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Macbeth: An Aristotelian Tragic Hero

2217 words (9 pages) Essay in English Literature

11/05/17 English Literature Reference this

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In the Poetics, Aristotle devises certain requirements for the principal character of a tragedy and these have been generally accepted as the standard for the character of the tragic protagonist. According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must not be perfect, but he should be good and like us in order to gain our sympathy. He has a fatal flaw or hamartia that leads him to an error of judgement, and then takes place a reversal in which he experiences recognition of the events that led to his downfall. The character of the tragic hero should also be able to bring about the catharsis, where the audience feels pity and fear for the hero. Shakespeare’s tragic heroes mostly conform to the basic requirements of the Aristotelian dictum but in some cases he imbues his heroes with certain characteristics because of which they become unique in their own ways. Macbeth is one such example of a hero whose character shows a slight deviation from that of the ideal tragic hero, while essentially conforming to the Aristotelian principles.

David S. Kastan points out that it is probable that Shakespeare had been either unaware of or willing to ignore Aristotle’s theorisation on tragedy (Kastan 5). So Shakespeare may not have followed the Aristotelian dictum in delineating his tragic heroes. Yet, Shakespearean tragic heroes seem to almost entirely conform to the Aristotelian notion. A.C. Bradley says regarding Shakespeare’s heroes: ‘They are exceptional beings…. his actions or sufferings are of an unusual kind. But this is not all. His nature also is exceptional, and generally raises him in some respect much above the average level of humanity.’ (Bradley 13). Macbeth is a character built on a grand scale: he is a person of high degree in whom “desire, passion, or will…attains…a terrible force.” (Bradley 13). Macbeth’s hamartia is his inordinate ambition which leads him to deliberately embrace the path of evil. In this context Bradley comments: ‘It is a fatal gift, but it carries with it a touch of greatness; and when there is joined to it nobility of mind, or genius, or immense force…it…stirs not only sympathy and pity, but admiration, terror, and awe.’ (Bradley 14). Thus, at the end of the play, Macbeth emerges as the hero whose tragedy evokes pity and fear rather than repulsion despite all the evil that he has committed knowingly.

Shakespeare endows Macbeth with qualities which elevate his villain-hero to the heights of a tragic hero. Kenneth Muir in his introduction to the play Macbeth says that in order to show how the hero comes to be damned, Shakespeare had to describe and create the good which Macbeth had sacrificed (Shakespeare 43). Macbeth shows an inclination towards the evil as also a desire to reform: his is not a smooth transformation into criminality. Macbeth is not innately evil, and Shakespeare highlights the moral conflict within the hero through Macbeth’s vivid poetic imagination. In this context Harold C. Goddard says: ‘When a man of imagination…stoops to crime, instantly transcendental powers rush to the scene as if fearful lest this single deed shift the moral center of gravity of the universe…’ (Goddard 16). Hence, Macbeth imagines:

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. (II, ii, 59-62)

Shakespeare’s artistic genius helps to secure the audience’s pity and admiration for the hero by referring to his heroic qualities throughout the play. Macbeth’s extraordinary prowess is repeatedly emphasised – he is referred to variously as “brave Macbeth”, “Bellona’s bridegroom”, “Valour’s minion”. Lady Macbeth’s words that her husband is “too full o’th’milk of human kindness” is an indication of his innate goodness. Yet, at the same time, he is exceedingly ambitious and this ambition is, according to Bradley, “abhorrent to his better feelings” (Bradley 294). His passion for power and self-assertion are so intense that he manages to curb the voice of his conscience and proceed with further evil. But Macbeth is, as David S. Kastan points out, too sensitive in his awareness of evil to be reducible to the moral cartoon of Malcolm’s judgement: “this dead butcher …” (Kastan 18). In this context G. Wilson Knight says that Macbeth gets: ‘….his reasons and motives hopelessly wrong. Macbeth, whose conscience revolts from the crime, persuades himself that he is a most cold-blooded villain, and only fears actual and personal punishment.'(Knight 136)

Macbeth himself says:

………I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on th’other- (I, vii, 25-28)

Macbeth is perfectly aware of the futility of such “ambition”, yet he can find no better name. One fine interpretation that has been given as to why Macbeth decides on a course repellent to his instincts and reasoning is that he sets about the murder “as an appalling duty” (Bradley 293). It is as if with the initial crime, Macbeth decides to go through a sort of self-imposed punishment where he wilfully takes recourse to evil instead of repenting and converts himself into a hard-core criminal.

G. Wilson Knight says that Macbeth suffers a state of division, due to conflicting impulses, for and against his crime (Knight 141). Macbeth’s mental torment, the continuance of this inward division, prevents any continued success. Macbeth fails in his schemes not so much because of outward events and forces but through the working of that part of his nature which originally forbade the murder. Macbeth may have been ambitious but his ambition did not initially have the illness and frenzy of a hardened criminal. Macbeth’s additional crimes are in reality the outcome of his agonised conscience. Had he, from the beginning, been a hardened murderer, he would have undertaken the act without any inner conflict, and there would have been nothing to prevent his establishing himself safely on the throne. Conscience, which had urged him not to murder Duncan, now forces him to murder many others. Kenneth Muir says that Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown and so satisfy his wife (Shakespeare 48). Macbeth tells his wife just before the murder of Duncan that they should not proceed with the murder: “We will proceed no further in this business” (I, vii, 31). He also contemplates:

…..that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all- here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’d jump the life to come. (I, vii, 4-7)

What we see in these lines is a deep tragic tone which speaks of the hero’s tormented conscience which revolts against the very crime he contemplates. Furthermore, because Macbeth is no hardened criminal, he has to manipulate his corporal faculties for the act, he has to “…. bend up/ Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (I, vii, 80-81).

