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Macbeth: Aristotelian Tragedy Essay, Research Paper
Macbeth: Aristotelian Tragedy
The definition of tragedy in an excerpt from Aristotle’s “Poetics” is
the re-creation, complete within itself, of an important moral action. The
relevance of Aristotle’s Poetics to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth defines the
making of a dramatic tragedy and presents the general principles of the
construction of this genre.
Aristotle’s attention throughout most of his Poetics is directed towards
the requirements and expectations of the plot. Plot, ‘the soul of tragedy’,
Aristotle says, must, be an imitation of a noble and complete action. In
Macbeth, Shakespear provides a complete action, that is it has what Aristotle
identifies as a beginning, a middle, and an end. These divisible sections must,
and do in the case of Macbeth, meet the criterion of their respective placement.
In an excerpt from Aristotle’s “Poetics” it states:
“The separate parts into which tragedy is divided are: Prologue,
Episode, Exodus, Choric songs, this last being divided into Parodos and Stasimon.
The prologos is that entire part of a tragedy which precedes the Parodos of the
Chorus. The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy which is between complete
choric songs. The Exodos is that entire part of a tragedy which has no choric
song after it. Of the Choric part the Parodos is the first undivided utterance
of the Chorus.” Shakespeare follows this precise arrangement of parts to tell
his story of Macbeth. Macbeth is divided into five acts. It contains a
Prologue, Episode, Exodus, Parodos and Stasimon, but is the only one of
Shakespeares plays that does not include Choric songs. This does not dismiss
Macbeth as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, because it still follows
Aristotle’s fundamental component of a plot. That the arrangement of actions
and episodes arrange themselves into a ‘causally connected’, seamless whole.
The ideal arrangement of action into a plot is: Exposition, Inciting Action,
Rising Action, Turning Point(Climax), Falling Action, and Denouement. Macbeth
follows each of these steps while introducing a new question every moment that
keeps our interest. That is called dramatic tension, a very important part of a
tragedy: to keep the audiences attention at all times.
To make Macbeth’s plot a complete action, according to Aristotle, the
story must contain an activating circumstance, a disclosure, and a reversal of
action. The activating circumstance in Macbeth is the three witches. Macbeth
and Banqou meet three witches that posses supernatural powers and predict the
two men’s futures. It is part of the wicked sisters’ role in the play to act as
the forces of fate. These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Their
predictions are temptations of Macbeth’s. They never tell Macbeth he has to do
anything, and nothing the witches did forced him to commit the murderous acts he
did. But their prophecies stimulated his desire for kingship and intensified
his ambition which is the characteristic that led to his downfall. The
disclosure is the point in the play in which the audience finds out something
they did not know before, that enables them to put the pieces of the tragedy
together. It’s the point of realization. In Act V scene 1, Lady Macbeth is
found sleep walking muttering the lines of reassurance she gave her husband
after they murder of Duncan and Banqou, “What need we fear who knows it, when
none can call our power to accompt?”(lines 40-42) and “I tell you yet again,
Banqou’s buried” (lines 66-67). The plot of the tragedy unfolded for the
audience in that scene and it becomes apparent that it was Macbeth’s and Lady
Macbeth’s own evil actions that destroyed themselves. The last guideline of an
Aristotelian complete action is the reversal of action. This occurs when
Macduff kills Macbeth. Throughout the play Macbeth, driven by his corrupt
ambition, went after what he desired most. Even subjecting himself to evil sins,
but it is at the very end where his own ambition kills him. Macbeth’s life ends
in the same way he took the other lives, through murder and deception. Stated
above, Aristotle says, the plot of a Tragedy must be an imitation of a noble and
complete action. Macbeth follows Aristotle’s expectations of a complete action.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth also contains a noble and moral action that creates the
foundation of the plot. Whether Shakespeare provides a nobel action, however,
is an issue of the culture of his time. Macbeth was written during the
Elizabethan age where ambition was highly regarded. Ambition was and is a pious
and admirable quality, one of nobility. So essentially the imitation of action,
the plot, of Macbeth is one of a nobel and complete action.
