Macbeth - Shakespearean Analysis

Authors Avatar

Alexander Phillips                        10/11/03

GCSE Coursework: Macbeth – Shakespearean Analysis

To what extent is Macbeth portrayed as a tragic hero with whom the audience sympathises?

A Shakespearean tragic hero according to Aristotle is usually a prominent figure, who happens to have distinctive flaws in their personality. Because of these flaws, and to a certain extent the influence of external force and or an ‘evil’ antagonist the character will experience a fall from prominence that will eventually lead to his suffering and often to his death. In Macbeth’s case, his fatal flaws are his impressionability, greed and most importantly his “vaulting ambition” and hubristic character. There is no direct antagonist in the play, but Macbeth is influenced to murder by both the Witches and Lady Macbeth to an extent. We see the degeneration of a valiant soldier, ‘Noble Macbeth’ to a vicious murderer, ‘this dead butcher’. However, is Macbeth seen by the audience in a sympathetic light? The audience could take the view that Macbeth is not responsible for his deeds and that he was manipulated into committing them through external forces. It could be argued unsympathetically that the witches chose him precisely because of his flaws and through this he acts of his free will. This essay will examine to what extent Macbeth is truly responsible for his actions, and equally to what extent the audience perceives him as a tragic hero.


The first scene begins with the witches making mysterious predictions about their future meeting with Macbeth, ‘when the battles lost and won’, immediately creating a sense of uncertainty and suggesting that events can be interpreted in different ways. This intrigues and even frightens the audience, possibly suggesting that the witches might have supernatural powers. The initial presentation of Macbeth in the following scene is of a valiant and courageous soldier and loyal thane, as stated, ‘for brave Macbeth, well he deserves that name’. The word ‘brave’ along with other description imply his being greatly respected by the king; ‘O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman’, so the audience would be expecting a figure of great loyalty to the king. Although this trust later proves a grave misjudgement on the king’s behalf, my personal belief is that up to this point Macbeth was indeed a brave and valiant figure equally loyal to the king. The audience’s first impressions of Macbeth are that he is somehow associated with the witches. The words he mutters upon entering, ‘so foul and fair a day I have not seen’ not only mirror those of the witches in the first scene, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, but they also suggest that things are not what they seem. The audience in Shakespearean times would have been very frightened of witches, as they were believed to be the causes of much chaos throughout the world. Shakespeare definitely used this to capture the interest of the audience, and in particular James I who was very interested in witchcraft. The witches appear to the audience, to have a great role in the events of the play. We therefore question whether it is indeed the witches who are in control of events in that they are merely using Macbeth, chosen because of his faults, as a pawn to carry out their evil mischief.


Upon meeting the witches in the following scene they use their ‘powers’ to tell the future to deceive Macbeth and play on his flaws. Because of Macbeth’s greed he immediately wants to know more, ‘stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more’ and ‘would they had stayed’. Shakespeare uses contrasting comments made by both Banquo and Macbeth about the meetings with the witches so as to imply the very apparent flaws in Macbeth’s personality. Banquo approaches the prophecies with caution and even questions his own sanity; ‘Or have we eaten on the insane root’, and he is also frightened when he finds the prophecies to have come true, ‘could the devil speak true?’ By contrast Macbeth is immediately planning the murder of the king and weighing up his chances: ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good if ill’. This shows his strong ambition and eagerness to act immediately. We also question the idea that if the witches’ prophecy were to be true, might he not simply wait until ‘fate’ crowns him king ‘why chance may crown me without a stir’. This suggests that he is reluctant to kill the king and possibly fearful of the mere idea. The audience views Macbeth in a negative light as he seemingly ponders the idea of murdering the king almost immediately. In addition he ignores Banquo’s warnings, ‘that oftentimes to win us harm, the instruments of darkness will tell us truths’.

Join now!

The second outside influence is the persuasion of his wife, Lady Macbeth. She appears to know her husband well and thus knows that while his ambition is large, his will is ‘weak’, ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’. This weakness of mind is another fault of Macbeth’s and in addition to his greed and uncertain thoughts; we find he is easily manipulated. She knows that she will have to urge her husband on to becoming king. She will give up all her gentle, tender qualities as a woman, so she can become a sexless, pitiless fiend. She ...

This is a preview of the whole essay