Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is generally considered a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. A tragedy usually involves a protagonist who receives some sort of prophecy describing events in the future. The protagonist tries to change these events, and due to unlikely twists and events, his interventions end up causing what he was trying to avoid. The underlying message of such stories is that challenging fate or predestination ultimately results in a character’s ruin. The text of Macbeth is well aware of this genre, but its intention is to challenge the narrative of a tragedy rather than participate in it. The text achieves this by starkly differing from the classical tragedy in several of its essential points, and ultimately portraying the tragedy’s central force, fate, as an illusion.
One of the central points of a tragedy is that the protagonist is an essentially well-meaning person who commits atrocities by not knowing what he does. Macbeth, on the other hand, knows full well what he does is evil and disruptive. He knows that “Duncan / Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off. (1.7_16-20)” Macbeth is aware that Duncan is a good king and a noble man, but even with this knowledge decides to assassinate him. Even though after killing his friend Banquo, Macbeth manages to suppress conscious guilt over what he has done. His subconscious nonetheless cries out by conjuring an image of Banquo’s ghost. In his terror before this apparition, Macbeth is forced to acknowledge that “murders have been performed / Too terrible for the ear (3.4_93-94)”. Indeed, much of Macbeth’s presence in this play, both in time spent on stage and in his character’s role, is spent tormented by his guilt or struggle over the various evils he has done.
The second aspect of a tragedy that this text plays with is the main characters dismal mourning and distress at the end of the story. A classical tragedy would see the hero dejected, confused, and disappointed after realizing their folly at trying to challenge fate. Partially because Macbeth was aware of what he did in the first place, we don’t see him left in a state of distress or despair. He instead exhibits a strong sense of alienation, a bemused detachment from life. His soliloquy proclaiming that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing (5.5_27-30)” given after the death of Lady Macbeth illustrates these feelings. Macbeth cuts off all his ties with conventional morality and meaning. He kills a good man, Duncan, he kills his friend, Banquo, and he kills the innocent and defenseless family. Each of these actions further dulls his sensitivity towards the boundaries of morality. Thusly Macbeth is not mourning and whining at the end of the play, but simply stares uncomprehendingly as life flashes before his eyes.
The traditional tragedy depicts the events that bring about the hero’s downfall as unlikely and unexpected turns, fantastical events that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen. Again, Macbeth doesn’t quite fit this description. Macbeth’s downfall is caused when he becomes over confident after the witches declaration that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” and that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” Macbeth’s downfall is far from unlikely; it is no surprise that after his tyrannical rule the English army marches against him. The only surprise comes about due to the clever wordplay in the prophecies. Though no one born by woman can hurt him, it is Macduff, born by caesarian, who kills him. And though until the forest moves castle he is invincible, the English soldiers chop down the woods to use it as cover. It is Macbeth and the reader’s failure to interpret what these prophecies actually mean, and not any unlikely chances that bring about Macbeth’s punishment for acting out of place.
While the classical model of a tragedy depicts a character receiving a statement of fate, which they try to either change or bring about prematurely. These actions are often well meaning by the character, but these acts often unwittingly yield evil results. Through unlikely and unforeseen events the character’s actions actually realize the prophecy, and cause that character’s ruin, leaving the character humbled, distressed, and repentant. Macbeth, on the other hand, is given a prophecy, which he also tries to bring about prematurely. His actions, however, are painfully reasoned, and he stares the evil and implications of what he does straight in the face. He is then brought down by his own inability to understand the paradoxical statement of the witches, and was unable to see that his downfall was imminent and quite likely.
These differences seem to indicate that the text of Macbeth constructs
a different view of fate from that of the classical model. The fate of tradition is a powerful, unavoidable, and clearly present force, affecting our lives on a daily level. In the text of Macbeth however, fate is presented as murky, ambiguous, and insubstantial
, and even as ultimately the linguistic creation of the witches wordplay
. The idea of equivocation, defined as intentionally making ambiguous, usually to mask or conceal something, is raised again and again, such as in the porters speech after Duncan’s death (2.3_1-20). The witches themselves are presented as doing little more than speaking in fantastic words and performing strange rituals, and are suggested to be tricksters and prankster
s, such as in the pranks they play on a pilots wife (1.3_4-11). They invoke imagery of air, “Hover through the fog and filthy air (1.1_13)”, “I’ll give thee a wind…And the very ports they blow,” which gives the witches that same insubstantial, invisible quality. Both the text’s careful distinctions from the traditional tragic model and the witches association with insubstantiality and linguistic play presents fate not as a powerful, all-reaching force, but as illusory and even the product of riddles and equivocation.
The preceding was an essay I wrote junior year in high school, not surprisingly, while we were reading Macbeth.