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William Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ is about Lord and Lady Macbeth’s tragically flawed decision to murder the King of Scotland and take his title.

In this video, we’ll look at how tragic flaws doom the Macbeths.

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Tragic Flaw

Today’s news headlines scream ‘Tragic Bus Accident’ when a bus drives off the road, and several people are killed. Accidents are terrible, but, according to Aristotle, a philosopher in Ancient Greece, they’re not tragic. For Aristotle and the English playwright William Shakespeare, true tragedy is personal and self-inflicted. In Section VI of his Poetics, Aristotle states that a tragic figure must have a character flaw that leads to his or her downfall. According to Aristotle, there are three main conditions that lead to a tragic end:

  1. A personality flaw
  2. Ignorance of the flaw
  3. Consequences suffered because of the flaw

In William Shakespeare’s play, Lord Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, are both tragic because they listen to bad advice and act on it. Their ambition, honor, and, ultimately, their guilt, lead directly to their deaths.

They’re people of conscience and honor who act immorally. This is their tragic flaw. It’s only at the end of the play that they realize they brought the tragedy upon themselves.

Ambition

Lord and Lady Macbeth’s ambition is like a worm that slowly eats away at their moral compass. In Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth and fellow general Banquo meet three witches, who plant this worm in Macbeth’s mind. The Witches greet Macbeth with the title, Thane of Cawdor and claim he will be the King of Scotland: ‘All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!’ To Macbeth, both titles seem beyond his grasp.

How would your respond if you met a stranger on the street who told you that you’d eventually become vice president and then president of the United States. Macbeth is skeptical of the three Witches’ predictions and demands more information, but they vanish into thin air. While Macbeth and Banquo are discussing the strange women, a messenger arrives hailing Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor, proving one of their predictions true and planting a worm in Macbeth’s mind.Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man that function/Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is/But what is not.

‘ Macbeth, however, is not convinced that he needs to commit murder to fulfill his ambitions, nor is he morally ready to do so. He became Thane of Cawdor without any effort on his part, so perhaps he’ll become king too with no effort. As Macbeth says, ‘If chance will have me king, why, chance/May crown me/Without my stir.’ But when King Duncan of Scotland names his own son Malcolm as heir, murder now seems the only solution. Still, Macbeth hesitates. Regicide is a great betrayal.

However, Macbeth’s wife continues to feed the worm and together they plot the king’s death.

Honor

Macbeth and his wife are blinded by ambition. Again, according to Aristotle, the tragic figure must be neither completely virtuous nor evil.

At the start of the play, Macbeth is not a bad person. He’s a war hero, and the king rewards him for his valor. Macbeth’s decision to kill his king does not come easily to him. As he tells his wife, ‘We will proceed no further in this business:/He hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought/Golden opinions from all sorts of people,/Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,/Not cast aside so soon.’ Ambition wins out over honor. As the Macbeths are honorable people, the end result is guilt.

Their guilt makes them tragic. Honor is the tragic flaw that causes the guilt.

Guilt

People lacking a sense of honor usually do not suffer from guilt. Guilt eventually wreaks havoc on the Macbeths and serves to unhinge Lady Macbeth.

In Act III, Scene 4, Macbeth finds himself haunted by the ghost of the murdered Banquo. In Act V, Scene 1, the famous mad scene, Lady Macbeth tries to rub imaginary blood off her hands. Macbeth, however, does not descend into madness like his wife. His honor forces him to defend himself and plot additional murders.According to Aristotle, the hero’s flaw is not obvious to him or her.

Ambition so consumes the Macbeths that they do not see the guilt that will result from their dark deeds. As Macbeth says in Act III, Scene 3, ‘To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.’ The Macbeths are oblivious to the moral toll of their actions.

Just before his last battle, Macbeth says, ‘And that which should accompany old age,/As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,/I must not look to have, but, in their stead,/Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,/Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.’ Macbeth puts ambition before honor, and in the end, it leads to deep guilt.

Lesson Summary

According to the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, true tragedy is personal and self-inflicted. For a tragic end to occur, three conditions must be present. The character or person must:

  1. Have a personality flaw
  2. Be ignorant of the flaw
  3. Suffer consequences because of the flaw

In William Shakespeare’s play, Lord and Lady Macbeth are tragic figures.

They are basically honorable people who are ignorant of the tragic flaws, or defects of character, that ultimately result in their deaths. Ambition spurs Macbeth to murder the King of Scotland, while honor leads to his guilt over the act. It is this honor and guilt that causes Lord Macbeth to kill again and Lady Macbeth to go mad.

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