Why We Sympathize with MacBeth
MacBeth fits all of the characteristics of a tragic hero. He is an important character in the play, has a character flaw (his ambition), has one good quality (at the start of the play he was noble and respected), has someone to tempt or persuade him to commit a crime
(Lady MacBeth and the witches), deserves his fate (MacBeth did not simply make a mistake, he committed a terrible crime – the murder of a king (and many others) is definitely frowned upon in Elizabethan times), and was punished for the crime (he was killed), which he has committed. MacBeth definitely is the tragic hero of ‘MacBeth.’
By giving him a good quality, the author creates sympathy for MacBeth. Philosophers, such as Aristotle, believed that the audience must feel sympathy for the tragic hero; otherwise, it was not considered a good play because the audience could not empathize with the tragic hero. MacBeth has a very good quality: his courage. He says:
“I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked.
Give me my armor.” 5, 3, 32-33
He says this even though he realizes he will die.
The tragic hero and everyone associated with him must die. MacBeth should die because he has committed both treason and a religious crime – he is killed by MacDuff. Lady MacBeth commits suicide towards the end of the play, and MacBeth’s followers are killed in the last battle of the play.
Furthermore, MacBeth causes pain and suffering to innocent parties, and, thus, fulfilling the very definition of a “tragic hero”. Readers feel sorry for MacBeth because of all the reasons that make a tragic hero.
In the beginning of the play MacBeth was certainly a military hero who was worthy of the praises and rewards bestowed upon him. Shakespeare described him in terms such as these:
“For brave MacBeth – well he deserves that name –” 1, 2,16
“O valiant cousin, worthy gentlemen.” 1, 2, 24
“What he hath lost, noble MacBeth hath won.” 1, 2, 67
MacBeth is portrayed as a brave and loyal soldier who fights for king and country. His only weakness is his ambition. When the witches prophesize that he is going to become Thane of Cawdor and afterwards king, MacBeth does not believe any of it. But when he later does become Thane of Cawdor he is hard put to ignore the prophecy as the first step in a seemingly unattainable goal has suddenly become within reach for him. Without the witches’ prophesy in his head it is very doubtful MacBeth would have acted the way that he did, the prophesy gives MacBeth the feeling that all the events are preordained and that even without any interference from him things would snowball to the end result anyway. Shakespeare makes you feel sorry for him in that MacBeth felt like he didn’t really have any choice in the matter; everything was out of his control.
When MacBeth hears of the witches’ prophesy the thought of killing his king is abhorrent to him:
“…Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs…” 1, 3, 134-135
Are less than horrible imaginings.” 1, 3, 136-137
The play lets you see that MacBeth is very reluctant to take any action towards him becoming king but with the witches’ prophesy and Lady MacBeth’s urging, cajoling, insulting and threatening he is under a lot of pressure to act accordingly.
Audiences feel sorry for MacBeth as he is tempted by the prospect of becoming king but at the price of murdering a man that had been very good and generous to him. MacBeth struggles with his morals and his conscience but in the end his ambition wins and he gives in to the evil urges.
“First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off.” 1, 7, 13-20
“… That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other – ” 1, 7,25-28
MacBeth had even decided not to murder the king however his wife and the witches were too much for him to handle so finally he succumbed to their combined pressures. Even though MacBeth murdered four people Shakespeare paints MacBeth as a man deeply troubled and tormented by his bloody deeds. MacBeth sees Banquo’s ghost and is deeply shaken by the encounter:
“Thou canst not say I did it; never shake
Thy gory locks at me!” 3, 4, 50-51
His guilty conscience tortures him. When he became king, MacBeth does not even get to enjoy it, he was tormented by guilt and ghosts created by his mind and his becoming king only brought him pain and suffering – this is all shown in the play and that’s why readers feel such sorrow for MacBeth. He had done so much yet never had the chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In the end MacBeth loses everything; he loses what he coveted the most and did anything and everything to get: the kingship, but more tragically he also loses interest in life itself:
“… Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.” 3, 2, 19-23
He even envies the peace of death that Duncan enjoys. Lady MacBeth kills herself and it does not even matter anymore to MacBeth. The irony of it was that he had everything that he’d ever wanted yet his life had becoming meaningless.
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
… It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” 5,5 23-26
The crux of the problem was the witches. Without the prophecies he would not have killed his king, he would not have ordered the murder of Banquo and MacDuff’s family and he would not have thought himself invincible and gone into battle only to get himself killed. It is not MacBeth’s actions that made him what he became but rather the actions of those around him i.e. Lady MacBeth. Throughout the whole play we are constantly reminded that MacBeth never made any decision by himself to do the things that he did. It is always the interference of someone else that had caused those things to happen. Readers feel the deepest sympathy for MacBeth who commits one horrific crime after another at the urgings of others when he would have been content to just being the Thane of Cawdor – and illustrious title in itself.
“We will proceed no further in this business…” 1, 1, 31
But most sad of all MacBeth is primarily the victim of his own ambition.
Another reason Shakespeare gives for us to feel sympathy for MacBeth is the fact that they cannot have children. MacBeth says to Lady MacBeth:
“Bring forth men-children only,
…Nothing but males…” 1, 7, 72-74
This shows how much MacBeth wants an heir. Yet Lady MacBeth is unable to give him any. This might be because of Lady MacBeth’s demand that the spirits “unsex” her so she is able to kill Duncan. Readers feel sorry for MacBeth about this because it is through no fault of his that he will not have any children.
Although MacBeth is certainly a villainous, evil man based solely on his actions, a fuller examination of his character’s portrayal leads to a more sympathetic view of him. The play does not portray MacBeth simply as a cold-blooded murderer, but rather as a tortured soul attempting to deal with the atrocities surrounding him. The main reason why readers would feel sorry for MacBeth would be that everything that had happened wasn’t really his fault. Lady MacBeth even kills herself because she couldn’t handle the guilt anymore – this is very sad for MacBeth, as they were very close in the play. Readers also feel sorry for him in that he lost the only person he trusted and was close to.
At the conclusion of the play the cruelest blow yet is dealt to MacBeth. The witches had informed him that ‘no man born of woman’ could kill him. He was lulled into a false sense of security so feels confident in going out to battle. What he does not know and does not find out until right before his death is that Macduff was born by Cesarean section – in Elizabethan times this was not considered natural, therefore not ‘born to a woman’. Readers can pity this man who had once been a loyal and trusted soldier serving his liege but instead became a “tyrant” and “butcher” who with his “fiend-like queen” committed regicide and other horrific murders to become king but end up lose everything he had.