Macbeth: Aristotelian TragedyKim BlairPer.5Interpretive TestThe definition of tragedy in an excerpt from Aristotle’s “Poetics” isthe re-creation, complete within itself, of an important moral action.
Therelevance of Aristotle’s Poetics to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth defines themaking of a dramatic tragedy and presents the general principles of theconstruction of this genre.Aristotle’s attention throughout most of his Poetics is directed towardsthe requirements and expectations of the plot. Plot, ‘the soul of tragedy’,Aristotle says, must, be an imitation of a noble and complete action.InMacbeth, Shakespear provides a complete action, that is it has what Aristotleidentifies 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 theChorus.
The Episode is that entire part of a tragedy which is between completechoric songs. The Exodos is that entire part of a tragedy which has no choricsong after it. Of the Choric part the Parodos is the first undivided utteranceof the Chorus.” Shakespeare follows this precise arrangement of parts to tellhis story of Macbeth.
Macbeth is divided into five acts. It contains aPrologue, Episode, Exodus, Parodos and Stasimon, but is the only one ofShakespeares plays that does not include Choric songs. This does not dismissMacbeth as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, because it still followsAristotle’s fundamental component of a plot. That the arrangement of actionsand 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.
Macbethfollows each of these steps while introducing a new question every moment thatkeeps our interest. That is called dramatic tension, a very important part of atragedy: to keep the audiences attention at all times.To make Macbeth’s plot a complete action, according to Aristotle, thestory must contain an activating circumstance, a disclosure, and a reversal ofaction. The activating circumstance in Macbeth is the three witches. Macbethand Banqou meet three witches that posses supernatural powers and predict thetwo men’s futures.
It is part of the wicked sisters’ role in the play to act asthe forces of fate. These hags lead Macbeth on to destroy himself. Theirpredictions are temptations of Macbeth’s. They never tell Macbeth he has to doanything, and nothing the witches did forced him to commit the murderous acts hedid.
But their prophecies stimulated his desire for kingship and intensifiedhis ambition which is the characteristic that led to his downfall. Thedisclosure is the point in the play in which the audience finds out somethingthey did not know before, that enables them to put the pieces of the tragedytogether. It’s the point of realization.
In Act V scene 1, Lady Macbeth isfound sleep walking muttering the lines of reassurance she gave her husbandafter they murder of Duncan and Banqou, “What need we fear who knows it, whennone 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 theaudience in that scene and it becomes apparent that it was Macbeth’s and LadyMacbeth’s own evil actions that destroyed themselves. The last guideline of anAristotelian complete action is the reversal of action. This occurs whenMacduff kills Macbeth. Throughout the play Macbeth, driven by his corruptambition, 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 endsin the same way he took the other lives, through murder and deception. Statedabove, Aristotle says, the plot of a Tragedy must be an imitation of a noble andcomplete action. Macbeth follows Aristotle’s expectations of a complete action.Shakespeare’s Macbeth also contains a noble and moral action that creates thefoundation of the plot. Whether Shakespeare provides a nobel action, however,is an issue of the culture of his time. Macbeth was written during theElizabethan age where ambition was highly regarded.
Ambition was and is a piousand 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 anobel and complete action, irony is one of the most important elements whenimitating an action. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth there are many ironic statementsregarding the action of murder due to Macbeth’s hamartia (tragic flaw), which ishis ambition.
Macbeth’s hamartia (ambition) encouraged by Lady Macbeth resultedin her death and when Macbeth hears of her death his words are inspired by griefand despair and full of irony. He calls life a pathetic, strutting actorbriefly on a stage, and then says: “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full ofsound and fury/ Signifying nothing” Act V, scene v, lines 26-28. Macbeth’sspeech says that life is meaningless, but the play as a whole says just theopposite. 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 isproof of a higher good which gives meaning to life.
In Macbeth the action ofmurder and ambition are often referred to in an ironic manner (shown above) butwhat draws this play so close to Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy isShakespeare’s use of dramatic irony. Integral to Aristotle’s notion of tragedywas its stylistic component: its diction. Aristotle stated that tragedies areto be written in elevated, non- everyday language to alert the audience to theseriousness of what they are about to see. Dramatic irony is a very poignantexample of this theory. Dramatic irony is present when the audience knowssomething the characters, or some of the characters, do not, this involves theaudience and draws their attention. When Duncan and his party arrive atMacbeth’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 arereally walking into. The scene-by-scene analysis for Act I scene vi, detailsthe use of dramatic irony when Duncan realizes that Lord Macbeth isn’t there togreet him, which is very discourteous but still treats Macbeth with greatadmiration, “Conduct me to mine host: we lone him highly/And shall conduct ourgraces 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. Tenthousand 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 suggestionthat 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 (orrefusal) to see what is obvious to us makes the end of the play much morepowerful than it would be otherwise.Aristotle further states that the noble and complete action must be animitation of fearful and pitiable incidents. It is important to define fearfuland pitiable action in Aristotle’s own words before continuing to support alater point.
Aristotle states; “A perfect tragedy should be arranged not on the simple but on thecomplex plan. It should imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this beingthe distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows that the change of fortunepresented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity toadversity, for this moves neither pity no fear; it merely shocks us. Nor thatof a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity, for nothing can be more aliento me spirit of tragedy; it possesses no tragic quality, it neither satisfiesthe moral sense, no calls forth pity or fear.
Nor should the downfall of theutter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would doubtless, satisfy themoral sense, but it would inspire neither pity no fear, for pity is aroused byunmerited 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 noteminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice ordepravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renownedand prosperous…
“According to Aristotle, the expectation of a tragedy consists of the arousal ofthe emotions of pity and terror in the audience. He also states that “pity andfear are related to action and character.” We have already detailed thecorrelations between the plot(action) in Macbeth and Aristotle’s “Poetics”, now,we must determine if the character Macbeth is a tragic hero according toAristotle’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 twoextremes…”. Basically a good man of elevated stature: if he’s evil, his fallwon’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 theplay there is strong evidence that Macbeth is a good man. In Act I, Scene iihis 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 suchdiction as “brave Macbeth” and “noble Macbeth”.
One of the essential natures ofa tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is the Reversal ofFortune. The hero must undergo a change of fortune from prosperity (emotionaland/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 deservedretribution for evil deeds, but from some hamartia, variously translated as’error in judgment’ or ‘tragic flaw’: that is, some aspect of the hero’scharacter that in itself is praiseworthy–but in excess, destructive. Macbethgains sympathy from the audience due to his demeanor in the beginning of theplay. He relates to the listeners from his reaction to the witc