In ancient Greece, plays were performed as a form of entertainment. The Greeks excelled at producing tragedies, and created the basic principles required for a traditional tragic hero. Shakespeare often used similar principles within his literature. This essay explains what is needed to create a tragic hero, and examines one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Macbeth, and uses quotes from the play to determine whether Macbeth is a true tragic hero.
The main character must portray heroic qualities, which set him or her apart from the other characters within the play. In a Greek tragedy the tragic hero must possess a fatal flaw, which will eventually lead to the corruption and downfall of the tragic hero. Several other qualities are needed to create a tragic hero, the fatal flaw must be revealed by other characters within the play, these characters become the tragic hero’s nemesis, as the Greeks named them. There must also be a struggle between the tragic hero, their flaw and their nemesis, as the hero attempts to conquer the overpowering flaw, but fails. The audience must witness the tragic hero develop a new understanding of himself or herself and the world in which he inhabits. The destruction of others around the tragic hero must be witnessed before the obliteration of the tragic hero. The final ingredient of a tragic hero is the emotional effect upon the audience, there must be a release of their emotions whilst watching the play. The Greeks named this drain of emotion Catharsis.
At the start of the play Macbeth has fought a bloody battle and has bravely slaughtered the enemy soldiers. ‘Like valour’s minion’ One of Macbeth’s strongest qualities is his bravery on the battlefield, which he is notorious for. ‘For brave Macbeth’ He is also infamous for the ruthless annihilation of his enemies on the battlefield, which he gains a reputation for. ‘Which ne’er shook hands nor blade farewell to him, till he unseamed him from the nave to the chops, and fixed his head upon our battlements.’ Macbeth butchers a traitor, Macdonald, who fought with the Vikings, against the Scottish. As an act of revenge, Macbeth carves his way through the enemy, and severs the Thane of Cawdor from his belly to his chin, and then decapitates his head, placing it upon the battlements to discourage the enemy soldiers and encourage Macbeth’s forces. Macbeth is unquestionably a hero due to the unique qualities that he possesses on the battlefield.
Macbeth possesses several flaws, his first flaw is his ruthless killing, this is a major advantage on the battlefield. ‘With his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution’ A guilty conscience would severely immobilise a soldier on the battlefield. However this quality enables him to commit murders efficiently without hesitation. Macbeth is also very ambitious, he has an infatuation for power, and greatly desires it. He is enchanted by the ideal of possessing even greater power after his encounter with the three witches, ‘Tell me more’ He is willing to go as far as he has to, in order to gain this immense power and control, which the witches are able to prophesise. Macbeth’s other flaw is the influence that other people have over him. This flaw may originate from spending such a great amount of time in the military, taking orders from people of a higher status. However due to Macbeth’s experience in the military, he is able to conceal his flaws from his enemies, even from some of the people closest to him, he may not be aware of these flaws himself. It is vital that he does not show any weaknesses on the battlefield as this would be a great disadvantage to himself, and he would be very susceptible and vulnerable in battle.
Lady Macbeth also shares the same ambition as Macbeth, she takes advantage of her husband’s flaws to gain control of him, and uses him as an instrument to become Queen, as the witches predicted. Lady Macbeth is possibly more ambitious than Macbeth, as she plots the plan to gain control of the throne by eliminating everyone who stands in their way. The witches easily determine Macbeth’s weaknesses, if Macbeth had not discovered the witches then Macbeth’s ambition would not have lead him to commit the murders, and the ordeal would not have occurred.
Despite Macbeth’s ability to commit ruthless killing on the battlefield, Macbeth does not remain ruthless when murdering for his own benefit. He feels that he should be loyal to Duncan, his king and protect him, however his ambition succeeds in overpowering Macbeth’s devotion to his King, ‘We will proceed no further in this business’ The guilt of the crimes that he has committed haunts him, and he is unable to rest due to this overwhelming burden, which rests upon him. The guilt is so heavy that Macbeth begins to hallucinate as a result of the emotional disturbance and lack of rest, which he must suffer. Macbeth feels that he is unable to commit any more murders to reach their goal, so Lady Macbeth is forced to carry out the killings herself, and cast aside her weak and unstable husband.
Macbeth’s attitude and approach changes during the play. As Macbeth is forced to commit more murders, his mental state degenerates due to the trauma and guilt suffered as a result of the killings. Macbeth pays the ultimate price for the glory and power of being the king, this price is the loss of his mentality and sanity. The loss of Lady Macbeth has very little effect upon Macbeth, this is most likely due to the numbing of emotion that he has undergone as his world falls down around him. Macbeth returns to the witches as he wishes to know more about his future as the king. He is informed by the witches that he cannot be killed by any man of ‘women born’ Macbeth feels invincible and immortal, however he only interprets the face value and not the true meaning, which results in his tragic death later in the play.
Throughout the play ruthless killings are committed solely for the purpose of ensuring that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will remain King and Queen. Initially they did not plot to murder as many people as they did, however as the risks of their scheme becoming uncovered became greater, they were forced to take the lives of more victims to prevent their exposure. Eventually Macbeth’s death brings an end to his suffering and the deaths of the characters around him. As a result of Macbeth’s ambition, which was fuelled by his wife Lady Macbeth, many lives of the characters around him were lost, in his struggle to remain King of Scotland.
The final ingredient of a tragic hero is the emotional effect upon the audience, there must be a release of their emotions whilst watching the play. Despite the callousness of Macbeth and annihilation which he implemented upon those around him, the audience are left with a sense of sympathy towards Macbeth, as he had the opportunity to fulfil his deepest desires, and was overcome by the immense degree of holding the title of King of Scotland, which drove him and his wife to perpetrate the murders of his comrades and friends.
I feel that in the beginning of the play Macbeth possesses the qualities of a true hero, due to the bravery and loyalty to Scotland that he shows. However as the play develops, his fatal flaws prove to be too great, and eventually lead him astray. His heroic qualities set him apart from the other characters within the play. His fatal flaws eventually lead to the corruption and downfall of Macbeth, the tragic hero. The fatal flaws are revealed by the other characters within the play, which become Macbeth’s nemesis. There is also a struggle between the tragic hero, his flaw and his nemesis, however Macbeth fails to overcome the flaw. The audience witness the tragic hero develop a new understanding of himself and the world in which he inhabits. The destruction of others around the tragic hero is witnessed prior to the obliteration of himself. Finally the emotional effect upon the audience is witnessed, and there is a release of their emotions whilst watching the play. Therefore I feel that Macbeth can be regarded as a tragic hero due to the critical qualities, which he possesses.