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Friday, April 1, 2011

A PERSONAL ANALYSIS: How Shakespeare Exhibits the Qualities of a Tragedy in MACBETH, Based on Aristotle’s “Poetics.”

According to Aristotle in “Poetics,” the characteristics of tragedy should be found in the totality of a tragic play or story. First, a tragedy should be an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. And that this seriousness is essentially a moral seriousness. Such definition perfectly fits Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” which is also referred to as “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which has a serious story and a complete plot that is centered on tragedy. Especially if the actors portraying “Macbeth’s” characters are very good in all acting aspects, a live play or a movie of this story will have a powerful impact on the viewers. In this regard, a live play onstage is more moving; very good actors can leave the audience holding their breath in every scene. “Macbeth’s” seriousness is a moral one, due to the lead character Macbeth’s evolution from being an honest and respectful man to being a heartless killer, because of his selfish desire to be the king, due to the “prophecy” he had heard from the three witches, as stated in this line from the story: The Witches address Macbeth as Glamis, Cawdor, and King of the Scots. Macbeth is startled by what he sees clearly as a prophecy that he will be Scotland's next ruler. 
       Second, Aristotle said, a tragedy must be essentially dramatic rather than narrative, in a very effective way that the audience, composed of people from all walks of life and of different ages, should “relate” to the story, thus eventually providing relief or katharsis for various emotions, primarily pity and fear.. Because tragedy is essentially dramatic, its basis cannot be the depiction of character, as Aristotle points out, one cannot have a tragedy without action, but a tragedy without character study is quite feasible. In this connection, Shakespeare had effectively manifested essential drama rather than narration in his “Macbeth.” The first time the lead character Macbeth had killed, when he murdered Duncan, he stared at his hands that were full of blood: What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes! / Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red. Composed of different acts and scenes, emotions overflow with much drama, and later, action, from the start of the play wherein Macbeth was first depicted as an honorable Scottish general who slowly became evil. He evolved from being a kind-hearted man to being a ruthless killer, with his wife’s consent. Act per act and scene per scene, the readers or audience would definitely feel pity for Macbeth’s victims. Meanwhile, they would also fear such man’s evil mind and personality that he tried to keep secret. Then, all throughout the play, the action gains strength, and it is this action as a whole that mainly takes the audience at the edge of their seats.
       Third, the notion of action is central to Aristotle’s view on tragedy because it underlies the other components and features, which include plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. “Macbeth” is not a boring story despite its length and deep language or words because it has a strong notion of action, even if most action parts are of the main character’s evil deeds. The effectiveness of the characterizations as laid out by Shakespeare causes the readers, viewers, or audience to really despise the evilness of Macbeth and his wife, and pity their victims, and all of these are due to the central focus on action, just like when The night has been unruly: where we lay, / Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, / Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death, / And prophesying with accents terrible / Of dire combustion and confused events / New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird / Clamored the livelong night: some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.  Subsequently, from this action notion sprouted the superb plot, the powerful character, as well as the flawless diction, thought, spectacle, and song. About the “song” aspect, this extends a huge impact when “Macbeth” is watched as a play or a movie wherein the specialized theme song and the other songs created for the play or movie all the more add to the story’s strengths.
       Fourth, the element of tragedy which imitates human actions is not primarily the depiction of character but the plot, which Aristotle calls the “first principle” and the “soul of tragedy.” This means that a tragedy becomes effective as it is if the story is focused not on the characters but on the plot which is the soul of tragedy. This is comparable to a human whose heart gives life, whilst the soul gives meaning to such life. In “Macbeth,’ just like in any other tragedy, the characters are the “heart” while the plot is the “soul.” However, this does not mean that the depiction of character is not important; it is important, just like the “heart,” but only secondary to the plot which is the “soul” or and as what Aristotle labeled it, “the first principle.” In general, a lousy plot will not make the audience support or patronize the story no matter how well each character portrayal is. This scenario is very much experienced these days when even some top actors do their best in a movie that has a poor plot, such movie flops at the box office. This is because the viewing public prefers to watch a combination of a nice movie with an interesting plot plus top actors rather than top actors in a lousy story. On one hand, if there is indeed a nice plot, it must have twists, ups and downs, and change in fortune that is usually from good to bad, for the plot to become tragic, a tragedy.
       Fifth, tragedy is not a representation of men or of character; rather, it represents a sphere of “action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of action.” The story of “Macbeth” has a strong cast of characters, but, like the figures of speech, each major character in the story does something that further represents something deeper. And this deepness all the more creates interest in the tragedy. Meanwhile, there are also occurrences and items that are symbols. For one, the bloodied hands of the lead character himself, Macbeth, when he killed Duncan, symbolizes evil. And that evil would overcome goodness in the play. On the other hand, many lines also show symbolism, such as this one: "There's daggers in men's smiles" Donalbain adds…
       Sixth, every tragic play or story should have organic unity, wherein the series of events must be connected by “probability or necessity.” This organic unity also has the beauty of representation, as well as the emotions that tragedy will generate in an audience. Although the whole story of “Macbeth” is divided into Acts and Scenes, its entirety has unity. The scenes are smooth-flowing and continuous, and every scene is equally important as the others, connected to each other in order to form a unified whole. The breathtaking series of events started mildly, then escalated on the way up to the climax, and finally cooled down during the denouement.  In the event that one scene is deleted for any reason, the story or play becomes incomplete. More so, the whole story, though dwelling on tragedy, also has an aesthetic side as seen in some actions, as well as some beautiful lines like “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell” and also “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,” plus in “There's husbandry in heaven, Their candles are all out,” among many lines that have beauty in them.
       The seventh and last characteristic is that tragedies should feature plots that must have length but must be easily taken in by the memory. Each plot must have a formal structure and its unity integrates not only causality, probability, and change of fortune but also the emotions of fear and pity which are generated in an audience. Aristotle further stated that it is in the plot’s sequence of actions, and not character, on which a tragedy must focus on…Even though “Macbeth” has a long plot, the entire story can easily be remembered by the audience. It is because the story as a whole is very interesting, and is not boring since it is centered on action, another characteristic of a tragedy, as mentioned in the third part earlier. A long quote that depicts action: If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly: if the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here, / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases / We still have judgment here; that we but teach / Bloody instructions, which being taught, return / To plague the inventor: this / even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice / To our own lips. Also, Macbeth also generates fear and pity, as mentioned in the second characteristic above, as part of the story’s being dramatic rather than narrative. In its total structure, the story is worth reading or watching (even if it may take long to fully understand the words and lines), because of its excellently-done plot that is seemingly based totally on Aristotle’s views.
       Upon assessing Aristotle’s views on tragedy, thus the characteristics he stated in “Poetics,” I believe that Shakespeare had based his “Macbeth” on Aristotle’s concepts. Each of the characteristics, as enumerated above, clearly shows “Macbeth’s” strong similarities to these. Perhaps Shakespeare believed in Aristotle’s views; hence, he followed these as his personal guides and the foundations of his works. I can only speculate, but one thing is for sure: thanks to them, the world now has very great stories which focus on tragedy. In other words, there are very famous tragedies all around the globe. Though tragedy is something negative, people’s lives will seemingly be incomplete without negativities that put the “spice” and “color” into living. It is just the same as the bad events or “trials” that make human beings strong; without such, life would be boring. Finally, after each negative experience has passed by, human beings should ideally stand up and move on, this time stronger because of the lesson learned from a particular trial, and there must be no pondering on the bad experience, lingering on “what-ifs,” because, borrowing my most favorite quote from “Macbeth,” “What’s done is done.” --ARV


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