Macbeth’s suffering is heightened further by his exceedingly vivid imagination. A.C. Bradley says in this respect that Macbeth has “the imagination of a poet” and that: ‘Macbeth’s better nature….instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify.’ (Bradley 295). Macbeth’s vision of the floating dagger, the voice that cries “Macbeth shall sleep no more”, the ghost of Banquo, etc. are all figments of his imagination which serve to highlight his torment and anguish and it is precisely this inner anguish that helps in gaining the audience’s sympathy for the hero. Macbeth’s soul speaks to him in the shape of his imagination and whenever this imagination is active, we feel the suspense, horror, awe and also the admiration and sympathy latent in it. In this context John Harvey says: ‘The poetry Macbeth speaks charts with remarkable subtlety and fidelity the ebb and flow of his mind. It is because we are swayed by this ebb and flow that the tragic hero is so close to us. …the poetry forces us to share his experience and to make it our own.’ (Harvey 32). Macbeth’s poetry is one of Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs in his characterisation of the tragic hero. His poetry voices universal human experience and helps to raise him from the level of a villain to that of a tragic hero with whom we can relate and sympathise.

Thus Macbeth can be seen as embodying the characteristics of an ideal tragic hero – he is neither a perfect nor an innately evil character whose hamartia or error causes his degeneration. Yet it cannot be denied that he consciously embraces the path of evil. The influence of external agents like Lady Macbeth’s instigation and the prophecy of the witches could have been easily ignored by Macbeth. A. C. Bradley opines that Macbeth was free to accept or resist the temptation but the temptation was already within him (Bradley 288). John Harvey in this context says: “Macbeth is a free agent, he must choose of his own free will to do evil.” (Harvey 35). Therefore the influences of the witches and Lady Macbeth can be interpreted as the outward manifestations of the evil desires inherent in the hero and those desires only rise into consciousness under these influences. Thus Macbeth becomes a tragic hero who deliberately renounces the path of good for fulfilling his evil ambitions. Aristotle had regarded the thoroughly depraved evil character as being unworthy of becoming a tragic hero saying that such a character fails to evoke pity and fear among the audience. Macbeth’s character is somewhat of a deviation from this concept and it is here that Shakespeare adds a different dimension to his tragic hero.

The Aristotelian hamartia is an error usually caused by the ignorance or negligence of the hero. Macbeth’s error is, however, purposeful and he wilfully chooses evil. Yet Macbeth manages to gain our sympathy by the end of the play by his sheer will power and ability to realise the futility of his deeds. Bradley says that there remains something sublime in the defiance with which, even when cheated of his last hope, Macbeth faces earth and hell and heaven (Bradley 305). Macbeth may appear to us as a cold-blooded villain, but there remains something grand about him. There is a tragic grandeur in his strained perversion of the will, in his passion and in his gift of imaginative expression and all these evoke a feeling of sympathy in us. Coupled with this is a sense of waste of the potential that Macbeth had in him. In this context A. C. Bradley says: ‘With Shakespeare, at any rate, the pity and fear which are stirred by the tragic story seem to unite with, and even to merge in, a profound sense of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste.’ (Bradley 16).

Thus Macbeth, despite being villainous, is not altogether a depraved person, for he retains our sympathy and his tragedy does release the cathartic emotions in the audience. It of course requires the genius of a Shakespeare to portray tragic villains of this type. Macbeth is a hero who becomes a villain, and in this respect Kenneth Muir comments: ‘His [Shakespeare’s] imaginative perception of the human heart made it necessary for him to investigate the steps by which a noble and valiant man is brought to his damnation, and to present the process in such a way as to arouse our pity and terror.’ (Shakespeare 53). Even on the verge of damnation, Macbeth commands our admiration by challenging fate and reasserting his valour like a true hero: “Yet I will try the last…” (V, viii, 32) Macbeth is acutely aware of his tragic reversal, when he says:

……..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; but in their stead,

Curses……… (V, iii, 22-27)

It is this self-knowledge that elevates Macbeth from the level of a criminal to that of a tragic hero. Macbeth’s character is a subtle mixture of good and evil. He is an evil man, but he is not the tragic hero who is purely evil, for a character like that would be neither human nor interesting, as Aristotle had pointed out. Shakespeare makes his hero feel “the full agony of the moral struggle within him” (Harvey 31); if he does evil, at least he realises the full horror of his deeds and suffers accordingly. Shakespeare deviates from the Aristotelian dictum in Macbeth insofar as he takes a villain as his tragic hero but his creative genius imparts a certain tragic grandeur to Macbeth, which wins our sympathy, thereby making him fit into the basic Aristotelian paradigm.

(Word count: 2141)

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