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Macbeth Essay, Research Paper

Wider Reading Assignment

From your studies of “Macbeth” show to what extent you think Shakespeare followed and built upon the classical tradition of dramatic tragedy.

In this essay I will be comparing the Shakespearian tragedy “Macbeth” to an example of Greek tragedy, “Oedipus Rex”.

The fall of Macbeth is very different from that of Oedipus.

Macbeth’s downfall is due to his own personal decisions but in Oedipus’ case his downfall was due to nothing but fate and the will of the gods and so it was unavoidable as such. These downfalls are both different forms of tragic aspects. Macbeth causes his own downfall but Oedipus does not knowingly commit any real sins; the gods controlled him.

In Greek tragedy plot was always emphasized over character; everyone wore masks. These masks would seem to mask a person’s character. This would make the character seem more universal. The mask-wearing protagonist lacks individual personality and character. This makes catharsis more relevant because the protagonist is not as individual but more universal; they could be anyone.

Macbeth is an individual person; he has no mask. This makes catharsis seem more irrelevant because Macbeth is more of on individual than Greek protagonists and therefore the audience doesn’t feel that Macbeth is a representation of humanity and themselves. Instead they would set him apart as an individual person and therefore catharsis wouldn’t apply as much. Greek tragedies all feature some kind of religious aspect. The gods bring about the protagonist’s downfall in “Oedipus Rex”. Yet Shakespeare’s production of “Macbeth” is not religious. Macbeth isn’t portrayed as being religious in any way. However, Oedipus strongly believed in the Greek gods and they carved out his fate as proclaimed by the oracle.

The Greeks had no understanding of the way that the world works compared to what we, or even Shakespeare, now know. Volcanos were blamed on the gods because the Greek’s didn’t know the cause.

We now have scientific explanations for volcanoes and thunderstorms and this reduces our fear. The Ancient Greeks feared life because it was a mystery. The Ancient Greeks experienced fears about life that we don’t have. Oedipus wasn’t portrayed as a butcher in “Oedipus Rex” but he did some very wrong deeds. We don’t see him as a butcher because we know that it was not his fault but was all the doings of the gods. In Macbeth’s case it was not the will of the gods but Macbeth’s own decisions that caused him to do his terrible deeds. However, it might seem to us that Macbeth was an evil butcher but because of Shakespeare’s soliloquies we know Macbeth’s inner thought and we see him wrestling with his own guilt. This helps us to portray him as more of a man than just an evil butcher.

Oedipus never does a soliloquy. This means that we don’t really know the inner Oedipus or what he is thinking. He is just a pawn of fate and is not in control of his actions, it would seem, like Macbeth is. Macbeth kills people through his own controllable actions whereas Oedipus killed Liaus in an uncontrollable rage and didn’t realize that he was actually the king of Thebes. Shakespeare’s soliloquies make us see that Macbeth is not really as bad on the inside as he may appear to be on the outside. The soliloquies let us see what Macbeth is thinking. In Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow…’ soliloquy, for example, we see how he is reflecting on how fickle life actually is. These are not the thoughts of an evil madman but a guilty and despairing human being. I think this is what makes Shakespeare such a good writer because he employs soliloquies to make the audience see evil tyrants, like Macbeth, as real human beings with inner gilts and doubts, thus enabling the audience to relate to the individual, even evil nature of the protagonist. According to Aristotle’s “Poetics” a tragedy should be ‘confined to a single revolution of the sun’. “Macbeth”, however, takes place over several months, maybe even years. Aristotle also stated that a tragedy should be written in verse. “Macbeth” complies with this rule as I have explained below. Aristotle also states that tragedies should have unity of place.

