‘Macbeth’, one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays though often described as his best, was written in 1606 for the newly crowned King James I of England and VI of Scotland. It tells of a Scottish warrior named Macbeth who killed the King and eventually met his own gruesome end. But is Macbeth really the tragic hero he is made out to be? Does he really deserve to be glorified as a worthy and noble warrior? No. Macbeth was a brutal butcher who slaughtered his own people mercilessly and ruled his country tyrannically. First, let me clarify the definitions of the words ‘hero’ and ‘butcher’ which I will be using.
A ‘hero’ is a man who is greatly admired for his exceptional qualities and achievements. A special kind of hero was the ‘tragic hero’. The criteria for a ‘tragic hero’ were set by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and can be summed up briefly as a great man high up in society, with a fatal flaw which would eventually lead to his downfall – a man whom the audience will feel sympathy for when he falls. A ‘butcher’, in this context, is someone who kills people cruelly without feeling guilt or remorse – something which Macbeth is a clear example of.
Macbeth’s actions at the start of the play are already depicted as barbaric. When the Captain describes the battle between Macbeth and the rebel Macdonwald, he claims that Macbeth split Macdonwald open “from the nave to the chops. ” This is clearly a gruesome way of killing someone. While a Jacobean audience may not have found this too revolting, a modern audience would certainly find Macbeth’s actions unacceptable. What kind of hero slices his victims in half? In I. ii, when Macbeth was given the title of Thane of Cawdor, he remembers when the witches told him that he “shalt be King hereafter”.
The first thought that runs through his head is to murder the present King in order to satisfy his own ambitions. This is evident in Macbeth’s soliloquy when he says – “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical”. While others put forward that Macbeth was heavily influenced by his wife in making his decision to kill the King, the fact that regicide is the first thing that comes to his mind shows us that it is in his very nature to be a butcher. Macbeth went off at the end of II. i to murder King Duncan.
If such an assassination were to occur today, it would shock the world and would probably be on the headlines of every major newspaper. The fact that this is murder alone already shows that Macbeth is a butcher. However, the Jacobean audience would have found the killing of a King even more shocking due to the fact that they believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. It was a Protestant belief (the religion in England at the time) that the King was God’s representative on Earth and that killing him would be the closest you could get to killing God himself.
Not only this, but King Duncan was in fact Macbeth’s “kinsman” who had “honoured [him] of late” by promoting him to Thane of Cawdor. This proves that Shakespeare intended for Macbeth to be seen in a reprehensible way as only a villain of the most cruel kind could assassinate a King who is also his kinsman and his guest. Shakespeare portrays Macbeth in a very bad light in III. i – as a murderer of the worst kind. In this scene, we see how Macbeth does not hesitate in ordering the execution of his best friend Banquo.
He persuades two murderers to carry out this foul deed, but first he convinces them that Banquo was responsible for all their misfortunes – “Know Banquo was your enemy. ” This highlights how he is willing, under the influence of no-one but himself, to kill his own friend in order to ensure that he meets no opposition as King. At the feast in III. iv, Macbeth accuses Banquo for not turning up while he in fact knows that Banquo is dead. This can be seen when Macbeth “challenge[s] [him] for unkindness”.
Although some people could argue that we may feel sorry for Macbeth when he is distressed by Banquo’s ghost, his hypocritical nature makes it difficult for the audience to feel any compassion towards him. The cold-blooded slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children is a despicable and inexcusable act. Macbeth wanted to “seize upon Fife” and “give to the edge o’th’ sword his (Macduff’s) wife and babes, and all the unfortunate souls that trace him in his line”. Although Macduff’s family were of no threat to him, he did not hesitate to order their deaths.
This act of murder enforces Macbeth’s image as a butcher because he showed no compassion whatsoever for his victims and he therefore gains no sympathy from the audience. Shakespeare solidifies Macbeth’s reputation as a ruthless killer in the conversation between Malcolm and Macduff in IV. iii. He is described as having ruled with “great tyranny”, emphasising how cruel and unjust he has been as King. This is further developed when Macduff exclaims that “each new morn new widows howl, new orphans cry”. Macbeth receives no sympathy from the audience as this statement implies that men are murdered every day under his tyrannical rule.
Some people claim that Macbeth is an Aristotelian hero, his fatal flaw being his “vaulting ambition”. However, this is clearly not the case as I have proven that he is not a great man at all but in fact a “tyrant” despised by the audience. He murdered a good king who was so “clear in his great office”, and brought about the execution of not only his best friend Banquo, but also the entire innocent Macduff family. Macbeth was a man driven by ambition who was prepared to kill and butcher anyone in his quest for the throne.