Before I begin my discussion on tragic heroes, I want to let everyone know that I will be offering a FREE online writing workshop beginning June 14 based on The Secret Language of Stories.
Details and sign up will be available in April.
For a breakdown of the system visit my blog.
Macbeth and the Tragic Hero’s Journey
I’m often asked if the hero’s journey plot analysis works for all types of stories, such as those involving tragic heroes, so I thought I’d try it out on one of the most famous tragic heroes in literature – Macbeth. Macbeth is often taught in high school English courses during junior year, making it a pertinent story to analyze.
A tragic hero is a character who starts out with great promise. He is usually of noble heritage and held in high esteem by his peers, but a tragic flaw causes a fall from grace. At some point in the story, the tragic hero realizes he has made an irreversible error in judgement that will lead to his doom, but he faces his demise with honor.
Ordinary World – Duncan, the king of Scottland is at a military camp when he receives the news that Macbeth and Banquo, two of his generals, have defeated invading armies, one from Norway and one from Ireland.
Call and Response- On their way to meet with the king after their victories, Macbeth and Banquo come across three witches in a moor. The witches speak in riddles telling Macbeth that he will be made Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. They also proclaim that Banquo’s offspring will rule Scotland, though he himself will never be king. Both men are skeptical until they receive the news that Duncan has in fact named Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth starts to wonder if the other parts of the prophecy might be true and what would be required of him to make it come to pass.
Macbeth starts out as brave and noble but the witches prophecy brings out the fatal flaw that make him a tragic hero – his desire for power and position and his ultimate willingness to do anything to succeed.
Mentors, Guides & Gifts- Macbeth tells his wife, Lady Macbeth, of the witches and their prophecy and confides his misgivings about the possibility that he might have to commit murder to actualize the prediction. In the beginning, Lady Macbeth shares none of his hesitation and tells him he must kill King Duncan that very night while he is a guest in their home.
Macbeth’s reluctance and guilt are demonstrated through various hallucinations, the first and most memorable being the famous floating dagger. Although Macbeth does appear to have a conscience, it is not developed enough to keep him from committing murder. When he shows hesitancy, his wife challenges his manhood, thus propelling him to dark deeds.
Crossing- Macbeth gets the chamberlains drunk and then proceeds to stab Duncan to death. The next morning he blames the chamberlains for the murder of the king and kills them in a rage, supposedly to avenge the king’s death. This action represents crossing a line that cannot be uncrossed. Once the king's body is discovered, Macbeth forges ahead toward his goal, putting aside all of his previous reservations.
New World- Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee fearing that whoever killed their father will come after them next. This has the result of casting suspicion on them for possibly hiring the chamberlains to kill Duncan. All of the lords, except for Macduff, agree to name Hamlet king. Macduff returns to his own castle rather than going to the coronation, thus arousing suspicion and fear in Macbeth.
Problem, Prize, & Plan- Once Macbeth enters the world of murder and intrigue, he must commit other murders to secure his position. Fearing the part of the prophecy that claimed Banquo’s heirs would rule Scotland, Macbeth plots to send men to kill both Banquo and his son, Fleance. Although Lady Macbeth encouraged the murder of Duncan, she falters at the suggestion of more killings.
Midpoint Attempt- The killers are successful in murdering Banquo, but Fleance escapes. The prize of kingship feels tentative to Macbeth with Fleance still alive. The noblemen arrive for the banquet celebrating Macbeth's coronation, but he becomes distraught when the ghost of Banquo appears sitting in his chair. His bizarre behavior makes the noblemen begin to doubt his sanity and his ability to rule Scotland.
Downtime- Macbeth goes to the witches for counsel and they give him a false sense of security by telling him he will be safe until Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane Castle. They give further false hope by proclaiming that Macbeth is incapable of being harmed by any man born of woman.
Chase & Escape- Macduff goes to England to meet up with Prince Malcolm and ask for assistance from King Edward to fight Macbeth. Feeling invincible, Macbeth orders his men to take over Macduff’s castle and kill Lady Macduff as well as her children. This action marks the total moral and mental disintegration of Macbeth since Lady Macduff and her young son are no real threat to him. When Macduff finds out of this treachery, he swears revenge and proceeds to Scotland with Malcolm and the English army to confront Macbeth.
Death & Transformation- Lady Macbeth descends into madness, wanders the castle, and claims she has blood on her hands that cannot be washed away. Macbeth prepares for the coming battle feeling secure because of the witches visions. He hears a cry and is informed that Lady Macbeth is dead.
Climax- In spite of his despair, Macbeth prepares for battle, still believing he is invincible, but when he hears that the English are using boughs cut from Birnham Wood to shield themselves as they approach Dunsinane Castle, he realizes that the witch’s twisted prophecies have really hinted at his doom. While fighting Macduff, Macbeth proclaims the man cannot kill him because no one “of woman born,” has the power to harm him. Macduff reveals that he was not "of woman born" but was actually "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. He then proceeds to kill Macbeth.
Reward- Macduff cuts off Macbeth’s head, displaying it like a war trophy, and proclaims Malcolm king of Scotland. Malcolm states that he is adopting the English system of peerage and is turning all of his thanes into earls. They are all invited to the coronation ceremony. Everyone is a winner, except of course, Macbeth and his wife.
In the end, everyone gets his (or her) just reward.