Macbeth: His Tragic Flaw
As the last of William Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Macbeth is a play based more on character than deed. Set
in feudal Scotland, the play deftly develops each of the main characters, molding their traits and qualities into an
intricate masterpiece surrounding Macbeth, the central character. The play is a journey along the life of Macbeth,
capturing him at the apex of his career and following him until his just demise. What causes his sudden
deterioration? How does this “worthy gentleman” regress into the ranks of amorality (I.ii.24)? One school of thought
attributes Macbeth’s degeneration to ambition. Although Macbeth is not lacking in that quality, there lies a greater
force within his psyche. “Throughout the main action of Macbeth we are confronted by fear” (Knight 125). This fear
permeates Macbeth--utter cowardice which drives his will into the sinful acts resulting in his regression. Cowardice,
not ambition, is the main and underlying factor which causes M!
acbeth to kill Duncan, to murder Banquo and to seek the aid of the witches.
The murder of Duncan is roused more by fearful confusion than by Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” (I.vii.27). After
hearing the witches’ prophetic greeting, Macbeth is lulled into a “fantastical” state of mind (I.iii.139). He ponders
regicide which “[s]hakes [his] single state of man that function / Is smother’d in surmise” (I.iii.140-41). During the
events heralding Duncan’s murder, Macbeth undergoes five changes of mind before deciding that “[they] shall
proceed no further in [that] business” (I.vii.31). The hesitation to kill Duncan is the first symptom of Macbeth’s
fearful confusion.
What causes Macbeth to suddenly change his mind and kill Duncan? Macbeth is a weak man whose “dearest partner
in greatness” is his wife (I.v.10). He values her opinion above all else. After rejecting the murder plan, Macbeth is
the victim of a storm of insults from Lady Macbeth:
Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem. (I.vii.39-43)
His fear of her scorn augments the confusion within his “heat-oppressed brain”, causing him to hesitantly agree to
the conspiracy (II.i.39). Macbeth, too rapt within his own fear to maintain rational reasoning, becomes a pawn of his
fear-born confusion, leaving his mind no other option than killing Duncan. Had the murder been caused by
ambition, Macbeth would not have been so hesitant in his actions. He would have had a clear goal and saw a crown
instead of the “air-drawn dagger” which was the “very painting of [his] fear” (III.iv.62-63). Therefore, Macbeth’s
regression is spurred by a fearful frenzy, not the over-ambitious plotting of a rational man.
Macbeth’s fear sustains his murderous rampage as he plots the murder of Banquo and Fleance.
During every ascension, there exists a period of upheaval in which rulers must cleanse their land of those who may
issue defiance against their reign. For Macbeth, Banquo becomes the epitome of this threat:
To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear’d: ‘tis much he dares,
And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuk’d. (III.i.48-56)
Macbeth is wary of Banquo not because Banquo is a menace to the crown, but because Banquo is a reminder of his
own corruption. Macbeth’s regression feeds off fear; when there is nothing to fear, Macbeth conjures fear to satisfy
his regressive appetite, “My strange and self abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use” (III.iv.142-43). Macbeth
kills Banquo because his unquenchable fear alters Banquo into the “grown serpent” which he wrongly perceives as
dangerous (III.iv.29).
Macbeth is also driven to murder because he is afraid to right his wrongs. Macbeth is “in blood/ Stepp’d in so far
that . . . Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.iv.136-38). He is so afraid of losing his crown that he feels he
must murder Banquo in order to hide his atrocities. Moreover, his deed is not