Macbeth - Aristotles Theory of a Tragic Hero

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In Shakespeare's tragedies, one element is constant – that of a tragic hero. They each share certain traits that can be traced back to the theory of a Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Shakespeare’s tragic play Macbeth is no different, it tells the tale of brave Macbeth with an ambition to be king and explores how far a person would be willing to go to get what they want. In Macbeth’s case the answer is murder, first of King Duncan, then others to assure his title. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is defined as someone of nobility who has a tragic, fatal flaw. This flaw would then cause them a reversal in fortune and an increase in self-awareness, provoking emotions of pity in the audience. Macbeth is certainly a tragic hero as he exhibits all of these characteristics throughout the play.

Although Aristotle’s theory of a tragic hero was written around 300BC it was still applied to Shakespeare's Macbeth written between 1606 and 1611, during the reign of King James I. Shakespeare would have been writing trying to appeal to not only the masses but also the king. King James I had a particular fascination with magic and witchcraft, which Shakespeare has clearly taken into account when trying to please him. He has also tried to appeal to a majority of people that would have seen the play by making it easy to relate to Macbeth. He is a naturally good-natured man with a flaw that he fights with, which is a situation many could relate to.

Aristotle’s first characteristic of a tragic hero is that they must be noble in status and in character. Macbeth is undeniably noble in status, as when we are first introduced to him he is “Thane of Glaims” and cousin to the king. Later we learn that he lives in a castle with his wife, Lady Macbeth, who greets him “Great Glamis, Worthy Cawdor” also indicative of his status. Macbeth is highly regarded by his peers because he killed the Thane of Cawdor, who had betrayed the king. For this great service Macbeth was awarded the title “Thane of Cawdor”, which shows he was trusted and respected by the king and obviously a person of nobility. Macbeth embodies nobility, in that he is innately brave and kind; these are qualities that many would associate with nobility and are key factors in Macbeth’s personality. For brave Macbeth – well he deserves that name –

Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor’s minion carved out his passage
Macbeth’s bravery is talked about by many, including the king and his advisories, and is a commonly accepted fact. Macbeth is, at the same time, a very kind natured man and these qualities together are suggestive of nobility in character.

The second point made by Aristotle in his theory is that a tragic hero must not be perfect and must have hamartia. Hamartia can be translated as a tragic flaw in the character of the hero. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is ambition and he is not perfect in any sense of the word, otherwise he clearly would never have killed. Macbeth’s tragic flaw of ambition caused a massive conflict inside himself between his innate kindness and his ambition. Lady Macbeth comments on whether his ambition will win out or not when she says …Yet I do fear thy nature;

It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. 
It is also apparent to us that his ambition leads him to believe the witches’ prophecy without thinking twice about the implications and how the prophecy might not be true. He does not question anything they say, perhaps because they are telling him what he wants to hear in regards to him becoming king. This is made obvious when Banquo says, “that he seems rapt withal”. When the witches are speaking, Macbeth is taken with the idea because of his driving ambition to be king. The flaw in Macbeth makes him seem more human to the audience and allows them to relate to him, which...
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