In accordance with Aristotle’s expectations of a Tragedy, containing a
nobel and complete action, irony is one of the most important elements when
imitating an action. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth there are many ironic statements
regarding the action of murder due to Macbeth’s hamartia (tragic flaw), which is
his ambition. Macbeth’s hamartia (ambition) encouraged by Lady Macbeth resulted
in her death and when Macbeth hears of her death his words are inspired by grief
and despair and full of irony. He calls life a pathetic, strutting actor
briefly on a stage, and then says: “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury/ Signifying nothing” Act V, scene v, lines 26-28. Macbeth’s
speech says that life is meaningless, but the play as a whole says just the
opposite. Macbeth’s utter despair at that moment is a result of his evil deeds.
The very fact that he and Lady Macbeth are punished for their wickedness is
proof of a higher good which gives meaning to life. In Macbeth the action of
murder and ambition are often referred to in an ironic manner (shown above) but
what draws this play so close to Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy is
Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony. Integral to Aristotle’s notion of tragedy
was its stylistic component: its diction. Aristotle stated that tragedies are
to be written in elevated, non- everyday language to alert the audience to the
seriousness of what they are about to see. Dramatic irony is a very poignant
example of this theory. Dramatic irony is present when the audience knows
something the characters, or some of the characters, do not, this involves the
audience and draws their attention. When Duncan and his party arrive at
Macbeth’s castle, they are unaware of the wicked plans that are being made.
Their lighthearted, joking mood is ironic to us, because we know what they are
really walking into. The scene-by-scene analysis for Act I scene vi, details
the use of dramatic irony when Duncan realizes that Lord Macbeth isn’t there to
greet him, which is very discourteous but still treats Macbeth with great
admiration, “Conduct me to mine host: we lone him highly/And shall conduct our
graces toward him.” Meanwhile Macbeth is plotting King Duncans murder.
Dramatic irony enriches the last act of the play. Macbeth has become a monster,
but he’s also become a pathetic figure. His desperation is obvious. Ten
thousand troops are on their way to over throw him; his own troops are deserting.
And he places his confidence in the weird sisters- the hags whose suggestion
that he would be king got him into this disaster! We can see that he is doomed,
but he cannot. He fights on, talking about his “charmed life.” His failure (or
refusal) to see what is obvious to us makes the end of the play much more
powerful than it would be otherwise.
Aristotle further states that the noble and complete action must be an
imitation of fearful and pitiable incidents. It is important to define fearful
and pitiable action in Aristotle’s own words before continuing to support a
later point. Aristotle states;
“A perfect tragedy should be arranged not on the simple but on the
complex plan. It should imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being
the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows that the change of fortune
presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to
adversity, for this moves neither pity no fear; it merely shocks us. Nor that
of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity, for nothing can be more alien
to me spirit of tragedy; it possesses no tragic quality, it neither satisfies
the moral sense, no calls forth pity or fear. Nor should the downfall of the
utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would doubtless, satisfy the
moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity no fear, for pity is aroused by
unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of a person like ourselves.
Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains,
then, the character between these two extremes-that of a man who is not
eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or
depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned
According to Aristotle, the expectation of a tragedy consists of the arousal of
the emotions of pity and terror in the audience. He also states that “pity and
fear are related to action and character.” We have already detailed the
correlations between the plot(action) in Macbeth and Aristotle’s “Poetics”, now,
we must determine if the character Macbeth is a tragic hero according to
Aristotle’s “The Essential Nature of Tragedy”.
In Aristotle’s “Poetics” he describes the attributes of a tragic hero.
In the excerpt above it mentions “…the character between these two
extremes…”. Basically a good man of elevated stature: if he’s evil, his fall
won’t be pitiable or tragic. If he’s a commoner, his fall won’t be grand enough.
The figure of Macbeth seems to resemble this position. In the beginning of the
play there is strong evidence that Macbeth is a good man. In Act I, Scene ii
his courage is highly praised. The bloody soldier obviously admires his captain,
and Duncan is moved when he is told of Macbeth’s exploits. Shown in such
diction as “brave Macbeth” and “noble Macbeth”. One of the essential natures of
a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is the Reversal of
Fortune. The hero must undergo a change of fortune from prosperity (emotional
and/or material) to adversity. This reversal is also known as a tragic fall.
Aristotle continues, this reversal must come about not by chance or as deserved
retribution for evil deeds, but from some hamartia, variously translated as
‘error in judgment’ or ‘tragic flaw’: that is, some aspect of the hero’s
character that in itself is praiseworthy–but in excess, destructive. Macbeth
gains sympathy from the audience due to his demeanor in the beginning of the
play. He relates to the listeners from his reaction to the witc
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