Macbeth has been termed the Tragedy of Ambition. All that a great work of art means and teaches can seldom, if ever, be crystallised in a phrase; nor is Macbeth an exception to the principle, though it is the least complex of Shakespeare’s tragedies and is, indeed marked by a sheer simplicity of theme, motive and treatment which consorts with the simple, unsophisticated period of the events. Still, ‘Tragedy of Ambition’ seems a true and adequate description of the play, to this extent at least, that ambition is the mainspring of the action. – A.W. Verity.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
The witches pronounce these lines at the very beginning of the play Macbeth and introduce its central themes: the complexity of interpreting conflicting statements; evil and its impact upon the lives of humans. Macbeth is a story of a Scottish general and the misadventures that he undergoes mostly due to his unrestrained ambition aided by the influence of evil that he inherits from prophecies of the witches and the counsel of his own wife Lady Macbeth. Although rewarded by King Duncan for his bravery, he kills the King with some persuasion from his wife, to become the King of Scotland and there begins the misery of his life. Evil breeds evil, as the story unfolds and we come across multiple acts of violence.
Macbeth as a tragedy is appreciated by the critics for its unparalleled insight into human nature and its aesthetic achievement. The character of Macbeth presents before us a complexity of its own kind. Among the whole range of Shakespearean plays perhaps Macbeth emerges as the one that blends both good and evil at the same time. The goodness is his inherent quality, but so is the dark desire of becoming King. He further inherits more evil through external sources and internalizes it to apparently fulfill the prophecy but more to realize the ambition of becoming the King. However, the play as it progresses leads us to the world that Macbeth conceives and creates for himself based on what he comes across. He assumes himself to be safe forever, as it is prophesied that he cannot be killed by ‘any man born of woman’ but destiny has an answer in the form of Macduff. The display of great courage by Macbeth has been closely examined by the critics; considering it as his personal attribute and as something induced by the circumstances occupies a central place in discussing the persona of this great Shakespearean anti-hero.
Macbeth presents us a society where the codes of honour and loyalty are supreme. King is the representative of God on Earth; he must be absolute in all terms. The social order depends upon such attributes or virtues which are marked by absolute loyalty and integrity towards the king and the king has the responsibility of assuring the prevalence of same virtues in the kingdom. Based upon such virtues the other relationships of familial and social life get their acceptance and value. Macbeth contemplates the implications of his action if he commits a regicide. He also at the same time thinks about the double trust that exists between him and King Duncan. It is his ability to think rationally and think beyond oneself that compels him to contemplate the political and social imbalance that he would initiate by his act of crime.
At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a good and brave soldier who gives his loyal service to Scotland. He wins the battle as well as the respect of the King. As a reward the king honours him with the title, the Thane of Cawdor. Ironically, it is precisely this honour that triggers Macbeth’s corrupt thoughts of wrongfully seizing the kingship. The witches’ prophecy that accurately predicted his new title makes him believe that he is indeed destined to be the king as predicted by their second prophecy. He thus sees the promise of much greater rewards. The prophecies and the realization of one of them tempt Macbeth into achieving his ambition at any cost. Many critics consider Macbeth’s unusually high concentration of ambition as a classic example of a tragic flaw. Ambition is not so much a fatal flaw because it is part of the social fabric and possessed in more or less quantity by every human being. However, ambition that is unchecked by morality is most certainly a fatal flaw which is the case with Macbeth.
Macbeth starts out as a good person; but his ambition gets the better of him when he finally kills Duncan despite his hesitations and better judgements. After he commits his first act of treachery, he becomes practically unstoppable as he continues with more and more murders in order to cover up his previous ones. He becomes the play’s primary source of evil as the audience begin to see him as the villain. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth becomes paranoid about his newly gained throne. He feels compelled to keep killing all possible threats and maintain his grip on power. Each of his crimes results in Macbeth’s growing estrangement from reality as well as from himself. He becomes detached from everything as the kingdom of Scotland descends into total chaos. It is believed by those who were wronged by Macbeth that restoring order in Scotland would require Macbeth’s death. The throne needs to be in the hands of its rightful heir. Macbeth willingly embraces evil despite knowing that he will be haunted by guilt for the rest of his life.
The ambition or pride of Macbeth results in his fall and is seen as the fall of a great man. It refers to the ancient Greek notion of tragedy involving hubris where the hero falls due to his ignorance shrouded by his pride and ambition. The hero may not be pitied for his fall here and the story of Macbeth is a typical case where we do not see any scope for catharsis as his fall is a result of his personal motives. He who is devoid of all the virtues of becoming a king and is not upright all through doesn’t deserve to be a king. And if he attains it by some means, it may not last for long. The tragedy of King Duncan gets translated into a tragedy only for King Macbeth although he becomes the agent of change. Macbeth’s awareness about his crime makes it increasingly difficult for him to live with himself.
The play has been seen to be very close to the Aristotelian model of a classic tragedy. In Aristotelian norms of tragedy, the tragic hero should be a figure high up in the social ladder and his downfall must be because of his tragic flaw (hamartia) and also by the working of fate. In Macbeth, the protagonist is a figure of eminence in Scotland and it is because of his ambition (his tragic flaw) and the role of fate (the three witches) that he becomes the King of Scotland by murdering King Duncan. He goes down a dark path of treachery and violence. His evil act eventually leads to his downfall which makes us take pity on him and also be fearful of fate. Thus, the purgation of feelings of emotions of pity and fear (Catharsis) happens in the play leading it to be a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense of the term, though the norms of Unities of Time, Place and Action are not being followed strictly by Shakespeare. In spite of taking liberties with these norms, Shakespeare could create a masterpiece, something which is unique as is Macbeth.
Macbeth is a highly notable and unique play because it is the only tragedy that Shakespeare wrote where the protagonist hero is also the villain.