Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Macbeth, Tragic but no Tragedy

            Scotland in the 1050s was a scary place fraught with violence and political instability, or at least this is the image that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth would have us believe. The true essence of the tragedy in Macbeth lies not in the ultimate demise of the titular character but in the people he brings down along his rise to power. In this, Macbeth’s death is not the tragedy, but King Duncan’s is tragic. Macduff, who finally dispatches King Macbeth at the end of Act V can now be seen not as the antagonist but rather the protagonist. What Macbeth really indicates is how power can corrupt and how when that power is misused an entire society can come crashing down from its formerly lofty position. 
            It is commonly thought that Macbeth is the “Good guy,” but on close examination is he really? Throughout the entire play he does nothing but bring political turmoil, death, and destruction to Scotland. In the end his own hubris causes his demise. Thus the traditional view of Macduff as the antagonist must shift instead, to the just and noble agent of providence. So in this case the protagonist is not simply the main character, but rtather the one who does good—obviously this is Macduff. The antagonist must then be Macbeth who contributes nothing positive to the plot of the play. It was after all Macbeth who had several of his peers murdered so that he could keep the crown for himself. In short, Macbeth was a greedy and paranoid man who was in no way fit to rule. His rule caused several unnecessary deaths. This is where the tragedy lies within Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, not in the supposedly tragic figure that is Macbeth, but rather the entire situation of the ruling class of Scotland at the time.
            So why is Macbeth undeserving of our pity? He is a monster. Allow me to digress for a moment. In the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life, there is a sketch in which a morbidly obese Mr. Creosote abuses the wait staff of a restaurant to the point where he vomits on a woman cleaning the floor (which had been soiled by Mr. Creosote’s vomit). According to an essay by Noël Carroll that appeared in the book Monty Python and Philosophy, “He [Mr. Creosote] also resembles that slapstick comedy, the clown. The clown is not exactly human, the clown is either too fat or too tall, too thin or too short…he is a misporportioned human. Nor are his cognitive skills near the norm; generally he is too stupid…we can laugh at the way in which his body with its incongruities taunts our concept of the human…We need not fear for the clowns; nor in the standard case, need we fear clowns.” It is this same idea that can be applied to Macbeth. While in no way is Macbeth a humorous character, his inhumane activities allow us to not take pity on him at his demise. It is this realization that shifts the tragedy from Macbeth to the people of Scotland and makes the antagonist Macbeth instead of Macduff.
            When reading Macbeth it is important to keep in mind that things aren’t as they appear. It may seem as though he had little to do with his downfall and his rise and fall were unpreventable, but Macbeth caused—perhaps indirectly—everything that befell him. So with this notion Macbeth becomes the villain who while his intentions may have been positive—if only self-serving—he still in this notion is the antagonist. Much like Mr. Creosote we don’t have to pity Macbeth. He like Mr. Creosote in the end gets what he deserves. Why do we laugh at the scene with Mr. Creosote? Because he is not in our eyes human, much like the example of a clown isn’t human. Not only that but his treatment of the wait staff is so terrible that when he explodes at the end of the sketch it is humorous, not horrifying. Macbeth is the exact same example, while he is very much a human, his actions make it hard to pity him. Just as Mr. Creosote gets his comeuppance in a highly ironic fashion, Macbeth also gets his. He kills to become King. In the end he is also killed. After ruining several lives in what is Shakespear’s darkest play.
            So is Macbeth a tragedy? For Macbeth, no, for Scotland, yes. Macbeth is a prime example of how greed can corrupt. It also serves as warning for those who have too much pride as it was Macbeth’s hubris that allowed Macduff to kill him. The witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power were the only cause that spurred him to kill King Duncan. Had Macbeth never come across the Weïrd sisters he would have never heard the prophesy and thus never killed the rightful King. The death of Duncan and of Banquo and his son, and of the Macduff family is tragic. The death of Macbeth is a blessing. 


Hello, I'm Grant and I'm probably one of the least sarcastic people you could ever hope to meet. That aside I play the saxophone and piano and enjoy composing music. I enjoy discussing philosophy, especially existentialism which is not as depressing as you might think.

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