Tragic heroes first originated from ancient Greek tragedies. As the name suggests, tragic heroes are exceptional beings, with characteristics which should have led to them achieving greatness, however they all have a fatal flaw, which always ultimately leads to their downfall. Some sort of human weakness too is always present in a tragic hero, which again plays a great part in the transformation from being admired to despised. Tragic heroes have very much become part of the literary tradition, and have since been conveyed in plays from many different cultures. Macbeth has all the essential characteristics for being called a tragic hero.
At the beginning of the play everyone has nothing but admiration for him. He is described as the ideal soldier; brave, valiant and above all loyal, you could say he was the perfect role model. However his meeting with the three witches took its toll on his character as it led to his fatal flaw; his ambition to become King, which contributed immensely to his conversion to the dark side. The human weakness that Macbeth clearly possesses is that which his wife triggers to persuade him to carry out his dreadful acts. His human weakness is simply the mocking of his manhood, which when done drives Macbeth towards committing the dead.
Everyone’s perception of Macbeth in the early stages of the play is very positive. He is depicted as being a loyal servant of his King. This is clear when he is spoken so highly of in Act 1 Scene 2. Firstly the Captain calls him, ‘brave Macbeth,’ and Duncan regards him as ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman,’ as well as ‘noble Macbeth. ‘ Even his wife is not completely sure when she received his letter in Act 1 Scene 5 that she would be able to manipulate him into killing Duncan, when she states he is too ‘full o’th’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way,’ which suggests Macbeth’s character is far too good to do anything wrong.
Throughout the early stages of the play we see Macbeth’s brave, valiant qualities as it is described how he tried so relentlessly to protect the King and his motherland. Our portrayal of Macbeth grows more positive when he is given a greater title i. e. when he becomes the Thane of Cawdor, we realise that the Thane of Cawdor is the closest Thane to the King and so Macbeth must be held in very high esteem by the King to be considered for the position. There is an element of dramatic irony when Macbeth is named the Thane of Cawdor, as the last one attempted to kill Duncan.
Duncan states, when revealing Macbeth is the new Thane of Cawdor, ‘He was a gentleman on whom I built/ An absolute trust,’ this is when he is talking of the old, treacherous Thane of Cawdor. He speaks very highly of Macbeth, ‘No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive/ Our bosom interest. The great irony is Duncan trusted the old Thane of Cawdor so much, but he turned out to be a traitor and again he is placing his ‘absolute trust’ on Macbeth as a loyal servant of his, but little does he know that Macbeth too will rebel against him and attempt to assassinate him.
We also see a slight glimpse of Macbeth’s fierceness and tyranny in battle when in Act 1 Scene 2 Captain describes the fashion in which Macbeth dealt with Macdonwald (one of the traitors). He says that Macbeth ‘unseamed him from the nave to the chops and fixed his head upon our battlements. ‘ There is the possibility that this shows just how courageous and loyal Macbeth is, however there is an element to the description that creates a picture in our minds of Macbeth being barbaric, it is the first sign we see of the disloyal violence, which he shows later on in the play.
Macbeth’s character first begins to change after his first meeting with the witches, when they state their prophecies. At first it is clear that both Banquo and he regard their meeting with the witches as just a hallucination ‘… or have we eaten on the insane roots. ‘ However straight after the first prophecy stating the Macbeth would become Thane of Cawdor comes true. Macbeth clearly begins to take the meeting with the witches and their predictions seriously. This is evident as after this he begins to talk aside (soliloquies), about what he actually thought of the witches.
The introduction of the soliloquies also indicates that Macbeth’s character is beginning to change. So how responsible are the witches for driving Macbeth to becoming the evil tyrant that he dies as? Well, in my opinion they play a huge part in the transformation of Macbeth’s character, as it is them who triggered Macbeth’s fatal flaw i. e. his ambition to become King. In Act 1 Scene 3, instantly after the witches have vanished Macbeth begins to wish their predictions were true and also envisages himself as king.
This is the first time that Macbeth contemplates doing an evil dead, when he realises that killing Duncan may be the only way to reach the throne. ‘This supernatural soliciting/ Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill/ Why hath it given me earnest of success. ‘ This clearly shows that Macbeth wants to be King and will try to do everything to make the prophecy true as soon as possible. Again in Act 1 Scene 4 there are signs of Macbeth’s growing hunger to become King, when he realises Malcolm has been named the Prince of Cumberland (the equivalent to the Prince of Wales) we see more of his evil side and his ambition.
