Macbeth is a tragic hero because a grave error of judgment and his own ambition cause him to murder Duncan, leading to chaos, destruction, and eventually his own death. According to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, the tragic hero must begin the play as a high status individual so that his fall from grace carries impact. Aristotle believed that since the aim of tragedy is to provoke intense emotion in the audience, that goal is more easily met by showing something terrible happen to a king or a noble man than by telling a tragic story about a shepherd or a farmer. Also, when a hero is of high status, his actions have repercussions for the whole community, such as disrupting line of inheritance of the throne. Macbeth begins the play as a wealthy and high status Scottish nobleman who has also just distinguished himself and earned the king’s favor due to his bravery and skill as a warrior. The audience initially admires him for his accomplishments, and can relate to his desire to be king, since ambition is a common human drive.
While a tragic hero begins as someone the audience can look up to, he is soon tempted to make a terrible mistake. Macbeth’s mistake is letting his ambition blind him to the immorality of murdering Duncan. Although he seems to have been a loyal subject, once the possibility of him becoming king comes up, he can’t resist the temptation to make this change in status happen. Macbeth has just achieved a rise in status through being made Thane of Cawdor, yet rather than being satisfied with the reward he has honorably achieved, he remains unsatisfied. Macbeth, does, however, hesitate a number of times before putting his plan into action. He initially tries to put thoughts about murdering Duncan out of his mind as soon as they come up. He resists his wife’s suggestions about seizing power. He even changes his mind about carrying out the plan and has to be talked back into it. Up to this point, he remains a sympathetic character. Most people have wanted something they didn’t have, or discovered, once they got it, that they wanted more. Most people have even fantasized about committing criminal or immoral acts to achieve a goal. Most people, however, do not commit murder. In watching Macbeth actually act on his fantasies, the audience vicariously lives out behavior they wouldn’t be capable of themselves.
Where Macbeth deviates from the audience is in his belief that he is special, invincible, and capable of getting away with things most ordinary men would not dare to attempt. In most people, ambition is tempered by morality and an understanding that actions have consequences. Macbeth, on the other hand, believes his ambition will not be checked by consequence. These delusions of grandeur are furthered by the supernatural elements of the play. The witches’ prophecies imply that Macbeth is simply living out a fate that has already been determined for him. It remains an open question at the end of the play whether Macbeth could have done anything to avoid his fate. While he clearly acted of his own free will and volition in killing Duncan, his choice to do so was heavily influenced by the witches and his wife’s urging. Had Macbeth not met the witches, or had he been married to a different woman, he might never have dreamed of becoming king. In this sense, his fate was unavoidable. Classic Greek tragedy relied heavily on fate and the will of the gods, so the use of the supernatural links Macbeth to Greek plays.
The use of a character who makes an initial mistake and then winds up being gradually corrupted as a result has continued to be popular in literature and film. John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost retells the Biblical story of creation. After Satan falls prey to his pride and ambition and rebels against God, he becomes more and more committed to further corruption and evil deeds. In later times, writers became interested in figures who cover up a first transgression with further evil acts. For example, in Matthew Lewis’s popular Gothic novel The Monk (1796) the title character breaks his vows of chastity, then breaks more vows trying to protect himself from being discovered. More recently, in the TV series Breaking Bad, the main character becomes a drug dealer to help his family, but gradually becomes corrupted by the actions he takes, and by his own greed. In all of these stories, characters fall prey to thinking of themselves as exceptional individuals for whom standard rules of morality do not apply. Likewise, Macbeth begins by thinking that his ambitions justify the means he uses to achieve them, and ends the play as a figure whose legacy is corruption and destruction.