A tragedy is often thought of as a sad, pitiful event. The factors used to label an event as tragic are the consequences and the lasting effects. For example, the consequences of one or more deaths can be seen as a tragedy. And tragedies are often remembered long after the event, clearly impacting the future for those involved. Many people interpret events such as a natural disaster, the death of a loved one, or a permanent disability as tragic. However, others say that this definition of a tragedy is incorrect and is misused in modern conversation. The people who think this way use the word tragedy to define literature.
The literary definition of the word requires more careful consideration of the character and the overall effect of the play. In this literary sense, tragedy is defined by the following four characteristics: first, the story must arouse pity and fear in the audience and/or reader; second, the story must call into question the man’s relationship with God; third, the tragic figure must be capable of great suffering, be highly sensitive, and possess a tragic flaw which leads to his/her own destruction; and fourth, in the end, the character becomes aware that his own flaw has doomed him, but he is powerless to prevent his inevitable destruction.
These characteristics have been used by many people to determine whether pieces of literature are considered a tragedy. For example, using these characteristics, the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare is considered a tragedy. Macbeth is a tragedy because the play has all the characteristics in the literary definition of a tragedy. Macbeth definitely arouses pity and fear in the audience/reader. The very first scene in the play instills fear in us audience members. The play opens in a wild and lonely place in medieval Scotland.
Three witches enter, and in their cackling voices, they prophesize about the events that will happen in the future. For example, the witches predict that they will meet with the protagonist Macbeth “when the hurlyburly’s done when the battle’s lost and won” (1. 1. 3-4). The witches are speaking of the civil war, which they say will end that day. They also say they will meet with Macbeth, one of the generals. These supernatural happenings start the playoff with eeriness, stirring up fear in the audience. Additionally, pity is roused in the audience. The author creates sympathy for Macbeth by giving him a good quality: his courage.
In the beginning of the play, Macbeth is portrayed as a brave and loyal soldier who fights for his king and his country. Macbeth has “unseamed [a traitor of the king] from the nave to the chops and fixed his head upon [the] battlements” (1. 2. 24-25). When the king, named Duncan, hears this news, he describes Macbeth as a “valiant cousin! [and] worthy gentleman! ” (1. 2. 26). We start to pity Macbeth from the moment he meets the witches. Once the witches have prophesized that Macbeth will become Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King of Scotland, Macbeth begins to have dark thoughts of killing the king.
However, the thought of killing the king is abhorrent to him, and the “horrid image doth unfix [his] hair and make [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs” (1. 3. 156-157). This shows that Macbeth is very reluctant to take any action towards him becoming king. We, audience members, feel sorry for Macbeth as he is tempted by the prospect of becoming king but at the price of murdering a man that had been very good and generous to him. We pity Macbeth as he struggles with his morals and his conscience saying that “as [he] is [Duncan’s] kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, [he] should…not bear the knife” (1. . 14-17). However, in the end, Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself and falls on the other” (1. 7. 28-29) wins and he gives in to his evil urges. So with Lady Macbeth’s urging, Macbeth murders Duncan. Before the murder, Macbeth has such a troubled conscience that he hallucinates. He sees “a dagger…before [him], the handle toward [his] hand” (2. 1. 42-43) leading him to Duncan. We audience members also pity Macbeth because after he does the deed, he thoroughly regrets it. He shows this by saying if he had “died and hour before this chance, [he would have] lived a blessed time” (2. . 103-104). Without a doubt, the play arouses fear and pity in the audience. In addition to arousing pity and fear in the audience, the play calls into question man’s relationship with God. At the start of the play, Macbeth’s relationship with God is good. Macbeth fought nobly and courageously for a good cause, defeating the traitor to the king. Similarly, at the end of the play, Young Siward also fights nobly and dies for a good cause, defeating Macbeth. For this reason, Young Siward is described as “God’s soldier” (5. 8. 55). Therefore, Macbeth could also be described as “God’s soldier” (5. . 55) up until he murders Duncan. As the King of Scotland, Duncan can be viewed as God. By killing Duncan, Macbeth has killed God. As a result, Macbeth has become the opposite of God, the devil. From this point on, Macbeth’s relationship with God is bad. At the scene of the murder, Macbeth could not say “Amen. ” After committing a terrible crime, he “had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in [his] throat” (2. 2. 47-48). These events show that Macbeth’s relationship with God is questionable, which is one of the characteristics of a tragedy in literature.
Another characteristic of a literary tragedy is that the tragic figure must be capable of great suffering. The tragic figure in this play is Macbeth. Macbeth certainly suffers from his conscience and guilt throughout the play. After murdering Duncan, Macbeth is so remorseful that he states that if he were “to know [his] deed, ‘twere best not know [him]self” (2. 2. 95). This means that in order for Macbeth to come to terms with what he has done, he must forget about his conscience. However, Macbeth cannot forget about his conscience and suffers from it. For example, Macbeth believes that “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus” (3. . 52-53). He feels that being king is worthless unless his position as king is safe. Macbeth is afraid that his position is not safe, but is endangered by Banquo, whose kingly qualities make him a threat. Thus, Macbeth murders Banquo. Nevertheless, Macbeth continues to suffer from his conscience. When he learns that Banquo’s son Fleance has escaped from the murderers, he now becomes “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound into saucy doubts and fears” (3. 4. 31-32). This is because the witches predicted that Banquo’s son would be a king in the future, which would put Macbeth’s position as king at risk.
