William Shakespeare wrote four great tragedies, the last of which was written in 1606 and titled Macbeth. This “tragedy”, as it is considered by societal critics of yesterday’s literary world, scrutinizes the evil dimension of conflict, offering a dark and gloomy atmosphere of a world dominated by the powers ofdarkness. Macbeth, more so than any of Shakespeare’s other tragic protagonists, has to face the powers and decide: should he succumb or should he resist? Macbeth understands the reasons for resisting evil and yet he proceeds with a disastrous plan, instigated by the prophecies of the three Weird Sisters. Thus we must ask the question:
If Macbeth is acting on the impulses stimulated by the prophecies of his fate, is this Shakespearean work of art really a Tragedy?
Aristotle, one of the greatest men in the history of human thought, interpreted Tragedy as a genre aimed to present a heightened and harmonious imitation of nature, and, in particular, those aspects of nature that touch most closely upon human life. This I think Macbeth attains. However, Aristotle adds a few conditions.
According to Aristotle, a tragedy must have six parts: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Most important is the plot, the structure of the incidents. Tragedy is not an imitation of men, but of action and life. It is by men’s actions that they acquire happiness or sadness. Aristotle stated, in response to Plato, that tragedy produces a healthful effect on the human character through a katharsis, a “proper purgation” of “pity and terror.” A successful tragedy, then, exploits and appeals at the start to two basic emotions: fear and pity. Tragedy deals with the element of evil, with what we least want and most fear to face, and with what is destructive to human life and values. It also draws out our ability to sympathize with the tragic character, feeling some of the impact of the evil ourselves. Does Macbeth succeed at this level? Can the reader feel pity and terror for Macbeth? Or does the reader feel that Macbeth himself is merely a branch from the root of all evil and not the poor, forsaken, fate-sunken man, according to Aristotle’s idea of tragedy, he is supposed to portray? Can the reader “purge” his emotions of pity and fear by placing himself in the chains of fate Macbeth has been imprisoned in? Or does he feel the power and greed upon which Macbeth thrives, prospers, and finally falls? I believe the latter is the more likely reaction, and that the reader sees Macbeth as a bad guy, feeling little or no pity for him.
Aristotle also insists that the main character of a tragedy must have a “tragic flaw.” Most tragedies fail, according to Aristotle, due to the rendering of character. To allow the character to simply be a victim of unpredictable and undeserved calamities would violate the complete, self-contained unity of action in the tragedy. If that is so, and if we assume that the group of three witches is a realistic possibility, then is not Macbeth such a victim? Does he really deserve the misfortune that is brought him by his fortune? After all, Macbeth is introduced to the reader as an honest and humble leader. His fate, once having been revealed to him, drives him to greed, elevates his lust for power, and coins a conceited and misguided trust in his seemingly eternal mortality. Diction, the expression of the meaning in words, is near perfect in Macbeth, simply because it is written by William Shakespeare, the inventor of perfect diction. Thought-the task of saying what is possible and pertinent in the circumstances of the play-can not be disputed. Spectacle and Song are the effects that highlight the play, and are pertinent in providing an emotional attraction. Such elements are easily found in Shakespeare. Macbeth is written with the style and grace that only Shakespeare could provide. Thus, these elements of tragic drama can not be challenged in this argument.
While we need to consider that Macbeth strives on power, and in doing so loses his values of humility and humanity, it should not be forgotten that Macbeth does, at certain times, feel remorse for things he has done.
In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth confides in Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan:
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”? I had most need of blessing, and “Amen” Stuck in my throat.
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast-
Macbeth shall sleep no more. In this scene, he shows great turmoil over the deed he has done. Thus the reader is shown that Macbeth is acting out deeds that go against his conscience, that he regrets his actions, and that the prophecies are unfolding. But is this apology enough to stimulate pity within the reader? After all, the man just committed his first of many murders! His contrition seems to fade as his want of power flourishes.
So Macbeth continues-the powers of evil feeding on every move he makes-to make way for his advancement as prophesied by the witches. He hires his men to eliminate Banquo, a threat to his cumulative reign. Having Banquo out of the way, Macbeth surges with the sense of power. There is no doubt that he is acting on the impulses that were stimulated by the first prophecies of his fate. In Act 4 Scene 1, he returns to the three witches, desiring more information regarding his fortune. They in turn assure him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” Invincible power! Macbeth forgets the other two prophecies:
Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife…
Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him.
