Macbeth – a Tragedy?

Our culture was, without any doubt, heavily influenced by the ancient Greek that where the basis of most things that seem to be European today. One part of their great legacy is their theater, which is the ground not only the Romans but also the rest of our ancestors built their tradition of drama upon. Another important role in the history of drama played the Greek wise men, who where the first to categorize and analyze it. Great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, among a lot of other important men, wrote about drama, its structure and purpose.

Since this time plays are distinguished into tragedies and comedies. Both have a lot in common but there are also heavy differences between them, which makes a differentiation necessary. The general structure remained very similar since then, and that is why it is possible to use the ancient theories on modern or medieval dramas.

The question that is going to be answered in the following lines is whether Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth is a tragedy or not. It will be analyzed, with the criteria that where given by Aristotle to answer this question.

One of the most basic characteristics of a tragedy is the fact that it somehow imitates an action that could have happened [mimesis]. And that is exactly what Shakespeare does here. He imitates a (sad) story that could have happened, according to a medieval understanding of the world. He creates something that seems more or less real to the audience, and that creates an effect of immersion, that leads to the catharsis.

Aristotle makes clear that the plot is the very heart of a tragedy. He even says that “[…] a tragedy is impossible without action, but there may be one without Character1. That simply means that the main action, in this case the murder of king Duncan, is the thing that matters, and not that the character Macbeth is somehow involved. The deed could be done by any other person, the sin would be the same. In this case, though, the appearance of Macbeth, who was a real person, makes the immersion more intense. The use of historical characters in drama makes it easier to understand their connection and the plot in general. This strategy was used long before, but the Greek dramatists rather used mythological figures than historical persons. Aristotle describes this behavior of the poets like this: “In Tragedy, however, they still adhere to the historic names; and for this reason: what convinces is the possible […]”.2 As long as the plot seems somehow plausible to the audience, it works.

Aristotle describes in his “Poetics” the form an ancient tragedy: “Prologue, Episode, Exode, and a choral portion […]”.3 This division doesn’t really fit the form that a Shakespearean play has, because there are no choral parts. In a tragedy, like Aristotle describes it, such a chorus is necessary to divide the drama into several parts of action. This is clearly a difference between the ancient and the medieval style of drama.

The action that takes place in a tragedy should somehow change the nature or the fortune of a person. Aristotle describes the perfect main character as “ […] the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement4. In case of Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth is the one who turns his own fortune into misfortune by making the wrong decision to kill Duncan. It could be sad that the witches and his wife had a strong influence on him, and that he was steered by evil, but he always hesitated until he finally made his decision. It seems like he always had the choice to let Duncan live.

The main purpose of a tragedy is the catharsis, which means an emotional cleansing of the audience. To achieve this, a drama must contain incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions5, as Aristotle described it in his work “Poetics”. The question is, whether Shakespeare managed to fulfill this criteria or not.

Since ancient times murder was an outlawed action, but murdering the king in order to reach the top of the medieval hierarchy was one of the worst sins a person could commit in Shakespearean time. Not only does Macbeth kill the leader of the Scottish society but he also breaks the great chain of being. A violation like this will not only cause one dead king, but will also bring chaos to the world. In their medieval understanding, this action, will lead the world to great evil. Macbeth does not only kill the king, but he also murders a lot more people and becomes a tyrant. There are many incidents that arouse pity and fear. This enables, if Aristotle is right, a catharsis that will have a positive effect on the audience. By feeling what happened to the characters on stage, the audience is able to free themselves from bad emotions.


According to Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, Macbeth has to be one. The drama may lack the ancient structure, but the themes and the purpose are still the same. Shakespeare tells a story that could have happened like this, and it is all about the self-caused misfortune of a man who once had a golden future. All this has an emotionally cleansing effect on the audience and in the end everybody should have learned something: From the fact that killing kings is an evil deed, to the most likely fate of a ruler who becomes a tyrant, there always should be some kind of knowledge that can be used in the future.


1; section 6, line 16

2; section 9, line 6

3; section 12, line 2

4; section 13, line 10-11

5; section 6, line 3