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Tragedies originated in ancient Greece where their main purpose was to promote health of the community through purging of emotions such as fear (Aristotle). However, audiences of today watch tragedies purely for entertainment. Shakespeare wrote several tragedies including one of his most famous, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Within the concept of a tragedy is the tragic hero. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, defines a tragic hero as a person who maintains a high position in society, embodies virtue, displays greatness but is not perfect, has a downfall that is not his own fault, has punishment that is greater than the crime, is aware of his mistakes in the end, and arouses solemn emotions but removes the audience of them in the end (Aristotle). Based on Aristotle’s theory, the main character Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play at first appears to be the tragic hero but by the end he is not.
However, a tragic hero must not only be of high status, but he must also “embody nobility and virtue” (Aristotle). Despite the captain’s great descriptions of Macbeth as a courageous warrior on the battlefield, it does not take long for Macbeth’s true colors to show. As he departs from the battlefield, Macbeth meets three witches who give him three prophecies, one of which is that he will become king (1.3.48-50). Macbeth considers murdering King Duncan so that he may fulfill these prophecies. As the play progresses, Macbeth does go through with the murder of Duncan. To stop the fulfillment of his friend Banquo’s prophecy that his sons will become king, Macbeth arranges the murders of Banquo and Banquo’s son (3.1.115-138). He even goes as far to kill one of his noblemen, Macduff’s wife and children in fear of their disloyalty to him (4.1.151-154). Macbeth’s ability to carry out these acts to maintain his throne causes him to lose any virtuousness he may have had.
Aristotle wants his tragic hero to be great but not perfect. The imperfections will allow the audience to relate to the hero. Macbeth is a great, courageous warrior and thane. His ambition to kill King Duncan in order to become king himself and the murders of his friends and innocent women and children show that he is far from perfect. By having a flaw Macbeth is brought down from his pedestal to a position that the audience can relate to.
Macbeth’s ambition to murder Duncan eventually leads to his downfall. After killing Duncan, he begins killing anyone he believes may jeopardize his kingship. By doing so, he makes enemies, one who eventually murders him in battle. With the witches meddling in Macbeth’s life it is questionable whether he is to blame for his own downfall or if he is under some spell; however, it is confirmed that Macbeth is responsible for his own actions when Hecate tells her witches “all you have done hath been but for a wayward son” (3.5.10-11). By being responsible for his own downfall, Macbeth meets another of Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero.
After all he has done, Macbeth is finally taken down in battle by a man whose family he has completely destroyed. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero’s punishment should be more than is deserved; however, Macbeth’s punishment is well deserved for there could be no other end to his ruthless violence except violence itself. Macbeth says he has gone so far that he cannot go back, that he will never stop (3.4.136-137). The only way to restore peace to the kingdom is to remove Macbeth.
Amidst all this Macbeth never gains any self-awareness or knowledge. A tragic hero should not suffer a complete loss, yet Macbeth remains just as arrogant as he always was. As Macbeth meets his murderer he taunts him with the witches prophecies until he realizes Macduff is above the prophecies and able to defeat him. Yet, Macbeth still refuses “to kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet” (5.8.29). Macbeth is so caught up in maintaining his position he cannot see the destruction he has caused and would rather die than step down for the betterment of his people.
As the play comes to a close, Aristotle states the audience should be purged of any unhealthy emotions such as pity or fear evoked throughout the play. Macbeth’s terrible reign does stir up pity and fear in the audience. It brings about pity for Macbeth’s people because they must deal with Macbeth’s brutal, ruthless violence. It arouses fear in the audience that one day such a ruler could one day be over them. However, in the end those emotions are gone when Macbeth is murdered and the rightful heir is restored to the throne. One can only hope things will get better from here.
At first look Macbeth seems to be the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth does hold a high position in society as a courageous warrior and thane. He seems great but it is soon noticeable that he is not perfect since he possesses the ability to murder his king and anyone else who may get in his way. His downfall is his own fault and his tragic end purges the audience of any negative emotions once the rightful heir is restored to the throne. Despite these characteristics, there are other traits of a tragic hero in Aristotle’s theory which Macbeth does not possess. One aspect in which he falls short is Aristotle’s idea that the hero’s punishment should “exceed the crime” (Aristotle). Macbeth’s punishment, however, is deserved of his crime since there can be no other end. Aristotle also states a tragic hero should not face a complete loss; however, Macbeth never learns anything from his mistakes. The hero should also be virtuous, but Macbeth does not possess any virtues. He murders his friends and innocent women and children all to maintain his throne. For a character to be considered an Aristotelian tragic hero he must possess all characteristics of Aristotle’s theory. Macbeth possesses some of these characteristics but not others; therefore, he cannot be considered the Aristotelian tragic hero of Shakespeare’s play.
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