“‘Worthy Macbeth’ Unworthy of Sympathy”: the Lack of Sympathy for Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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Macbeth, written by playwright William Shakespeare, is one of the most famous and beloved plays of all time. The play, a tragedy revolving around the tragic hero Macbeth, is about a regicide and its aftermath taking place in Scotland. The play begins with Macbeth along with his best friend and fellow nobleman, Banquo, successfully defeating two separate armies from Ireland and Norway respectively. On their journey home, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three witches who make prophecies to them. Macbeth is promised to become the Thane of Cawdor, and astonishingly, the King of Scotland. The witches also make incredible promises to Banquo: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (1.3.67). The witches promptly disappear after revealing their prophecies, leaving Macbeth and Banquo to figure it all out. Macbeth and Banquo interpret the prophecies drastically differently, and it results in their divergent paths as the play unfolds. Macbeth ardently desires to become king, and, unlike Banquo, the witches’ promise kindles his ambition. He murderers Duncan, and usurps the King of Scotland. The witches do fulfill their promise, but Macbeth has a turbulent and very brief reign. He fears that Banquo’s prophecy will also be fulfilled, so Macbeth murders his former friend and attempts to murder his son, Fleance. It is futile effort, as Banquo’s line eventually does inherit the throne. Macbeth, in contrast, ultimately loses everything that he holds dear, including his reputation, family, friends, supporters, his judicious sense, and most importantly, his own life is sacrificed in his fervent royal quest. Such adverse fortunes are customary in tragedies like Macbeth, but quite dissimilar to other tragedies is how the audience of Macbeth is not compelled to lament for the tragic hero, Macbeth. However, Shakespeare does make a persistent, yet ultimately vain attempt to generate sorrow for Macbeth. Shakespeare emphasizes Macbeth’s tragic flaw, clarifies that Macbeth is the victim of skillful manipulation, and exhorts Macbeth’s evilness, especially in the denouement. However, Shakespeare’s three main methods ultimately backfire, and the reader is not compelled to sympathize for Macbeth. Macbeth’s tragic flaw of ambition does not warrant any sympathy among the audience, both Elizabethan and modern day. Ambition can be a wonderful trait, but Macbeth is overly ambitious, and it brings about his ruin. Macbeth himself realizes that he is possessed by his “vaulting ambition” (1.7.27) to the point where it overwhelms and controls him. His royal pursuit distorts everything in his life, including, adversely, his thinking processes. Evidence of this can be found at numerous instances throughout the play, but it is best witnessed when Macbeth foolishly elects to withdraw from the staunch protection of Dunsinane Castle in order to fight outside of the castle. The suicidal decision secures his defeat to Malcolm’s coup. Embarrassingly, it is Macbeth’s former friends that collaborate and successful end his tyrannical rule. It completes Macbeth’s downfall from a high-ranking, highly respected, nobleman to a dead, disgraced individual. He goes from being heralded as “brave Macbeth” (1.2.16) to “dead butcher” (5.8.69). Clearly, Macbeth’s downfall could have been avoided by restraining his extreme ambition. His ambition starts off relatively meager, but it grows exponentially destructive and self-inflicting. The witches’ prophecies, which he believes to be fateful, kindles his ardent desire to be king. This is in contrast to his foil, Banquo, who also receives prophecies from the witches. Unlike Macbeth, Banquo is aware that “the instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us over with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence” (1.3.22-26). Banquo, always judicious, dies for Scotland, but will, as promised, “get kings” (1.3.66) in his family line. Macbeth, conversely, binds himself to the “weird sisters” (1.5.9) and effectively immerses himself in...
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