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How far does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth enable an audience to empathise with him as a tragic hero?

A-Level: English

Title:  How far does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth enable an audience to empathise with him as a tragic hero?
Description  How far does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth enable an audience to empathise with him as a tragic hero? According to Aristotle (Poetics, Aristotle) “Every great tragedy is dominated by a protagonist who has within himself a tragic flaw”, too much or too little of one of Aristotle's twelve virtues; a tragic hero must also evoke pity in the audience.
Word Count:  2000


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Macbeth appears first in the play as a military hero. King Duncan calls him “valiant cousin, worthy gentlemen”, “noble Macbeth”, “worthiest cousin”. He ends the play as a cruel tyrant, deserted by his soldiers and allies, and finally slain by Mcduff. The new king, Malcolm, viewing Macbeth’s severed head, dismisses him as “this dead butcher”.
As he journeys through the play from brave soldier to murderous tyrant, Macbeth is revealed as a deeply sensitive man, tortured by his imagination and his conscience. His wife believes him to be a good man (“too full o’th’ milk of human kindness”) and he knows that it is wrong to kill Duncan. He struggles to overcome his evil thoughts, but is tempted to criminality by the witches, by his wife’s pressure, and by his own ambition. He murders his way to the throne of Scotland, then arranges the killing of anyone he suspects to be his enemy.
Conflicting thoughts of good and evil constantly torment Macbeth (“O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”). But as he is drawn ever deeper into cruel and brutal actions he strives to harden his responses and to lose “the taste of fear”. Learning of his wife’s death, he reflects despairingly on the emptiness of life “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”.
He finally becomes aware that the Witches have misled him (“be these juggling fiends no more believed”). Even in his despair and weariness he determines to die bravely (“Blow wind, come wrack; / At least we’ll die with harness on our back”). He slays Young Siward and, coming face to face with Mcduff, still fights defiantly to the end although he realises he has met his nemesis (“Lay on Macduff, / And damned be him that first cries, ‘hold enough!’ ”). Whether Macbeth’s final words and actions represent heroic endurance or the snarling of a trapped animal is open for each reader to decide.


Lady Macbeth appears first as a supremely confident, dominant figure. She revels in the prospect of Macbeth becoming king, and calls on evil spirits to help her persuade him to kill Duncan. She urges him to use deception to cloak murderous intentions (“look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t”). When Macbeth’s resolve to do the murder slackens, she taunts his manhood, convincing him to do the deed. She becomes his active accomplice, even returning the bloody daggers to Duncan’s bed room when Macbeth fears to return them himself.
In Act three Lady Macbeth begins to feel the emptiness of their achievement, seeing only “doubtful joy”. She appears increasingly isolated and drained of energy as Macbeth moves away from her into his own troubled thoughts. She becomes more of an audience to Macbeth’s words, rather than his partner. Although she rallies at the disastrous banquet, she ends that scene displaying none of her earlier dominance over her husband. Shakespeare does not show Lady Macbeth’s decline into nervous breakdown and suicide, giving only one glimpse of that horrifying process: the torment she experiences in her sleepwalking.

Shakespeare use of metaphor and imagery to explore the themes within the play, are very evident, and relatively easy to ascertain for example: "Fair is foul and foul is fair.” This phrase is a metaphor that describes the state of affairs within Macbeth and within Scotland. Evil and sinister things have taken the place of all that is good and just. Macbeth is a tyrannous ruler who consorts with witches and "murders" sleep; the kind and venerable King Duncan and Banquo are brutally killed. In the midst of all of this, Inverness becomes a living hell for its inhabitants while Macbeth and his wife suffer from delusions and paranoia.
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