Shakespeare?s Macbeth is an exemplary form of Aristotle?s definition of tragedy. Macbeth, on par with Oedipus and Medea, begins the play on a noble pedestal, but, before the eyes of the viewers, loses the battle with his destiny, and degrades from a hero to a butcher by its denouement. This is not all there is to Macbeth, however. Aristotle took the concept of tragedy very seriously, and, in order to be tragic by his standards, something would have to fulfill numerous goals, stay within certain parameters, and satisfy a set of prerequisites. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the moving, poetic plot of Macbeth did not flow from Shakespeare?s pen as glibly as it might seem.
The first goal that Macbeth meets is its representation of something that is serious. Without this vital component of tragedy, a person who was formerly resolute, but succumbs to hunger one day and splurges on a chocolate cake, having lost a battle with a greater force, could conceivably be considered tragic. That doesn?t make much sense, though. In Macbeth, there is never a comic moment, and barely any action is made without serious repercussions–usually resulting in the loss or salvation of someone?s life. Macbeth is a man who rises to public admiration through his courage and valor in war, who, after being seduced by the witches? prophecies, yields to his ambition to be king, and leaves more and more murdered bodies in his wake as his aspirations climb and his morality plummets. In the end, several have died to sate Macbeth?s whims, and Macbeth must also be slain as a result. In this, Macbeth also meets Aristotle?s rules that a tragedy must be complete and of a certain magnitude. The tragedy is complete because Macbeth?s descent into madness is ended at the tip of Macduff?s sword and with Macduff?s dismissive words, ?Hail, king! for so thou art: behold, where stands | The usurper?s cursed head: the time is free. (line 71-2, act 5, scene 8)? The magnitude of Macbeth?s situation is twofold: it is of a great scale literally because Macbeth has made himself the king of Scotland, and, therefore, responsible for the lives of all of its citizens (not a responsibility that should be given to someone who can be so easily influenced by his conniving wife or his own emotions), and Macbeth?s situation is of a great scale figuratively because he becomes increasingly vain, that is, concerned only with himself, and begins to think nothing of ending someone?s life (even if he or she is wholly innocent) for his own gains.
Another absolutely integral part to the Aristotelian tragedy is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw–clearly Macbeth. As with anything else theorized by Aristotle, the tragic hero is very specific, and must meet several standards. According to Aristotle, the central character of a tragedy must not be so virtuous that, instead of feeling pity or fear at his or her downfall, we are simply outraged. Also the character cannot be so evil that, for the sake of justice, we desire his or her misfortune. Instead, best is someone “who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness; nor is it through badness or villainy of his own that he falls into misfortune, but rather through some flaw”. We are first introduced to Macbeth as a military hero, ?For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name– | Disdaining fortune, with his brandish?d steel, | Which smoked with bloody execution, | Like valour?s minion carved out his passage | till he faced the slave; (lines 20 – 24, act 1, scene 2)?; a man who has shown braveness in battle, but is still an average guy. He can be compared to a modern fire fighter who has rescued a person from a blazing horse–a local hero, but not seen as infallible. Enter the tragic flaw. A tragic flaw can be an intellectual error or mistake (such as receiving misinformation and relying on it, etc.), or a moral weakness, such as in the case of Macbeth, and his ?vaulting ambition (line 30, act 1, scene 7).? It is this hitherto small foible that ensnares Macbeth?s will and, as he admits in his first soliloquy, leads him down his path of moral decay.
Perhaps the moment at which the viewer?s sympathy for the tragic hero really begins to wax is when his or her fortune reverses. This is because the hero?s tragedy does not become fully apparent until his or her downfall is imminent. When Macbeth gets away with killing whoever he wants, he?s a jerk who has fallen from grace, but still a jerk. When things start to backfire, though, the audience realizes that Macbeth has brought all this trouble on himself, and, if only he had had a bit more fortitude, or, if only he hadn?t placed so much trust and hope in the witches, or, if only he hadn?t listened to his wife, etc. etc. On a sympathetic level, the audience pities poor Macbeth, and, on an empathic level, the audience fears that maybe they might succumb to the same weaknesses of character. When a play is successful on reaching audiences on both levels, through sympathy and empathy, it is Aristotelian. Macbeth?s in-depth portrayal of Macbeth?s tragedy on the internal (Macbeth?s mental and emotional turmoil as revealed through his soliloquies and paranoid behavior) and external (the destruction of empires and ending of lives) levels is enough to connect to even the most reluctant viewer.
An important supporting detail to the effectiveness of a tragedy and its qualification as Aristotelian is the use of embellished language. To the modern reader, anything written in Shakespearean English seems magnificently embellished, but that?s beside the point. The use of dramatic speech can easily change the whole atmosphere of a performance, putting the viewer in a completely different frame of mind. It takes the viewer from his or her everyday life and establishes a more dramatic, romanticized world. If effective enough, the viewer can even apply real emotions to the fantasy world, something that Aristotle called ?purgation of [pity and fear],? and that we, today, call catharsis. If all of the other Aristotelian elements of a tragedy fall properly into place, catharsis should be achieved. The viewers feel for the characters of Macbeth–becoming enraged with the scheming of Lady Macbeth, mourning the death of innocent Duncan, ultimately feeling sorrow for Macbeth?s plot, etc.
I think that Aristotle would have beamed with pride had he ever been given the chance to experience Shakespeare?s Macbeth, because it fulfills all of his expectations for a proper tragedy. Macbeth?s characters are not cardboard cut-outs, but seem to have real vitality–real merits and real flaws, the latter being especially present in the case of the play?s title character. Macbeth is a tragedy in the ancient Greek sense if ever there was one, and it is certainly no coincidence that it is also one of the most well-known plays in existence.