Just saw a production of MacBeth. It was very well-done, but stirred up something that has always irked me about the play. Of all the classic tragic heroes, MacBeth is the only one for whom I have no sympathy. All the other protagonists in tragedies I can recall make poor decisions that ultimately bring about their own downfall, but each is first placed in an unfortunate circumstance that isn’t their fault. MacBeth, on the other hand, is about a man who has a great life and then actively ruins himself for completely unnecessary reasons.
Romeo and Juliet, forbidden from seeing each other, enact a plan to be together that gets them killed because of poor communication.
Hamlet goes too far seeking revenge for his father’s murder.
Othello is manipulated by a jealous (and probably racist) villain into killing his wife.
Titus Andronicus is similarly brought down by people who (albeit rightfully) hold a grudge against him.
Oedipus only kills his father and marries his mother because his parents, terrified by that prohecy, banish him as a baby and he doesn’t recognize them when he meets them later in life. He’s certainly an ass for killing the guy who turns out to be his father, and personally if I knew I was destined to marry my mother I would probably avoid marrying anyone older than me just to err on the safe side, but ultimately his parents were the catalysts for the situation.
Meanwhile, MacBeth has just been lavishly rewarded for his loyalty to the king when some weird-ass witches tell him that he’ll be king one day. He’s not sure he can trust them, but instead of just going on with his life, because if their predictions are true then he doesn’t really need to do anything extra to become king, he goes ahead and murders the king. Then he murders his own best friend to cover his tracks. Then the witches spin some more cryptic rhymes that convince MacBeth he’s invincible, but also tell him to watch out for MacDuff. Despite feeling that defeat is impossible, he has MacDuff’s entire family killed anyway. And while watching his empire crumble around him makes for some juicy drama, I can’t feel sorry for him in the least.
Fun side note: MacBeth is based on a true story but there it’s a pretty gross act of historical revisionism. The real MacBeth killed King Duncan in battle, not by stabbing him in his sleep, and was a beloved ruler for 14 years until Duncan’s son Malcolm took the throne back. Shakespeare’s play was commissioned by King James VI, who was descended from Malcolm, so it was in his best interest to make sure MacBeth was not well remembered.
This post owes a great debt to Chris Lysy, who informed me of the historical context, reminded me of the definition of “tragic hero,” and played a kickass MacBeth.