The Prince of Cumberland: that is a step/ On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap/ For in my way it lies. ‘ Within this soliloquy there are slight hints that ideas of murder and ways of getting into the throne are spiralling out of control in the mind of Macbeth. However, although I have stated that the witches did play a part in Macbeth’s alteration they at the are not completely to blame, as firstly Banquo too was present scene when the witches stated their prophecies and they promised him as much as they did to Macbeth, however they had no effect on him.
Even when Macbeth’s prophecy comes true (he becomes the Thane of Cawdor) there is no sign that Banquo is tempted to fall for the witch’s prophecies. It is only Act 2 Scene 1 when he mentions to Macbeth that he had dreamt about the witches, ‘I dreamed last night of the three weird sisters,’ but still the effect they have on him in comparison to that on Macbeth is minute. Another reason why we can say it is not only the witches’ fault is due to the fact that they never actually stated how Macbeth would become king, although they fed him with the idea that he would one day become king they never actually stated how.
It is Macbeth’s ambition that makes him murder King Duncan, after all he did nothing to become Thane of Cawdor, so what from the witches prophecy suggested that he had to kill Duncan to become King? For this it is clear that in fact Lady Macbeth is more to blame. As soon as she received news from Macbeth of his meeting with the witches and then more news stating Duncan is to banquet at their home she sees this as an omen and begins to scheme and plot against Duncan.
She instantly realises that she will have to persuade and manipulate Macbeth’s mind in order from him to carry out the acts she desires. I fear they nature/ It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness,’ Lady Macbeth thinks Macbeth is too good and honest to do anything evil. I think she is partly to blame for Macbeth killing Duncan because it is only due to her persuasive techniques that he decided to kill Duncan. Whilst talking to Macbeth, Lady Macbeth constantly pressurises and mocks him. It is clear that from the start that Macbeth is against the idea when he states he wishes ‘to go no further,’ and also when he is contemplating killing Duncan all the positive things he states about him too suggest that he wouldn’t be capable of killing Duncan.
Duncan hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/ So clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels. ‘ This proves that it is Lady Macbeth’s influence that causes him to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s refusal to kill Duncan shows how much she really wants Macbeth to become King. She mocks his manhood, and in doing so exploits his human weakness, which consequently causes his character to change more towards evil thoughts.
‘Art thou afraid… wouldst thou… ive like a coward in thine own esteem… when you durst do it, then you were a man! ‘ Lady Macbeth’s persistence is the main pulling force behind the assassination. This is made more evident by the way Macbeth acts after he has committed the murder, as he is clearly a nervous wreck. An example, which shows this, is when he explains to Lady Macbeth on hearing the guards say a prayer he was unable to respond by saying ‘Amen,’ this example in particular suggests Macbeth’s character has changed from good to evil.
Another part of the play that suggests that Macbeth was still in shock is the way he reacts the next morning to the news of the murder (in a slightly melodramatic fashion), this again suggest that his conscience has not come to terms with what he has done. Though after Macbeth has disposed of Duncan he begins to take charge of his actions a lot more. There could be several reasons for this, firstly it could be due to the fact that he wants to prove to his wife that he is capable of making his own decisions, or secondly it could be down to the growing apart of his relationship with his wife.
In the beginning of the play Macbeth calls his wife ‘my dearest partner of greatness,’ however after the murder of Duncan they show little love towards each other. Macbeth’s tyranny begins from the moment he is crowned king. He starts to become severely paranoid and attempts to eradicate all that the witches spoke of. He immediately gets Banquo out of the way, mainly because the witches had promised to him sons that would be kings, which meant consequently to Macbeth that his family wouldn’t be at the helm of Scotland for long.
The other reason Macbeth wanted rid of Banquo so quickly was because Banquo had started to suspect that there was something strange about the way Macbeth had become king so quickly after the witches had spoken about it to him. Macbeth’s paranoia and distrust of everyone is clearly shown here as he is not contempt with the two murderers he has sent to kill Banquo and Fleance (his son), but has to send another to ensure that the mission is carried out as planned. We can tell how agitated Macbeth actually is when one of the murders returns, telling him that they had failed to kill Fleance.
