Is Macbeth a Tragic Hero? Video

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  • 0:01 What Makes a Tragic Hero?
  • 0:46 Argument for the Tragic Hero
  • 1:31 Stature & Greatness
  • 2:51 Macbeth's Fatal Flaw
  • 4:32 Macbeth's Downfall
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Case
This lesson will cover the reason why Macbeth from Shakespeare's famous play, ''Macbeth'', is a debated tragic hero. We'll explore the argument that shows he is a tragic hero by proving his stature and greatness, his tragic flaw, and his downfall.

What Makes a Tragic Hero?

Many of us encounter the tragic hero in popular movies and fiction. Sometimes, that hero is even considered a villain. The well-known Godfather trilogy follows hero and sometimes villain Michael Corleone on his journey through tragedy. Michael is born into a powerful family, is flawed by his ambition, and is left broken and alone after the deaths of his family members. This makes him a tragic hero, or a character of noble birth who has qualities the audience can empathize with, but who also has flaws and is fated to doom. The roots of these characters stem from Shakespeare's plays written hundreds of years ago, which is why it's important for us to study them today.

The Argument for the Tragic Hero

Many scholars see Macbeth as a villain instead of a hero because of his vile actions. But, a tragic hero can be either a protagonist or an antagonist. The key is that the audience can empathize with the character. Look again at the example of Michael Corleone. Many of us do not approve of mob violence and crime, but we can empathize with Michael when he loses his family members. The same can be said for Macbeth. We can empathize with Macbeth because he has been persuaded to commit certain crimes by his wife. Have you ever been persuaded by a person who you care for to do something that you feel is not right? That was Macbeth's situation.

Stature and Greatness

So what else makes Macbeth a tragic hero? Macbeth is named the Thane of Cawdor and Glamis by King Duncan. Duncan refers to him as 'Noble Macbeth,' so the audience is aware of Macbeth's noble stature in the first act of the play.

When Macbeth visits the witches, they tell him that he is to be king of Scotland. At first, he rejects the idea, which contributes to his greatness: 'This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.' He is fearful of the witches' prophecies because two of them have come true so far. He was not aware of the death of the Thane of Cawdor and that the king had named Macbeth as his successor. When he finds out that this is true, he is frightened and wonders how he will be named king.

Macbeth's loyalty to his king also indicates his greatness. When Lady Macbeth suggests that he assassinate the king, he replies: 'First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed; then, as his host, who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.' Macbeth has indicated that he is content with his new title of Thane of Cawdor, but his curiosity as to how he will be made king is still eating away at him.

Macbeth's Fatal Flaw

Ultimately, Macbeth's fatal flaw is pride that leads to wild ambition. When Macbeth initially refuses to assassinate the king, Lady Macbeth uses a strategy to convince him otherwise; she threatens his manhood and divulges a plan to murder the king in his sleep. Macbeth finally agrees to go along with the plan to get all of their guests drunk so that he can sneak into Duncan's chamber. We see the goodness is still in Macbeth as he immediately feels guilty for his crime against his king: 'I am afraid to think what I have done.' Unfortunately, Macbeth lets his ambition take over and does not confess his crime to others. Instead he hides the deed.

Macbeth's ambition also leads him to murder Banquo, his friend. The witches have promised Banquo that he will not be king, but his successors will be. Macbeth hires murderers to kill Banquo so that the throne will be Macbeth's and his successors. Fleance, Banquo's son, survives the attempted murder on his life and disappears. Macbeth is haunted by the spirit of Banquo, who reminds him of his betrayal and sends him into madness.

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