In the renowned play, Macbeth, written by the famed poet, playwright, and actor, William Shakespeare taking place in 11th century Scotland, the play of Macbeth is regarded as a tragedy. Appropriately so, The Tragedy of Macbeth is viewed as one of the four great tragedies, the others being Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. However, for The Tragedy of Macbeth to be paired with these three other plays, the character Macbeth must conform to the identity of the tragic hero and the requirements that are conjoined with the title. After a study of the play itself and the requirements given by Aristotle, Macbeth conforms to the identity of a tragic hero making the play Macbeth a tragedy.
According to Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher and author of the Poetics, one of the most important characteristics of a tragic hero is that the hero must be, “a man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” (Poetics pg 38) Aristotle states that a tragic hero is required to be a good person with a hamartia that brings about their downfall. A tragic play covey’s emotion to the audience, and for this to happen, there must be a tragic collapse of the character. This communication of emotion requires that this character starts out as a fundamentally good person, as Aristotle had stated, or they cannot have a downfall. There is no downfall for a character who from the start is a bad person or a person that has already fallen from grace. Random chance cannot cause this downfall, however, the character himself must bring his or her downfall upon themselves due to a fatal flaw in their persona, this, of course, is called the character’s hamartia. It is this collapse that leads to the tragic hero’s peripeteia, where the character’s fortune stops increasing and takes a turn and begins to fall. This reversal of fortunes is yet another necessity for tragedy to occur. The last requirement of a tragic hero, stated by Aristotle is that the tragic hero in the play must have a moment of discovery when the character becomes aware of their misdeeds and their downfall. This is called the moment of anagnorisis. The character is never oblivious to their downfall, the tragic hero must not die without realizing their criminality. With these requirements being met in a play, the play then is to be considered a tragedy.
In the play Macbeth, the audience is faced with making the observation whether or not Macbeth, initially, is a good man. For the play to be considered a tragedy, and for the character Macbeth to be considered a tragic hero, he must start in a position of good spirit. All and all after reading the play, the reader comes to the conclusion that Macbeth has always been a man who is greedy for the crown. This may be the case especially in act 1 when Macbeth says, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (1.4.55-58) However, this is not the case for Macbeth. Macbeth is a good man who is subverted by both his wife, and the witches. In the beginning of the play, the reader does not know about Macbeth or of his nature. We are initially introduced to Macbeth second hand by a soldier explaining to King Duncan Macbeth’s decisive victory. “For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” (1.2.18) Macbeth has proven himself to his comrades that he is a brave and honorable soldier as well as an honorable man. This, of course, is all said before he is corrupted by Lady Macbeth and the three witches. In fact, Lady Macbeth elaborates on how she wants her husband to murder Duncan and claim the crown to fulfill the prophecy, she talks about how Macbeth is too naturally good to go through with murdering the king without her help. “Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way: though wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it.” (1.5.16-20). It becomes more than clear to the reader at this point Lady Macbeth’s intentions. She wants to subvert Macbeth, make him lose the quality of being a good man. She does this all obviously so that Macbeth can fulfill the prophecy of becoming King of Scotland.
It is more than evident that Macbeth brings about his own downfall. It is his fatal flaw of an excessive sense of ambition and subsequently his moral weakness that leads to his ultimate destruction. In act 1 scene 3 of the play, after receiving the title, King of Cawdor, Macbeth has his first realization that the witches prophecy bore truth. A soliloquy from Macbeth ensues, “…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man That functions is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is but what is not” (1.3152-155) When Macbeth says this the audience immediately receives insight into Macbeth’s psychology and persona. The audience sees Macbeth’s thoughts begin to formulate on killing Duncan. However, this is only after being presented with a prophecy by the witches and a promise to the throne that Macbeth begins to think these things. Macbeths driving force to claim the crown is his “vaulting ambition” which is brought on by the witches prophecy and Lady Macbeth. (1.7.27) After killing Duncan, Macbeth spirals down a destructive path of impulsive killing out his own ambition for the crown, a path in which there is no hope for him to regain morale. Macbeths lets his overpowering hamartia of excessive ambition overtake his moral compass, it causes him to forfeit the honor he had once possessed all for the sake to claim power. Macbeth not only has a clear fatal flaw but also has his moment of anagnorisis. This moment of realization comes when Macduff reveals the truth of his birth. Macbeth then comes to realize that everything the witches had prophesized had come true exactly as the witches had said it would and everything he has tried to do in hope to prolong his reign had failed. There is also a moment of peripeteia for Macbeth, the escape of Fleance. This is the turning point in Macbeth’s tragedy. When Banquo dies and says his final words to his son, “revenge” (3.3.26) this reminds the audience of the Witches prophecy to Banquo, that he will be the father to a long line of kings. From henceforth, Macbeth falls from grace and begins his descent into madness and an inescapable demise.
Macbeth possesses a fatal flaw that in the end changes his character from an honorable soldier to an over-ambitious, corrupt king. Macbeth fully brings about his own downfall due to this flaw. He fits all the aspects of what Aristotle states to be necessary to be tragic. Given the evidence stated, Macbeth is indeed a tragic hero and thus making the play, Macbeth, a tragedy.