The comes my fit again… the worm that’s fled/ Hath nature that in time will venom breed. ‘ Here Macbeth we can see again how Macbeth has taken the witches’ prophecies to heart. He is explaining how he thinks that Fleance will grow to be a warrior like Banquo and will be a threat to him. Macbeth’s tyrant character develops after the death of Banquo considerably. After the terror he experienced from seeing Banquo’s ghost at the banquet he visits the witches once more to find out more about his fate.
He fearlessly mocks them, ‘How now, you secret and midnight hags! ‘ and even demands predictions from a greater source of evil than themselves, ‘Call ’em, let me see’em. ‘ His fearless approach to evil signifies Macbeth’s full conversion to evil. The second witch even says, ‘By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes,’ in reference to Macbeth approaching. From the witches he is warned to ‘beware Macduff,’ and that only ‘the power of man, from none of woman born,’ shall harm him.
He too, is told that the only time he shall be ‘vanquished’ is when ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill/ Shall come against him. ‘ After hearing this Macbeth thinks he is invincible, ‘That will never be/ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root? ‘ Here is another point upon which the witches are to blame as they feed Macbeth with half-truths, which he takes literally. These equivocations from the witches give him a false sense of security. Though it is true to say that Macbeth is the only one to blame for the way he reacts to what he hears .
He discovered Macduff had fled to England and in light of this (keeping in mind the witches said he was a threat to him) decided to have Lady Macduff and her son slain, brutally in their own home. Macbeth himself realises that he has changed and when he has only the witches’ prophecies left to hold onto he admits he had ‘almost forgot the taste of fear,’ proving that he had turned into pure evil, as before killing Duncan all he felt was fear. His reaction to hearing his wife has departed is almost nihilistic, which again suggests he has realised his wrong doings but sees no way back.
He states his wife ‘should have died hereafter. ‘ His attitude is almost full of jealousy, as if he envies his wife for being dead and away from all the evil they had conjured up. Macbeth states life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. ‘ When the witches’ prophecies begin to come true, as Birnam Wood comes forth to Dunsinane, we see how reliant Macbeth is on evil, ‘Fear not, Macbeth no man that’s born of woman/ Shall e’er have power upon thee. ‘ However when he realises the way the witches had tricked him we begin his enraged, bitter, tyrant side.
He calls the witches ‘Liars and slaves. ‘ As Macbeth realises his life is all but over, we begin to see a bit of the side that made him so heroic at the beginning of the play i. e. his bravery, he refuses to submit to his inevitable demise but vows to fight to the death. The evil Macbeth is depicted as is clearly shown in Act 5 Scene 7, when Young Siward, whilst in dual with Macbeth says, ‘Thou call’st thyself a hotter name / Than any is in hell, ‘ which suggests Macbeth has become a far greater evil than anyone even in hell.
He also says, ‘The devil himself could not pronounce a title/ More hateful to mine ear… bhorred tyrant. ‘ This shows the true extent of Macbeth’s change in character, especially when compared to all the positive words spoken of him earlier in the play. The final nail is put to Macbeth’s coffin in Act 5 Scene 8, when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Macduff. Macbeth still clearly thinks he is indestructible at the beginning of the scene, ‘I bear a charmed life which must not yield/ To one of woman born. ‘ However when Macduff reveals that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,’ Macbeth realises his end has come.
In conclusion, I feel the blame does not rest with one body for Macbeth’s transformation from ‘valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’ to ‘abhorred tyrant. ‘ It is clear that the witches are to blame for putting the thought of becoming King in his mind. They tell him half-truths throughout the play to lead him on, but it is he whom decides how to get there, his ambition is the main driving force behind this as Banquo too was promised greatness (his children would be Kings) though he did nothing evil to tempt fate.
However it is clear from Macbeth’s thoughts during the banquet, when he is thinking of all the good that Duncan has done, that he is not capable of killing him i. e. he is too ‘full o’th’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way,’ just as Lady Macbeth had stated, but she was able to mock his manhood i. e. his human weakness to manipulate him into committing evil.
After Duncan’s death Macbeth himself becomes the tyrant and the thinker of evil, he himself devised the planning of the death of Banquo and Macduff’s family, his lack of fear when facing evil (i. . when he visits the witches for the second time) again shows his ambition and determination to remain king regardless of the cost, he slays innocent people, this proves the seeds of evil were planted inside him.
Hence I believe all three factors were vital for Macbeth becoming a tragic hero, without the witches Macbeth or his wife would never have thought of killing the king to reach the throne, and without Lady Macbeth, Macbeth would have lacked the courage to kill Duncan too and so would never have ordered and devised the numerous murders he did.