The tragedy of Oedipus takes place in the same scene throughout the play. “Macbeth”, on the other hand, has many changes of place and scene. Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” within a metre. Shakespeare’s plays are generally written blank verse. It is predominant in “Macbeth”. He writes “Macbeth” in verse on purpose but some parts are written in prose e.g. The letter to lady Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. The main part of “Macbeth” is written in Iambic pentameter. An example of this is below:

= Stressed syllable = Unstressed syllable

|’So foul | and fair | a day | I have | not seen’|

1 2 3 4 5


However, when the Witches speak the verse is changed. It is changed to trochaic tetrameter. The stress is on the first syllable of the foot as opposed to the second. Chanting rhythm: | ‘Hubble | bubble | toil and | trouble’ |

1 2 3 4 I think Shakespeare does this on purpose to show how the witches are different from the rest of the cast. They seem to invert the natural order of things in the play. In the tragedy “Oedipus Rex” there is a chorus who speak in verse. The chorus is made up of a number of gentlemen who either:

1.Each say a line, or thereabouts, of a sentence.

2.The whole chorus chants a sentence in unison.

This meets Aristotle’s requirement of song.

In “Macbeth” the witches are a form of chorus.

In Scene 4 Act 1 the three witches speak as follows: 1st WITCH “Speak.”

2nd WITCH “Demand.”

3rd WITCH “We’ll answer.”

This is similar to the chorus in Oedipus Rex as each witch chants part of a line to make up a whole.

They also speak in unison, at times. In Act 1 Scene 1 the three witches speak as follows:

ALL “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,

Hover through the fog and filthy air”

This is another example of the similarities between the witches in Macbeth and the Chorus in Oedipus Rex. One of the differences though, however, is that the chorus in “Macbeth” (the witches) actually move the plot along whereas in a Greek tragedy the chorus seems to only describe or reflect upon things. Aristotle very strongly expressed that a play should have a unity of plot. This meant that plays would have to be very linear e.g. Cause, effect, cause, effect etc… “Macbeth” seems to follow this as a rule. In “Oedipus Rex” fate is dominant so there isn’t really room for the character of Oedipus to make the plot very complex. The scene in “Macbeth” that features the porter is an extra addition to the plot and does not strictly comply with the rules that Aristotle stresses but “Macbeth” does seem to have a unity of plot, only more complex than Greek tragedies because of the predominance of fate featuring in them. The Greeks used masks and so had no real chance to make an individual character like Shakespeare did with Macbeth. Oedipus does have character flaws but they are not really very individual; anyone can have a quick temper or be very impetuous. I think that the Greeks have tried to generate a character that is recognizable to anyone. This could help with the idea of catharsis within their plays.

The Greeks recognized Oedipus as a man who was “flicked about” by the gods; much like a fly could be to humans today. However, Shakespeare saw things differently than the Greek tragedians. Not all humans were dominated by fate but they could make their own decisions and they had their own will. Throughout the tragedy of “Macbeth” Shakespeare makes a lot of contradictions. He shows that Macbeth is different than he might outwardly seem. In Act 1 Scene 5 Lady Macbeth comments on Macbeth’s seemingly gentle nature: LADY MACBETH

“Yet I do fear thy nature,

It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way.” However, in Act 1 scene 2 Macbeth fought his way through countless foe and when he reached the rebel Macdonald took his sword and “Unseamed him from the knave to th’chaps.”

None of Shakespeare’s writings were really original. Hamlet was actually a Danish prince and Macbeth was a real person.

Shakespeare uses histories but changes them slightly for dramatical effect. He also adds things. The Duncan that featured in Macbeth was actually a bad king but Shakespeare portrays him as good to make Macbeth seem to be more evil.

Catharsis means the cleansing out and purging of fears of our existence.

If the audience experiences the fears of Oedipus they will be better able to confront and overcome their own problems because of the effect of catharsis.

When I watched Oedipus Rex I didn’t feel purged of my fears of existence because I don’t believe that our lives are controlled by the will of fate. Catharsis is more relevant to the Ancient Greeks than to us because of the different belief system; we have one good, caring, all-powerful God and they have many gods who don’t really care about the humans that much. I think that Shakespeare hasn’t tried to apply catharsis to his tragedy as much as the Ancient Greeks did to their tragedies because he doesn’t make the characters as universal as the Greeks but he gives them individualism by removing the masks and giving each character a personality.


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