Part I- The Tragic Hero
Both Aristotle and Shakespeare included the presence of a rigid code of conduct in their definitions of “hero”, but they didn’t need them to be morally upright. The inventory of people who could be heroes included sinners; the requirement to be nice is never even suggested by either, and “fitness of character” is more about determination and discipline than anything else. Aristotle preferred that the hero be “good or fine” in The Poetics, but he also implied that nobility of birth was enough to make someone a hero, as did serious responsibility, such as that of a king or general. He also preferred that they display greatness. He wanted the hero to stand above and apart from common folk, either by extraordinary talent or by exceptional temperament (although not necessarily pleasant). Shakespeare liked his heroes to be a “cut above” as well, but his collection of heroic characters are as remarkable for their diversity as they are for their deeds, perhaps more so. The point here is that the hero for both Aristotle and Shakespeare didn’t necessarily wear a white hat. We consider this as we track Macbeth’s trajectory from battlefield hero to cold-blooded murderer, a trajectory that leaves room for the argument that he is tragic because he is victimized by extraordinary elements (e.g. the witches or Lady Macbeth), but also allows the argument that the tragedy is in his runaway ambition, the classic character flaw that makes him much more a predator than a victim. The latter argument gains traction if we also consider Macbeth’s own words, as we see in the early insights Shakespeare offers into the inner or “real” person”. For example, the enormity of the pending assassination weighs heavily on his sensibilities:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.
Conversely, the first argument (Macbeth as a victim) is exemplified in the manipulative words of Lady Macbeth as she asserts her will, first by sexual taunt: Art though afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As though art in desire?...
When you durst do it, then you were a man
And then by sheer determination:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Argument two prevails, however, as the final scene takes us to the end of Macbeth’s trajectory. “Macbeth experiences a gradual hardening and deadening of the self until he reaches a state of absolute numbness.” (Greenblatt p.1347) Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
By any definition, Macbeth is a hero as the play begins. Already a thane, he fights valiantly for his king and is rewarded with a second thanage. The king’s ill-advised visit to his home adds to the honors he has earned for his bravery in battle. But like many a hero throughout history, his humanity has not been provisioned - although his devotion to his wife seems genuine. He is a tragic hero because his story meets the basic criteria defined by both Aristotle and Shakespeare: * The story leads up to, and includes, the death of the hero. Macbeth is responsible for the calamity of his fall, although he recognizes this over the course of the play, not all at once at the end. * Supernatural elements (e.g. the witches) are present, as are hallucination (e.g. the dagger, the ghost of Banquo). * External conflict (with Macduff) joins with Macbeth’s conflicted state of mind to provide impetus to his tragic arc. * He is a man of high estate with a tragic character flaw who murders friend and foe alike until the...
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