Mercado Literary Theories and Criticism MAEd – Literature (Litt 501)4 May 2010 TheNoble Macbeth: An Aristotelian Tragedy Tragedy is a serious play in which the main character ischaracterized to have some psychological weakness, thereby going through aseries of misfortunes that lead to his destructive end. Aristotle in his Poetics posited that catharsis is the defining feature anddefinitive end of any tragedy; to quote him he wrote “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that isserious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity eleos and fearphobos effecting the proper purgation catharsis of these emotions” Book6.2). Furthermore,according to him, tragedy is the complete re-making of a significant moral act.William Shakespeare’s Macbeth rightlyfits Aristotle’s criteria of making a successful dramatic tragedy and aptlyexemplifies the main principles of the making of this genre. The plot for Aristotle is the “soul of the tragedy” andso his Poetics is devoted mostly to discussing the requirements, expectationsand the development of a good one. For him, plot must be a replica of a nobleand complete action. The complete action required by Aristotle, that is abeginning, middle, and an end action, is satisfied by Macbeth’s respective placements of the tragedy.
Thus, Aristotlestates more in his Poetics thedifferent parts to a tragedy: Prologue, Episode, Exodus, Choric songs and thelast part which is divided into two: Parodos and Stasimon. All of these arefound in Macbeth except for theChoric songs; despite this lack, the play may still be considered Aristotelianfor the most part because it still adheres to Aristotle’s fundamentals of theplot: that the actions and episodes are arranged into a ‘casually connected’,seamless whole. The elements of action are exposition, inciting action, risingaction, turning point or climax, falling action and the denouement. Macbeth adheresto all these elements while presenting a new question every now and then to keepthe audience’s interest. This important part that keeps the audience inattention is known as dramatic tension. The threewitches supply the activating circumstance necessary to comply with Aristotle’srequirement for a complete action: a disclosure and a reversal of action. Macbeth,together with Banquo, meets the three witches who possess mystic powers topredict the two men’s fate or future. The wicked sisters’ role is to act as theforces of fate, leading Macbeth on to his own eventual destruction.
Still the prophecy stimulates Macbeth todesire for the kingship; it is this ambition that leads him to his destructionor downfall. When the audience finds out something concealed from them beforethat is able to contribute in putting the pieces together, the point ofdisclosure is now attained. This is also known as the point of realization. InAct V, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth is found sleep walking, uttering words ofreassurance she gave her husband after they murdered Duncan and Banquo: “What need we fear who knowsit, when none can call our power to accompt?” (lines 40-2) and “I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried” (lines66-7).
The audience now realizesthat Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are accomplices to the crime which later onsought justice and eventually causing the downfall of the culprits. WithMacduff killing Macbeth the audience witnesses the last principle forAristotelian complete action which is the reversal of action. Macbeth ischaracterized as driven by his corrupt ambition, a noble who will beat all oddsto satisfy his deepest desire and fulfill his ambition of becoming king even ifit means employing evil plots along the way. In the end his own ambition has ledto his downfall, his death. Similarly with the other lives he took he is murderedand deceived.
So far, a complete action is present in the play, a noble andmoral action which creates the foundation of the plot. However, what is noblein this act? This noble action may be hinted from an issue of the culture ofShakespeare’s time. The play was written during the Elizabethan era whenambition was highly regarded a pious and admirable quality, one of nobility.
Essentially, therefore, the plot of Macbeth, as an imitation of action isone of a noble and complete action. On theother hand, irony is another important element in Aristotelian tragedy and manyironic statements can be found in the play. One of which is Macbeth’s murderousact itself, which can be due to his tragic flaw (hamartia) which is his ambition. It is to be recalled that Macbeth’s ambition, encouraged by his wife, hasbrought about her death and when Macbeth learns of this dreadful thing thewords he speaks attest to the grief and despair he feels, even ironic. He brandslife as a pathetic, strutting actor whose moment on stage is but brief.
Furthermore, he utters: “It is a tale/ Told by an idiot full of soundand fury/ Signifying nothing” (Act V, Scene v, lines 26-8). In his speech he says thatlife is meaningless which is contradicted by the play as a whole. At thatmoment Macbeth had just been recompensed for his evil acts, and the fact thathe and his wife are punished for their crime manifests the presence of a highergood which also gives a higher meaning to life.
Macbeth ironically embodies ambition and murder.Another related angle that brings this close to an Aristotelian tragedy is theplaywright’s use of dramatic irony with its integral stylistic component:diction. Aristotle emphasized that tragedies are to be presented in elevated,non-everyday language to alert the audience that what they are about to witnessis something of a serious nature.
The Encarta World English Dictionary definesdramatic irony “as the irony arising froma situation, in which the audience has a fuller knowledge of what is happeningin a drama than a character does” so this involves the audience’s attention anddraws their attention closer to the play. This is exemplified in the play when KingDuncan and his party arrived at Macbeth’s castle they are unaware of the evilplans being plotted against them. Their mood, lighthearted and joking, istotally ironic to the audience since it knows what Macbeth is really up to asevidenced also by Macbeth’s discourtesy of not greeting his guests honorably. Stillthe dramatic irony is heightened with Duncan’sabiding admiration for Macbeth as he said: “Conduct me to mine host: we lone himhighly/ And shall conduct our graces towards him.” In the last part of the play, it is alsoenriched by dramatic irony: Macbeth has become monstrously desperate andpathetic. Troops were sent to overthrow him with his own troops deserting him,yet he still places his confidence on the witches whose prophecy got the betterof him in the end. Although he sees his doom already he can not accept it; hecontinues to fight by talking about his charmed life too. His failure orrefusal to see what is clearly obvious makes the end of the play even moregripping than the beginning.
Aristotle goes on to suggestthat the noble and complete action must be an imitation of fearful and pitiableconditions. In relation to this, Aristotle asserts in his Poetics that “A perfect tragedy should bearranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should imitate actionswhich excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragicimitation. It follows that the change of fortune presented must not be thespectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, for thismoves neither pity nor fear, it merely shocks us…for pity is aroused byunmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of a person like ourselves…thereremains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who isnot eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by viceor depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highlyrenowned and prosperous…” Lastly, still in his Poetics, Aristotle describes thecharacteristics of a tragic hero, “the character between these twoextremes..
.:” basically a good man of an elevated status of which Macbethclearly is at the beginning of the play as evidenced in the first act i.e. whenhis courage was greatly praised, his exploits highly admired by King Duncan,and he was referred to as ‘brave Macbeth’ and ‘noble Macbeth’. One of thecharacteristic natures of the tragic hero according to Aristotle is thereversal of fortune wherein the hero undergoes a change of circumstances fromprosperity (emotional and/or material) to adversity, known as the tragic fallbrought about by some hamartia,roughly translated as ‘error in judgment’ or ‘tragic flaw’, that is some aspectof the hero’s character which is praiseworthy but in itself is alsodestructive. In Macbeth’s case his tragic flaw which led to his downfall is hisambition.
Many playwrights including Shakespeare consider Aristotle’sPoetics as the rule of thumb for awell-written tragedy. For Aristotle, the plot is the most important element ofa tragedy because all the other elements, such as character, diction, andthought, stem from the plot’s good foundation. References:www.online-literature.com___. Shakespeare, WilliamMendiola, V.L. KRITISISMO,Teorya at Paglalapat.
Rex Bookstore. 1994