Macbeth Fatal Flaw Essay Scholarships

Essay/Term paper: Macbeth's tragic flaw

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"(Sometimes a tragic hero is created, not through his own villainy),
but rather through some flaw in him, he being one of those who are in high
station and good fortune, like Oedipus and Thyestes and the famous men of
such families as those." (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. In Macbeth, by William
Shakespeare, Macbeth, a great Scottish general and thane of Glamis, has just
won an important battle, when he is told by three witches that he will become
thane of Cawdor and then king of Scotland. After Macbeth is given Cawdor by
King Duncan, he takes the witches words for truth and conspires against
Duncan with his wife. When Duncan comes to Macbeth's castle that night,
Macbeth kills him and takes the crown for himself after Duncan's sons flee
from Scotland. Then Macbeth reigns for a while, has several people killed,
and is eventually slain by Macduff when he and Malcolm return leading the
armies of England. Often people read the play and automatically conclude
that Macbeth's tragic flaw is his ambition; that he is compelled to commit
so many acts of violence by his lust for power. However, by carefully
examining the first act, one can determine the defect in Macbeth's character
that creates his ambition; his true tragic flaw. Macbeth's tragic flaw is
not his ambition as most people believe, but rather his trust in the words of
the witches and in his wife's decisions.
At the beginning of the play Macbeth has no designs on the throne,
and he does not start plotting until his wife comes up with a plan. When
first faced with the witches' words, Macbeth expresses astonishment and
disbelief rather than welcoming them when he says, " be King stands not
within the prospect of belief, no more than to be Cawdor...."(1.3.73-75).
When confronted with the witches' proclamation that he is to be king, Macbeth
responds as a loyal subject would; not as a man with secret aspirations in
his heart. He has no reason to hide his true feelings at this point so
therefore it can be assumed that Macbeth has not yet truly considered killing
the king. Even after the first of the witches' predictions comes true,
Macbeth does not plot against the king but instead decides to leave it to
chance. "(Aside) If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir."(1.3.143-144). Macbeth has already been granted the title
of thane of Cawdor, but still he acts as though a loyal subject would. His
lack of ambition is stressed here by the fact that the actor is speaking the
thoughts of the character rather than words that the character says aloud.
It is Macbeth's wife that decides to convince her husband to kill Duncan
after she has learned what has happened, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and
shalt be what thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o'
the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way."(1.5.14-17) Lady
Macbeth is saying that her husband is too kind to kill the king but that he
will get what has been promised to him. She goes on to say that she will
bring him around to her way of thinking. So obviously, Macbeth himself is
not excessively ambitious, he has no desire to kill Duncan until Lady Macbeth
plants the thought within his heart.
Macbeth's true tragic flaw, the force behind his ambition, is his
gullibility, his willingness to trust the witches and his wife; no matter
how terrible their ideas may be. By the end of the fourth scene Macbeth is
already beginning to acknowledge the witches' words as truth after Malcolm
becomes Prince of Cumberland, the heir to throne, "(Aside) The Prince of
Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down or else o'erleap, for
in my way it lies."(1.4.48-50) Less than a day has passed, and already
Macbeth is beginning to believe in the words of the witches, Satan's
representatives on Earth. Despite centuries of tradition that tells Macbeth
that witches are evil, and therefore lie, he is already thinking that what
they say is true. While talking with his wife about her plans, Macbeth says,
"We will proceed no further in this business..."(1.7.31), and then, less than
fifty lines later, they are working out the details of their nefarious
scheme. Macbeth quickly accedes to his wife's wishes, displaying his
willingness to trust his destiny in the hands of others. If Macbeth had not
placed so much trust in his wife and in the witches, perhaps he would not
have become ambitious and killed a man he loved and admired. His gullibility
is his true tragic flaw as it is the cause of his ambition and the weakness
that allows evil to take root in his soul.
Macbeth's ambition is not the fatal flaw within his character, but
rather that which leads to his ambition; his trustful nature. This is
evident in that he does not desire the throne until after he finally accepts
the predictions of the witches as truth; and he does not want to kill the
king until after his wife convinces him that he should. If Macbeth had not
trusted the emissaries of Satan, then he never would have considered killing
Duncan and would have been satisfied with being thane of Glamis and Cawdor.
And if he had not trusted his wife, Macbeth would not have killed a man he
loved and revered, an act that eventually led to his downfall. Not everybody
in this world can be trusted, there are too many people who are only looking
out for their own best interests. While one should not become paranoid and
trust nobody, lest they become cut off from society, safeguards must be
established against these fraudulent people so that they cannot take
advantage of an unprepared populace.


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1. These salient features are summarized from James Hutton's survey in the introduction to his edition of the Poetics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 29-31. Back to text

2. Marvin Theodore Herrick, The Poetics of Aristotle in England (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1930), 52-3. Back to text
3. This simplification of course ignores the "influences" of Roman writers, especially of Seneca, but the point is that even Thomas Kyd absorbed the "Senecan elements" so thoroughly into his English sensibility that The Spanish Tragedy has little about it that one would call essentially "classical." It is typical of the English dramatists to dress their borrowings in native habit. Back to text
4. The Plays of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson and George Stevens, 15 vols. (London, 1793), 1:192. Back to text
5. Herrick, 75. Back to text
6. Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 24. This is the most recent and accessible reprint. Back to text
7. The Advancement of Learning and The New Atlantis (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 7. Back to text
8. Harry Levin, The Overreacher (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952; Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 110. Back to text
9. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 118. Back to text
10.Dr. Faustus, edited by Roma Gill (New York: Hill & Wang, 1965), Prologue, 22. Back to text
11. Dollimore, 114. Back to text
12. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965), 861. Back to text


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