Macbeth’s guilt prevents him from fully enjoying his ill-gotten position as king. For example, Macbeth is visited by the ghost of Banquo. Suffering from guilt, Macbeth nearly reveals the truth that he killed Duncan. Afraid her husband will reveal too much, Lady Macbeth tells the guests that Macbeth often has these fits. When the guests start to ask questions, Lady Macbeth tells them Macbeth “grows worse and worse; question enrages him. At once, good night…go at once” (3. 4. 146-150). These examples of Macbeth suffering from his conscience show that Macbeth is capable of great suffering.
Besides being capable of great suffering, the tragic figure must be highly sensitive. Macbeth, as the tragic figure, is portrayed as a sensitive character. From the beginning of the play, Macbeth has been sensitive. Just the horrid notion of murdering Duncan “unfix[es] [Macbeth’s] hair and make[s] [his] seated heart knock at [his] ribs” (1. 3. 156-157). Macbeth becomes even more sensitive after his terrible crime of killing the king. When Lady Macbeth orders Macbeth to take the bloodied daggers back to Duncan’s room, Macbeth replies, “I’ll go no more.
I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on’t again I dare not” (2. 2. 69-71). Also after the murder, Macbeth has become sensitive to every little sound. When someone is knocking at the gate, Macbeth wonders “whence is that knocking? ” and realizes that “every noise appalls [him]” (2. 2. 78-79). In addition to being frightened by sounds, Macbeth is also frightened by sights. For example, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, he becomes so terrified that his “cheeks [are] blanched with fear” (3. 4. 143-144). Each of these occasions demonstrates the sensitivity of Macbeth.
Macbeth, the tragic figure, also possesses a tragic flaw which leads to his own destruction. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is his trust and confidence in the words of the witches. After the witches tell Macbeth that he will become Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King of Scotland, Macbeth begins to lust for power. If he had not heard the witches’ prophesy, his “vaulting ambition” would not have “prick[ed] the sides of [his] intent” (1. 7. 27-28). Without his ambition, Macbeth would have had no reason to murder Duncan because Duncan “hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been so clear in his great office” (1. . 18-19). Macbeth reminds himself that Duncan is such a good person and has never abused his royal powers so there is no possible reason for his murder except for Macbeth’s own driving ambition. Macbeth is ambitious and wants to become more powerful. Thus, he kills Duncan and takes the crown for himself. Next, Macbeth murders Banquo and attempts to murder Fleance because he trusts the witches’ words that Banquo “shalt get kings” (1. 3. 74), meaning that Banquo’s son Fleance will be the king in the future. The witches also tell Macbeth that “none of woman born shall harm [him]” (4. 1. 1-92) and he will never be vanquished “until Great Birnam Wood to high Dusinane Hill shall come against him” (4. 1. 107-108). Macbeth’s flaw in believing these words leads to his downfall. Macbeth, power-hungry and overconfident, considers himself invincible. However, the witches’ words have cause Macbeth to become too overconfident and he is taken by surprise when a man named Macduff, born by Caesarean section, leads soldiers disguised as “a moving grove” (5. 5. 42) to Dunsinane. Because Macbeth believed the witches in that he was invincible, he did not expect the words to have a double meaning.
Consequently, Macbeth is killed by Macduff who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (5. 8. 19-20). Without a doubt, Macbeth’s trust in the words of the witches has led to his ambition and overconfidence, which, in turn, led to his own destruction. Macbeth definitely becomes aware that this flaw has doomed him, but he is powerless to prevent his inevitable destruction. He first becomes aware that his trust in witches’ words has doomed him when a messenger reports that a moving wood is coming to Dunsinane. Macbeth begins “to doubt the equivocation of the fiend” (5. . 48) and fears that the witches have tricked him. He also realizes that he is powerless to prevent his inevitable destruction. This is shown when Macbeth says “there is no flying hence nor tarrying here” (5. 5. 53) and decides to face death “with harness on [his] back” (5. 5. 57). Macbeth also becomes further aware of his doom when he comes across a man named Macduff who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (5. 8. 19-20) by a Caesarean section. He realizes that the “juggling fiends” have tricked him “in a double sense” (5. 8. 23-24).
Macbeth’s trust in the witches leads him to believe that he is invincible, but when he discovers that the witches are not to be trusted, there is nothing he can do to prevent his destruction. Even though Macbeth knows all hope is gone, he decides to fight to the death and “will try the last” (5. 8. 37). In the end, Macbeth has been killed, and the rightful heir to the throne takes his place. These occurrences fulfill the last requirement for the play Macbeth to be a tragedy. As a result of all the characteristics being met, there is no question that Macbeth is a tragedy.
The play arouses pity and fear in the audience and calls into question man’s relationship with God. The tragic figure Macbeth is capable of great suffering is highly sensitive and possesses a tragic flaw which leads to his destruction. And in the end, Macbeth becomes aware that his flaw has doomed him, but he is powerless to prevent his unavoidable destruction. Due to the characteristics described previously, Macbeth is definitely a tragedy. Even modern-day conversationalists, who misuse the word tragedy, would have to agree that Macbeth is undeniably a literary tragedy!
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