PHIL 375 March 30, 2012
Many people are superstitious, which leads to the belief that “bad luck” is often the cause of tragic circumstances. “Bad luck” can be something as simple as your shoelace breaks to something cataclysmal like a windstorm blows a tree through your living room. McGinn describes tragedy as “a miss match between situation and character” (194) but in Shakespearean literature you need an element of “bad luck” to get a tragedy. McGinn explains that everyone has flaws but there generally is no flaw that will cause a tragedy by itself. McGinn clarifies that you need a flawed character and the right situation in order to have a tragedy. If we have a flawed situation with a good character we do not get a tragedy and also if we have a flawed character in a good situation the same is also true. It is only the combination of a flawed situation and a character flaw that we are able to achieve a tragedy and “bad luck” seems to be the link that connects them. McGinn goes on to explain that Shakespeare is careful to select the right flaw that combined with the right situation will lead to the tragic consequences for that character (194-195). Throughout the play Macbeth there are many examples of both a flawed character and the right situation. Through the expertise of Shakespeare combining the perfect mixture of ingredients, he successfully creates an epic tragedy and without “bad luck” the story would never exist.
Firstly, in the very beginning of the play witches appear to Macbeth and his friend, Banquo, and tell them of some prophecies that will change their lives forever. They inform Macbeth that he will be the King of Scotland and Banquo’s children will be king but he never will. This is the beginning of a bad situation for Macbeth because although he initially dismisses it as lies he is encouraged when he is promoted to Thane of Cawdor. This brings to light his ambition to be king and after what the witches said he believes it to be a real possibility but he is unsure if he needs to act in order to become king or if it will simply happen. The next flawed situation he is put in is when the king decides to have a party at Macbeth’s castle. Through the cunning manipulation of his wife, Lady Macbeth and the situation that he is presented with, he finds himself giving into his ambition and kills the king in his sleep. This is the beginning of the tragedy for Macbeth and this seems to be the turning point of the play. Through the “bad luck” that has occurred Shakespeare has combined a character flaw with a flawed situation to bring about a tragedy. This has ultimately sealed Macbeth’s fate and now will continue on this undertaking even though the audience has already foreseen his demise. Clearly, when a bad situation presents itself there is an element of “bad luck” that connects it with a character flaw, which produces a tragedy.
Secondly, Macbeth shows another of his character flaws following the death of Banquo. Banquo is invited among with many other nobles to a royal feast at Macbeth’s castle celebrating him being king. However, Macbeth hires some murderers to intercept Banquo and his son Fleance and kill them before they get to the feast. The murderers successfully kill Banquo but Fleance escapes. When the murderers come to tell Macbeth the bad news he is furious, showing that his ambition has overcome all of his other impulses. However, when the feast begins Macbeth sees Banquo sitting in his throne, which causes Macbeth to become very frightened and yell at the apparition. This shows that Macbeth is feeling very guilty for killing his friend for power. The “bad luck” is evident in the timing of the event, but because he is in a room full of crowded nobles when he talks to the ghost and since he appears to be yelling at nothing the guests become quite frightened. The guests observe this at two different instances and come to the conclusion that Macbeth is not entirely sane and defiantly not able to run their country. This leads to the uprising against Macbeth and ultimately his destruction. Without the element of “bad luck” Macbeth could have encountered Banquo’s ghost in private and dealt with his thoughts before entertaining guests. Thus “bad luck” is a necessary component of this scene, which leads to the overall tragedy of the play.
Furthermore, another unfortunate circumstance brought on by “bad luck” is at the very end of the play when Macbeth is defending his castle from MacDuff and the rest of the rebel forces. At this point of the play Macbeth has convinced himself that the witches can be trusted to tell the truth so he believes them when they say he will die from a man “not born” of a woman. Unfortunately for Macbeth this is a serious flaw in his character and because he thinks of himself as invincible, he fights in the battle. The situation presents itself when MacDuff finds Macbeth on the battlefield and through an element of “bad luck” MacDuff reveals that he was “untimely ripped” (Shakespeare) from his mother’s womb or otherwise born from a caesarian section. The “bad luck” is clear when you interpret the full meaning behind his proclamation. The play is set in medieval times where medicine is far from modern standards and even giving birth normally is considered a high risk for disease or death, so the probability of MacDuff surviving throughout that era is very remote and thus we have more “bad luck.” When the character flaw and situation come together to form this tragedy it influences the whole play because Macbeth is killed and everything can go back to the way it was before Macbeth threw Scotland into turmoil. The “bad luck” is consistent throughout the play and it influences the main plot causing the overall theme of tragedy.
In conclusion, McGinn reveals how Shakespeare is able to make such dramatic tragedies and it is through the use of “bad luck.” Shakespeare uses real character flaws that anyone in the world can have, not just some one weakness like kryptonite, but a real flaw that when combined with the right situation can have deadly consequences. McGinn makes a clever observation when he says that you could intertwine the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies and in most circumstances the tragedy would not unfold. Placing Macbeth into Hamlet’s role would not yield the same tragedy because the flaw would not react with the situation (194). This “bad luck” that combines the two ingredients is very influential to the theme, plot and message because without the tragedy that Macbeth brings upon himself there would be no story and ultimately no message at all. Without the inclusion of “bad luck” the character flaw does not combine with the situation and create the mismatch that is tragedy. McGinn is quoted saying Shakespeare “has the curiosity of a scientist” (Abstract) which is ironic because the way he combines two seemingly random things with “bad luck” brings to mind what happens when you mix a strong acid and a strong base with just a little water can cause a big explosion, which is what Shakespeare has done with his tragedies.
McGinn Colin, Shakespeare’s Philosophy. Harper Collins Publisher 2006 (The quote about Shakespeare being a scientist comes from the beginning of the required readings while the rest comes from the page numbers)