Sharon “Tragedy is an imitation of an action

Leigh G. Mercado                                                Literary Theories and Criticism

MAEd – Literature                                                              (Litt 501)

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4 May 2010




Noble Macbeth: An Aristotelian Tragedy




            Tragedy is a serious play in which the main character is
characterized to have some psychological weakness, thereby going through a
series of misfortunes that lead to his destructive end.  Aristotle in his Poetics posited that catharsis is the defining feature and
definitive end of any tragedy; to quote him he wrote


“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is
serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity eleos and fear
phobos effecting the proper purgation catharsis of these emotions” Book


according to him, tragedy is the complete re-making of a significant moral act.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth rightly
fits Aristotle’s criteria of making a successful dramatic tragedy and aptly
exemplifies the main principles of the making of this genre.


            The plot for Aristotle is the “soul of the tragedy” and
so his Poetics is devoted mostly to discussing the requirements, expectations
and the development of a good one. For him, plot must be a replica of a noble
and complete action. The complete action required by Aristotle, that is a
beginning, middle, and an end action, is satisfied by Macbeth’s respective placements of the tragedy. Thus, Aristotle
states more in his Poetics the
different parts to a tragedy: Prologue, Episode, Exodus, Choric songs and the
last part which is divided into two: Parodos and Stasimon. All of these are
found in Macbeth except for the
Choric songs; despite this lack, the play may still be considered Aristotelian
for the most part because it still adheres to Aristotle’s fundamentals of the
plot: that the actions and episodes are arranged into a ‘casually connected’,
seamless whole. The elements of action are exposition, inciting action, rising
action, turning point or climax, falling action and the denouement.  Macbeth adheres
to all these elements while presenting a new question every now and then to keep
the audience’s interest. This important part that keeps the audience in
attention is known as dramatic tension.


The three
witches supply the activating circumstance necessary to comply with Aristotle’s
requirement for a complete action: a disclosure and a reversal of action. Macbeth,
together with Banquo, meets the three witches who possess mystic powers to
predict the two men’s fate or future. The wicked sisters’ role is to act as the
forces of fate, leading Macbeth on to his own eventual destruction.  Still the prophecy stimulates Macbeth to
desire for the kingship; it is this ambition that leads him to his destruction
or downfall. When the audience finds out something concealed from them before
that is able to contribute in putting the pieces together, the point of
disclosure is now attained. This is also known as the point of realization. In
Act V, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth is found sleep walking, uttering words of
reassurance she gave her husband after they murdered Duncan and Banquo:


 “What need we fear who knows
it, when none can call our power to accompt?” (lines 40-2)


“I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried” (lines


The audience now realizes
that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are accomplices to the crime which later on
sought justice and eventually causing the downfall of the culprits. With
Macduff killing Macbeth the audience witnesses the last principle for
Aristotelian complete action which is the reversal of action. Macbeth is
characterized as driven by his corrupt ambition, a noble who will beat all odds
to satisfy his deepest desire and fulfill his ambition of becoming king even if
it means employing evil plots along the way. In the end his own ambition has led
to his downfall, his death. Similarly with the other lives he took he is murdered
and deceived. So far, a complete action is present in the play, a noble and
moral action which creates the foundation of the plot. However, what is noble
in this act? This noble action may be hinted from an issue of the culture of
Shakespeare’s time. The play was written during the Elizabethan era when
ambition was highly regarded a pious and admirable quality, one of nobility.  Essentially, therefore, the plot of Macbeth, as an imitation of action is
one of a noble and complete action.


On the
other hand, irony is another important element in Aristotelian tragedy and many
ironic statements can be found in the play. One of which is Macbeth’s murderous
act 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, has
brought about her death and when Macbeth learns of this dreadful thing the
words he speaks attest to the grief and despair he feels, even ironic. He brands
life 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 sound
and fury/ Signifying nothing” (Act V, Scene v, lines 26-8).


In his speech he says that
life is meaningless which is contradicted by the play as a whole. At that
moment Macbeth had just been recompensed for his evil acts, and the fact that
he and his wife are punished for their crime manifests the presence of a higher
good 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 the
playwright’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 witness
is something of a serious nature. The Encarta World English Dictionary defines
dramatic irony


“as the irony arising from
a situation, in which the audience has a fuller knowledge of what is happening
in a drama than a character does”


so this involves the audience’s attention and
draws their attention closer to the play.  This is exemplified in the play when King
Duncan and his party arrived at Macbeth’s castle they are unaware of the evil
plans being plotted against them. Their mood, lighthearted and joking, is
totally ironic to the audience since it knows what Macbeth is really up to as
evidenced also by Macbeth’s discourtesy of not greeting his guests honorably. Still
the dramatic irony is heightened with Duncan’s
abiding admiration for Macbeth as he said: “Conduct me to mine host: we lone him
highly/ And shall conduct our graces towards him.”  In the last part of the play, it is also
enriched by dramatic irony: Macbeth has become monstrously desperate and
pathetic. 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 better
of him in the end. Although he sees his doom already he can not accept it; he
continues to fight by talking about his charmed life too. His failure or
refusal to see what is clearly obvious makes the end of the play even more
gripping than the beginning.


Aristotle goes on to suggest
that the noble and complete action must be an imitation of fearful and pitiable
conditions. In relation to this, Aristotle asserts in his Poetics that


“A perfect tragedy should be
arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should imitate actions
which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic
imitation. It follows that the change of fortune presented must not be the
spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, for this
moves neither pity nor fear, it merely shocks us…for pity is aroused by
unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of a person like ourselves…there
remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is
not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice
or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly
renowned and prosperous…”

            Lastly, still in his Poetics, Aristotle describes the
characteristics of a tragic hero, “the character between these two
extremes…:” basically a good man of an elevated status of which Macbeth
clearly is at the beginning of the play as evidenced in the first act i.e. when
his courage was greatly praised, his exploits highly admired by King Duncan,
and he was referred to as ‘brave Macbeth’ and ‘noble Macbeth’. One of the
characteristic natures of the tragic hero according to Aristotle is the
reversal of fortune wherein the hero undergoes a change of circumstances from
prosperity (emotional and/or material) to adversity, known as the tragic fall
brought about by some hamartia,
roughly translated as ‘error in judgment’ or ‘tragic flaw’, that is some aspect
of the hero’s character which is praiseworthy but in itself is also
destructive. In Macbeth’s case his tragic flaw which led to his downfall is his


            Many playwrights including Shakespeare consider Aristotle’s
Poetics as the rule of thumb for a
well-written tragedy. For Aristotle, the plot is the most important element of
a tragedy because all the other elements, such as character, diction, and
thought, stem from the plot’s good foundation.



___. Shakespeare, William

Mendiola, V.L. KRITISISMO,
Teorya at Paglalapat. Rex Bookstore. 1994






















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