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Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero?

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Throughout Macbeth Macbeth transforms from a respected Noble into a tyrannous ruler that is ultimately defeated by his own hubris. The play tells the classic tale of a tragic hero by giving macbeth a fatal flaw and excessive pride as well as a moment in his story where he loses everything and reflects on what brought him to that moment. Macbeth is a definitive tragic hero. He embodies the main characteristics of a tragic hero, those being: hamartia, hubris, peripeteia, and anagnorisis. Shaksepeare outdoes himself in The Tragedy of Macbeth making Macbeth one of the theatre’s most iconic examples of a tragic hero.

Macbeth’s tragic flaw, or hamartia, is his ambition. Macbeth wants more out of life, just like many humans do, but he becomes obsessed with it. This obsession leads to him killing the King and his best friends. bWhat makes Macbeth’s ambition his fatal flaw is that it blinds him and he becomes obsessed with it. He cannot be satisfied with being great; he must be the best. This is seen by him being dissatisfied with his promotion to Thane of Cawdor. The first thing Macbeth thinks about after hearing the witches’ first prophecy for him, is how he can become king. After this, when Macbeth is summoned to King Duncan’s castle and Duncan announces that he would make Malcolm his heir to the throne, Macbeth decides that he would have to kill Duncan and Malcolm to become king. Macbeth says “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step On which I must fall down or else o’er-laep For in my way it lies”. Macbeth remains relatable to the audience by flopping back and forth between deciding to kill King Duncan or not. Macbeth shoots down any thoughts of killing King Duncan at first “I have but to spur to prick the sides of my intent, But only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other” (Shakespeare 1. 7. 25-27). Many people contemplate doing illegal things but do not do such things because of their morals and the knowledge that if they commit a crime they will be punished. However, in the case of Macbeth, he sees himself as above mortal men and that he can do no wrong. Macbeth feels as though he is invincible. This is reinforced by the witches telling him that No man born of a woman will be able to harm him (Shakespeare 4. 1. 90-91). Macbeth then concludes “Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?” Macbeth is so ambitious that he is not deterred by the morality of his actions or the repercussions he may face (Stolarski). Those repercussions include things like losing the aide of his best friend Banquo, who says he would not be Macbeth’s advisor he was to obtain his position in an unlawful way. Macbeth’s ambition is so blinding towards him that it sends his moral compass out of whack and he commits heinous crimes such as killing Banquo, his best friend, as well as Banquo’s son, Fleance and Macduff’s wife and children. Macbeth’s hamartia ends up turning a respected nobleman into a treasonist that is overthrown by his own people.

Hubris means excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order of things. At the start of Macbeth, Macbeth is not a prideful character. However, by the end of the play, he becomes a prideful tyrant where his hubris ultimately gets the best of him. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is held in high regard by King Duncan and the two are good friends. Macbeth is not very prideful in the first act of the play. Early in this act, Macbeth wrestles with his morales on whether it is right to kill King Duncan. In order to do his dirty work he needs encouragement from Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth does not even believe that her husband is capable of murder. She says he is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to kill Duncan (Shakespeare 1. 5. 16). However, in Act 2, once Macbeth is King, he starts to become prideful. No longer does he need Lady Macbeth’s input on whether he should kill someone. King Macbeth does not consider his morales or even think twice about whether or not he should kill someone. He decides to kill Banquo on his own and Macbeth becomes independent from Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s pride reaches its peak in Act 4 when he visits the witches for a prophecy and the witches tell him he can not be killed by any man of woman born. The witches also tell him that he will not be killed until Birnam Wood moves towards his castle. Macbeth’s pride and invincibility complex does not allow him to interpret the witches’ prophecies on a deeper level. This leads to Macbeth not recognizing that Macduff was born by Cesarean section so he was technically not of woman born. He also does not realize that Macduff’s army would use the trees from Birnam Wood to conceal themselves while marching towards Macbeth’s castle (Stolarski). Macbeth’s growth into a prideful tyrant led to his downfall and is a key part of his identity as a tragic hero.

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Peripetia is the reversal of fate that a character experiences due to their actions that lead to the character’s downfall. Macbeth’s peripetia happens after the murder of Banquo. At the start of the play, Macbeth is a respected Thane and lives a more than charmed life. After killing King Duncan, he rules the land satisfying his ambition, he pleased his wife by doing what she wanted and no one really suspects that he killed Duncan. Aside from not being able to sleep and being paranoid that people want to steal his place on the throne, his life is still pretty good after killing King Duncan. However, everything changes after Macbeth kills Banquo. Macbeth thought that killing Banquo would put an end to his paranoia, which sprouted from the prophecy that Banquo received from the witches. That prophecy stated that Banquo’s descendants would sit on the throne where Macbeth sat. However, after Banquo is killed Macbeth loses it all; his mind, his advisors and his wife. After Banquo is killed Macbeth sees visions of Banquo’s ghost and has a mental breakdown in front of everyone that is close to him at a dinner “Prithee, see there. Behold, look! (To the Ghost). Lo, how say you?” (Shakespeare 3. 4. 61-62)While Macbeth is at his most mentally unstable at this moment, Lady Macbeth still stood by his side. After Banquo is killed, Macduff starts his plan to overthrow Macbeth. Slowly, everyone close to Macbeth leaves him except for his wife. However, when Macduff’s army approaches Macbeth’s castle, Lady Macbeth kills herself. At that moment, Macbeth has no one and he is completely alone. He says his infamous soliloquy, “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.' (Shakespeare 5. 5. 17-28)

The final characteristic of a tragic hero is anagnorisis. Anagnorisis is when a character makes a critical discovery both about himself and the person he has become. Anagnorisis is closely related to peripeteia and they often happen close to each other. The first major point of anagnorisis in Macbeth is when Macbeth says “I am in blood Stepp’d in so far / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Shakespeare 3. 4. 168-170). Macbeth acknowledges that he is at a crossroads in his life, at this point in the play He has killed King Duncan and Banquo. Macbeth feels that he can either continue to go down his path of evil or return to living a normal peaceful life. Macbeth decides to travel down the path of evil and kill Macduff. Before being stormed by Macduff’s army, Macbeth has a soliloquy where he reflects on his actions that brought him to this moment and the consequences of them making it another moment of anagnorisis. Macbeth says: “I have lived long enough: my way of life is fallen into the sear / and that which should accompany old age as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends”(Shakespeare 5. 3. 25-32). Macbeth realizes that he will not get to enjoy the benefits of old age like being surrounded by loved ones because of his actions. Of course, the most obvious moment of anagnorisis is when Macbeth realizes he did not interpret the witches’ prophecies correctly. During their final duel, Macduff tells Macbeth that he was ”untimely ripped from his mother’s womb” (Shakespeare 5. 5. 19-20). This shatters Macbeth’s invincibility complex, Macbeth put all his trust in the witches prophecies and thought that they benefited him, it took this moment for Macbeth to realize that he was fooled by the witches and was just a mortal man like everyone else flipping Macbeth’s pride on its head (Anagnorisis)

Macbeth is an extremely ambitious and prideful character that goes through major loss throughout the course of the play and acknowledges all of the mistakes he made to lose everything. Macbeth is a definitive tragic hero. He possesses the characteristics of hamartia, hubris, peripetia, and anagnorisis; all of these iconic characteristics of a tragic hero make him one of Theatre’s most easily recognizable tragic heroes that will be remembered for thousands of years to come.

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Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero? (2021, September 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero?” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 14 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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