Shakespeare’s perception, and our modern view, of tragedy are founded in Aristotle’s theories on the subject. Aristotelian tragedy, as described in Poetics, has shaped every form of dramatic art, from Ancient Greek theatre to big-budget, Hollywood blockbusters.
According to Aristotle, tragic heroes must conform to a few rules, most notably: • They should not be too good. Otherwise, an audience will feel that their downfalls are unjust. • They should not be too bad. Otherwise, an audience will feel no sympathy for them. • They must have an intrinsic character flaw ‘hamartia’, which causes them to do something horrific and instigates their fall from grace.
Macbeth’s Bad Side
It’s not difficult to explain how Macbeth conforms to the first of the rules above. As soon as the witches tell him that he’ll be king, he begins to have rather dark thoughts about how he can make it happen. “…why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/Against the use of nature?…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man…”(I.iii)
Of course, he doesn’t stop at the assassination of Duncan, either. In order to retain the throne, he is driven to even more heinous acts, such as ordering the murders of Banquo, Fleance and Macduff’s household.
Macbeth’s Good Side
However, in concordance with Aristotle’s opinion, Macbeth isn’t all bad. At first glance, it may seem difficult to find redeeming features in a mass-murdering tyrant. But it’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the play, he is lauded as a great and loyal soldier. “For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel…”(I.ii)
His hesitancy over committing regicide, “We will proceed no further in this business…”(I.vii) is also evidence of the fact that he is not an innately ‘evil’ person.
Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw
Often, Aristotle’s use of the word