Monday, 28 January 2013

What Makes Macbeth a Tragic Hero?

Can a murderer be a 'hero' of any description?
Is Macbeth a tragic hero, or does he simply get what's coming to him?

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

Can we really for sorry for someone
with all that blood on his hands?
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.

Macbeth’s Good Side

Macbeth can't technically be called a 'baddie'
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 hesitancy 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.

Do you think Macbeth is a tragic hero?
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 should 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.

But, of course, whether Macbeth truly is man 'more sinned against than sinning' really rather depends on who you ask. Macduff, for example, would feel that Macbeth got his just desserts. 

What do you think? Do you feel sorry for the mass-murdering Macbeth?

If you'd like to know more about Macbeth's tragic hero status, be sure to take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.


  1. In my opinion, Macbeth is a villain, not a tragic hero. It is noted in this story that Macbeth had thought of murdering Duncan before the witches appeared to him, and he had even discussed it with his wife. They had decided that it wasn't the right thing to do. It wasn't until after the witches told him their prophecy that he decided to go through with it. He also had some help from his wife. One could say that she persuaded him to do it, and they would be right. The problem is that how can one be a hero if they choose to go along with something as terrible as this? To me, this situation is like one that my mother always used to scold me about: “If someone tells you to jump off of a bridge, would you do it?” I think Macbeth is a villain, because he used these influences as an excuse to commit murder, and to gain the throne. Macbeth was obsessed with being king, so much so that it consumed him. He is a villain because he wanted to be king no matter what it took. Macbeth had evil thoughts and plans in his mind long before his wife and the witches came to him, he just wanted to look like a good guy and manipulate the system to get what he was after. His arrogance also shows his villainous side. Heroes are not arrogant. Once the first murder was committed, the real Macbeth came out. He no longer needed an excuse, because he had finally done what he had always wanted to, and he had finally gotten what he had always wanted. The murdering of Banquo and Macduff’s family were committed by the real, villainous Macbeth. Even after killing Banquo, Macbeth still uses the witches as his excuse to commit evil, and his only concern is protecting his throne. He has no remorse for his actions, only a desire to keep what he has. Macbeth is selfish, arrogant, and overall just a bad person.

    1. Hello, Drake. Thanks for sharing your opinion, I appreciate you taking the time to do so. You make some very valid points.

      There are only two things I'd say in response. The first is that killing kings was obviously wrong, but pretty commonplace, especially in the 11th century when the real Macbeth was around. So, it's not quite as 'evil' an act as we'd now perceive it. The real Macbeth got rid of a pretty dreadful king by all accounts, and that was the only way to dethrone a bad king. Now, we've no reason to think the Duncan of the play is a terrible ruler, but I'm simply pointing out that the act of regicide in and of itself can be viewed as morally grey.

      The other thing I'd just mention is that heroes, in my humble opinion, are almost always arrogant. Tragic heroes that is. The poster boy for tragic heroes is Oedipus, and they don't come more arrogant than that. But in Shakespearean terms, we've got cocky little Romeo, and smart-alecky Hamlet. King Lear, Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar all have very high opinions of themselves. Coriolanus could not be more in love with himself. And even Othello, who's at times insecure, is very certain of his merits.