Macbeth is an epic tragedy inspiring pity and remorse because the hero, though flawed, is also shown to be human. The play portrays a journey of self-discovery and awareness as both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pass from happiness to misery. Their punishment is well deserved but the retributive price is enormous.
Evil, both internal and external corrupts their minds, distorting their positive traits and exaggerating their worst. Both fall victim to ‘vaulting ambition’, pride and greed, tempting them to acts of treason and betrayal of friends, kinsman and the nation itself. Warfare on the battlefield mirrors the metaphorical warfare being played out between the forces of good and evil within them.
Spurred by ambition, supernatural solicitation and by the taunting of his wife, Macbeth deliberately chooses to embark on what he knows to be an evil course. From the moment he listens with ‘rapt’ attention to the witches, he allows himself to be drawn further and further into a vision of hell. The audience accompanies him into a morass of nightmares, ghosts, bloody visions and false prophecies. Abnormal conditions of mind such as insanity, sleep walking and hallucinations demonstrate his moral and emotional decline.
We are given insight into their feelings of agitation, anxiety, fear, determination and regret which minimises the horror of the murder. Macbeth’s soliloquies voice his inner thoughts, making him an object of pity as well as a fascinating portrait of evil. A psychological change takes place as we witness the valiant general become a ruthless murderer. Although conscious of this evil transformation, he cannot resist the process. Ambition has become a powerful drug, usurping his reason and will as he lurches towards personal disaster. Brutality hardens him and his misrule brings suffering and chaos to Scotland.
Macbeth exhibits many of the traditional attributes of a tragic hero. Courage, determination, intelligence and moral awareness are clearly evident in his actions in the early scenes. His reputation is high and he holds a noble, aristocratic position of power and influence. He is introduced as a courageous general, worthy of respect and honour, brave, valiant, noble, imaginative, kind, ambitious, loving and artless. ‘Brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name.’ He is ambitious for public acclaim, recognition and wants to appear great and admirable, as he says:
‘... I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.’
He is willing to murder Duncan but shrinks from the recriminations and pity it will bring upon him. He hesitates not so much from a troubled conscience or moral scruples but because he knows the King is loved and considered virtuous. Lady Macbeth accuses him of unmanly cowardice which goads him into action. She boldly mocks and ridicules his fears and Macbeth cannot bear to be scorned and baited as a coward by the woman he loves.