To What Extent Is Macbeth Responsible for His Own Downfall?

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To what extent is Macbeth responsible for his own downfall?

Macbeth is a universal text and is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, when we talk about Macbeth’s downfall it is both the downfall of the single state of man and the downfall of his wider social relations, these being Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Banquo, Macduff’s family and ultimately Scotland. Aristotle says that ‘tragedy is the imitation of an action’ he is talking about an action or a motive that governs the protagonist’s life. A tragedy is commonly known as a story or play that ends with a negative or unfortunate outcome that was essentially unavoidable, usually caused by a flaw in the central character’s personality. Although it is established that Macbeth is a tragedy, there are differences in audience response to tragedy. The audience of Elizabethan times saw tragedy as the destruction of the Great Chain of Being and the danger to the order and stability of the state. The Great Chain of being is conception of the hierachical order of the universe; Elizabethan audiences believed that a bond linked all things in the universe. They saw Macbeth as a tragedy because the rightful ruler of Scotland was killed which lead to Scotland being lead by an evil King. Contemporary audiences see Macbeth as a tragedy because of the psychological destruction of a man, and the crises caused by this man. Macbeth shows the journey of a tragic hero, Macbeth has the traits of a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle: nobility, hamartia (a flaw), reversal of fortune because of hamartia and finally the discovery that the reversal was brought on by the hero’s own actions. In saying this Macbeth’s downfall was not solely brought on by his own actions, the violence in Lady Macbeth and the witches helps to breed violence in Macbeth. Macbeth cannot be defined simply as a good or evil character as he is a complex character. This is shown by being admired by Duncan ‘O, vallient cousin! worthy gentlmen!’ (I. ii) and Banquo ‘my noble partner’ (I. iii) and being called weak by Lady Macbeth ‘It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindess’ (I. v) in the same act.

Macbeth hears the witches prophecies

‘All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!’
‘All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!’
‘All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!’ (I. iii)

In Macbeth’s aside after hearing he is to be thane of Cawdor we see that he is tempted by these prophecies. Banquo also heard the prophecies and was told he would be the father of kings yet he ignored them and did not give into temptation or take action to ensure that the prophecy is fulfilled. The witches can only drive the sailor to ‘peak and pine’ (I. iii) and his ship can only be ‘tempest-tossed’ (I. iii) – he cannot be killed. These both show that there are limitations on the witches’ ability to tempt and Macbeth allows himself to be influenced by the witches, ignoring their warnings about the consequences of his actions.

The witches are the metaphysical component in Macbeth, the Elizabethan audience believed in witches and saw them as evil, and they lived in constant daily fear of dark forces. Techniques used such as sound, staging and language show the witches are evil. Thunder and lightning are used when they first appear and they would have used a balcony entrance above the stage and a trapdoor in the centre to appear and disappear. The witches are also referred to as the ‘weird sisters’ (I. iii), the word ‘weird’ coming from the old English word meaning ‘fate’, this connects the witches to the idea of destiny. The witches talk in paradoxical and rhythmic ways and they are further portrayed as evil as they only meet in wind rain or storm and have already created havoc on land and sea. Though the witches did not tell Macbeth to murder Duncan they are the initial source for Macbeth’s temptation. It is clear that they have mischievous intentions as they acknowledge their desire to entrap Macbeth.

The lords and...
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