The witches have spoken again, with unforeseeable truth. Macbeth leaves the dreaded sisters, blinded by his own ambition. Let the players play! He is assured that he is indestructible, for how could Macduff, a man of woman born, hurt him? How could the Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane Hill?
Preposterous! Macbeth leads on, confident, bold, and unvictimized. He flashes his power, exalts himself, and fears no one, not even himself. He no longer cares that he does not sleep. Act 5 Scene 3 opens with Macbeth:
Bring me no more reports. Let them fly all!
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm? Was he not born of woman? The spirits that know All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:
“Fear not, Macbeth. No man that’s born of woman Shall e’er have power upon thee.”
Then fly, false thanes,
And mingle with the English epicures! The mind I sway by and the heart I bear Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear.
Having possession of all the confidence in the world, or at least thinking he does, Macbeth proceeds in a boisterous manner. His fate, once prophesied to him, has now acquired complete control. He has the titles promised him. He has found protection in the strength of witch’s words.
How can the reader pity such a fool? The only thing to do is laugh at him, for it can be sure that these prophecies which Macbeth has ignored will come to pass; Macbeth will no doubt fall.
And he does. Macduff, figuratively but not literally of woman born, holds the rest of the confidence in the world. Macduff, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Shakespearean lords, does the impossible and brings the wood to the hill, and brings the fall of the great and powerful Macbeth. A tragic ending? I’d say not. A tragic ending would have been for Macduff to fall under Macbeth. A tragic ending would have seen Lady Macbeth take Macbeth’s life. But for Macduff to do what he had to do, the prophecy was fulfilled, and the only winner is Fate. This does not make a Tragedy.
Who do we feel sorry for? Maybe only Macduff, who was untimely ripped from his mother’s womb. We praise Macduff for conquering Macbeth. Maybe some readers feel some pity for Lady Macbeth. But we certainly don’t feel pity for Macbeth. Yet Macbeth could have been a victim. He lost control of himself, and allowed himself to be led by Fate. Perhaps Shakespeare fails to supply a “tragic flaw” as insisted on by Aristotle. Macbeth does not try to resist Fate, he runs with it. He does not heed warnings of potential hazards. The Macbeth we were introduced to certainly could not have predicted his fortune. Being a man of honesty and humility, he couldn’t have deserved his dilemma. But he succumbed to his fate, and was no longer an honest and humble Macbeth.
I think that even the most humble and honest person in the world, except Jesus himself, could be swayed to corruption. The Macbeth Empire could be compared to Mark Twain’s Hadleyburg. In comparing Macbeth to The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, we might be able to see Macbeth as a satirical comedy. Macbeth, honest and humble, was corrupted by the powers of fortune in much the same way that the people of Hadleyburg, also honest and humble, were corrupted by the same powers. The reader could not possibly pity the community of Hadleyburg, and would typically cheer at its fall. Isn’t it the same with Macbeth? The townspeople of Hadleyburg felt remorseful when they realized they’d been had, in much the same way that Macbeth surely felt when he learned of Macduff’s method of birth. The people of Hadleyburg thought that no harm could come to them, because they held proper character; they were in proper form. But behind closed doors they planned their strategies to acquire the power, provided in the form of a monetary inheritance. This greed/lust for power was the Hadleyburg downfall. Their own greed was their own enemy.
Likewise with Macbeth. A strong leader, upheld by his loyal comrades, could do no wrong. But once he learned he was to acquire some great fortune, he was his own enemy. His lust for power drove him to his bitter end.
Satire may be defined as a genre that uses mockery of society to shock that society into an honest look at itself. Do we consider the Hadleyburg tale a tragedy? No. We see it more as satire. It is a sarcastic view of society’s morals and values, and how hypocritical people, including ourselves, can be. Putting Macbeth on a parallel with this entertaining American short story allows us to view the play in a different light. We now can see Macbeth as a hypocrite, and we can see him resembling ourselves. How often can the power of want, the desire for more, lead humanity to destruction and despair? The same motivational tool that drives a college student into a career can someday break him. So let the critics of yesterday have their tragedy. Let them read their own literary mortality in Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
I am sure even Aristotle would have allowed Macbeth into the “Tragedy Hall of Fame.” But if a man has the gift of foresight and is aware of the risks but chooses to ignore them and runs after his fate, what tragedy is there? If Fate wins, it cannot be considered a tragedy if Macbeth succeeds in meeting it.
Today we have put out this tragic candle. I’m not of much importance in this mortal world of ours, but if I’ve given you something to reconsider and to ponder on, then this task is finished.