Macbeth Tragic Hero Essay


Macbeth Tragic Hero Essay (Excerpt)

At the height of his butchery Macbeth's dirge for life, the "poor player" (5.5.19-28) reveals "a mind diseas'd" by "a rooted sorrow" (5.3.40-41). His rage can be understood as a wild effort to counteract a wasting grief akin to Richard II's. Mocked by the prediction that Banquo will produce an undying race of kings, Macbeth has tried to empty the world of rivals for life. In fortified Dunsinane he finds himself staked like a bear (5.7.1), the marginal wood closing in to kill his ravenous appetite for life (5.5.43-45). Finally his delusion of immortality succumbs before a hero who appears to come from beyond nature: "I bear a charmed life which must not yield / To one of woman born" (5.8.12).

Unchecked, mourning directs aggression against the self or others. It becomes a disease, a self-perpetuating obsession that transforms the hero into a destroyer. Christians were working to control that obsession when they devised a Satan who has lost heaven and now exists to nullify others: a sadistic despot at the center of a tomblike, imprisoning city whose gate Christ will have to force open at the end of the world; and a scapegoat who can be happily repudiated.

In countless guises mourning may subvert the hero. No sooner does the princess of France free Navarre from symbolic entombment than she imprisons herself in sorrow. Just when she might reach for the fruits of autonomy she disables herself. Something comparable happens in As You Like It. Throwing off his "sadness" (1.1.5), the orphan Orlando rebels against his oppressive brother and finds a surrogate father in the Forest of Arden. But then, "Under an old oak, whose boughs were moss'd with age / And high bald with dry antiquity" (4.3.104-5)—imagery that evokes the lost father—Orlando spies his sleeping brother Oliver, who "doth seem as dead" (128). Fighting off a lioness, he raises Oliver from this doom as a new man. In the rescue Orlando gives up his own just rebellion and reconciles himself to patrimonial authority: behavior characteristic of mourning. For Hamlet in the ruthless Danish court such self-disablement becomes immobilizing, even suicidal.

In this perspective the quest to recreate or replace lost heroic authority is inescapably ambivalent. Hence Shakespeare's rhetoric of madness and wonder. Twelfth Night opens with an entire society immobilized. The deaths of father-heroes and intermediary brothers have blocked marriage and—given the duke's lovesickness—paralyzed Illyria's governance. Yet the way to recovery is through play-death.

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