hero?

The play is named after him and he dies at the end. These two facts are indicative of Macbeth being a tragic hero, but they don’t make him one. So what does?

Shakespeare’s perception, and our modern view of tragedy are founded in Aristotle’s theories on the subject. Aristotelian tragedy, as described in Poetics, has shaped every form of dramatic art, from Ancient Greek theatre to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Aristotle, tragic heroes must conform to a few rules. Most notably:

  • They should not be too good. Otherwise, an audience will feel that their downfalls are unjust. 
  • They should not be too bad. Otherwise, an audience will feel no sympathy for them. 
  • They must have an intrinsic character flaw known as ‘hamartia’, which causes them to do something horrific and instigates their fall from grace.

Macbeth’s Bad Side

It’s not difficult to explain how Macbeth conforms to the first of the rules above. As soon as the witches tell him that he’ll be king, he begins to have rather dark thoughts about how he can make it happen. “…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?…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man…”

Of course, he doesn’t stop at the assassination of Duncan, either. In order to retain the throne, he is driven to even more heinous acts, including ordering the murders of Banquo, and Fleance, as well as the slaughter of every single member of  Macduff’s household.

is ambition Macbeth's only tragic flaw?

Macbeth’s Good Side

However, in concordance with Aristotle’s opinion, Macbeth isn’t all bad.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to find redeeming features in a mass-murdering tyrant. But it’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the play, he is lauded as a great and loyal soldier.

His hesitancy over committing regicide, “We will proceed no further in this business…” is also evidence of the fact that he is not an innately ‘evil’ person.

Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw

Often, Aristotle’s use of the word ‘hamartia’ is translated as a fault that causes a horrific act to occur as an unforeseen consequence or accident. Alternatively, the terrible act can be as a result of ignorance or negligence. For example, Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is an accidental act, which is caused by his hesitance in exacting revenge on Claudius.

However, Macbeth’s flaw, which is initially ambition, does not cause an accidental or unforeseen event.

The murder of Duncan is a very purposeful act, although it could be argued that, as he was focused solely on the witches prophecy, it was an act of ignorance rather than malice…but even that might be stretching it a bit.

What's It All About, Shakespeare?
A Guide to Macbeth
Later, after he has met with the witches for a second time, he begins to develop another flaw: hubris, which mistakenly convinces him that he is immortal. “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”

The tragic flaws of ambition and hubris cause Macbeth, the loyal and honourable soldier, to become a mass-murdering despot.

Despite the many horrific, bloody acts he has committed, we feel empathy for him, because he isn’t a ‘bad’ guy.

And there is a sense that, if he had never met the witches, he would not have come to such an unpleasant downfall.

This post is an excerpt from What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth. If you'd like to learn more about Macbeth and the play, the ebook is available on, and other European Amazon outlets, as well as Smashwords, Barnes and Noble and Sony.

No comments:

Post a Comment