Macbeth: His Tragic Flaw As the last of William Shakespeare's four great tragedies, Macbeth is a play based more on character than deed. Set in feudal Scotland, the play deftly develops each of the main characters, molding their traits and qualities into an intricate masterpiece surrounding Macbeth, the central character. The play is a journey along the life of Macbeth, capturing him at the apex of his career and following him until his just demise. What causes his sudden deterioration? How does this "worthy gentleman" regress into the ranks of amorality (I.ii.24)? One school of thought attributes Macbeth's degeneration to ambition. Although Macbeth is not lacking in that quality, there lies a greater force within his psyche. "Throughout the main action of Macbeth we are confronted by fear" (Knight 125). This fear permeates Macbeth--utter cowardice which drives his will into the sinful acts resulting in his regression.
Cowardice, not ambition, is the main and underlying factor which causes M! acbeth to kill Duncan, to murder Banquo and to seek the aid of the witches.
The murder of Duncan is roused more by fearful confusion than by Macbeth's "vaulting ambition" (I.vii.27). After hearing the witches' prophetic greeting, Macbeth is lulled into a "fantastical" state of mind (I.iii.139). He ponders regicide which "[s]hakes [his] single state of man that function / Is smother'd in surmise" (I.iii.140-41). During the events heralding Duncan's murder, Macbeth undergoes five changes of mind before deciding that "[they] shall proceed no further in [that] business" (I.vii.31). The hesitation to kill Duncan is the first symptom of Macbeth's fearful confusion.
What causes Macbeth to suddenly change his mind and kill Duncan? Macbeth is a weak man whose "dearest partner in greatness" is his wife (I.v.10). He values her opinion above all else. After rejecting the murder plan, Macbeth is the victim of a storm of insults from Lady Macbeth: Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem. (I.vii.39-43) His fear of her scorn augments the confusion within his "heat-oppressed brain", causing him to hesitantly agree to the conspiracy (II.i.39). Macbeth, too rapt within his own fear to maintain rational reasoning, becomes a pawn of his fear-born confusion, leaving his mind no other option than killing Duncan. Had the murder been caused by ambition, Macbeth would not have been so hesitant in his actions. He would have had a clear goal and saw a crown instead of the "air-drawn dagger" which was the "very painting of [his] fear" (III.iv.62-63). Therefore, Macbeth's regression is spurred by a fearful frenzy, not the over-ambitious plotting of a rational man.
Macbeth's fear sustains his murderous rampage as he plots the murder of Banquo and Fleance.
During every ascension, there exists a period of upheaval in which rulers must cleanse their land of those who may issue defiance against their reign. For Macbeth, Banquo becomes the epitome of this threat: To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature Reigns that which would be fear'd: 'tis much he dares, And, to that dauntless temper of his mind, He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour To act in safety. There is none but he Whose being I do fear; and under him My genius is rebuk'd. (III.i.48-56) Macbeth is wary of Banquo not because Banquo is a menace to the crown, but because Banquo is a reminder of his own corruption. Macbeth's regression feeds off fear; when there is nothing to fear, Macbeth conjures fear to satisfy his regressive appetite, "My strange and self abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use" (III.iv.142-43). Macbeth kills Banquo because his unquenchable fear alters Banquo into the "grown serpent" which he wrongly perceives as dangerous (III.iv.29).
Macbeth is also driven to murder because he is afraid to right his wrongs. Macbeth is "in blood/ Stepp'd in so far that . . . Returning were as tedious as go o'er" (III.iv.136-38). He is so afraid of losing his crown that he feels he must murder Banquo in order to hide his atrocities. Moreover, his deed is not motivated by the desire to safeguard the land or cleanse it of enemies. Obviously, this overwhelming display of fear contradicts the presumption that his actions are a result of ambition. Banquo presents no more harm than a garter snake; it is Macbeth's fear, not ambition, which perceives him venomous and therefore a threat to the land.
Lastly, cowardice is the driving force behind Macbeth's visit to the weird sisters. By this time, his life lacked the surety which gives comfort and assurance to one's life. "Macbeth's fear has driven him to seek certainty as his one objective. He wants certainty from the witches, howsoever they may come to know it, and at whatever cost" (Campbell 228). This fear of the unknown might be mistaken for ambition because it could be surmised that Macbeth sought the aid of the witches to become a more powerful king. However, fear is the predominant reason for his visit because he confirms his fears, instead of broadening his ambition for Macbeth reveals, "Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?" (IV.i.82). His fear is also evident because he believes every word of the witches instead of passing their revelations under heavy scrutiny as he did during their first encounter: and to be king Stands not within the prospect of belief, No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence You owe this strange intelligence? or why Upon this blasted heath you stop our way With such prophetic greeting? (I.iii.73-78) With such fear of the unknown, Macbeth no longer holds the skepticism which he once did. His fears are too great, and fueled by his desire for certainty, Macbeth believes every word of the witches. The naivetÃÂ© which Macbeth displays belies his ambition and betrays his fear, for ambitious leaders direct their future, as opposed to being directed by them.
Within every tragic hero, Shakespeare instills a tragic flaw. Macbeth's weakness in character is often considered to be the ambition which he seemingly shows. The lunge for the throne, the quest for security and the pursuit of metaphysical aid may all be the result of ambition. For Macbeth, these deeds represent the manifestations of another type of emotion--an equivocating emotion that mangles the rationality within Macbeth. His actions are dictated by this flaw; they are controlled by the imbalance of reason and confusion. One could argue that this imbalance is due to ambition, but a more suitable title for this elusive characteristic is fear. Paranoia is Macbeth's tragic flaw, manipulating his every thought, conforming him from a gallant warrior to a tyrannical king. Fear is always in ambition's shadow, never receiving the acknowledgment it deserves. Ironically, this taciturn flaw manifests in everyone, often causing a regression into amorality.
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Knight, G. Wilson. The Imperial Theme. London: Methuen & Co Ltd., 1965.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Works Consulted Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 1991.
Frame, Douglas. Night's Black Agents. Thunder Bay: La Mancha Books Ltd., 1967.
Hawkes, Terence. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Macbeth. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1977.
Hunter, G.K. "Macbeth in the Twentieth Century." Aspects of Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Merchant, W. Moelwyn. "His Fiend-like Queen." Aspects of Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
---. Coles Notes: Macbeth. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company, 1997.