in Drama, English Literature, Essay Technique, Shakespeare, Writing Skills

Shakespeare’s Macbeth fits within the genre of a ‘tragedy’, and it follows by and large tragic conventions. Classical tragedies have very strict rules and parameters. We’ve detailed the main points about tragedy and how they link to Macbeth below, to help you understand how the genre influences the play and its ideas.

It’s important to note that the main point of a tragedy is that the tragic hero has a flaw; a character fault that undoes his or her good work and results in death and downfall. We’re supposed to watch a tragedy and learn ‘how not to be’ – from analysing the flaw and understanding how it ruins a person’s life. In Macbeth, we are always told that he’s a great hero, ‘brave’ and ‘noble’ – meaning he has been a great warrior and help to King Duncan up until this point. His flaw ruins everything great about him and causes a downfall not only of himself but his family and his lasting reputation.

The key message is ‘Don’t be like Macbeth’, but the flaw itself is debatable. Is it pride, or ambition? Obsession with power? Mental weakness and being easily influenced? Something else?

Through closely analysing Macbeth and trying to figure out this weakness, we can learn to assess what kinds of emotions and behaviours have bad consequences, and so avoid them in our own lives.


Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full Macbeth course.

This course includes: 

  • A full set of video lessons on each key element of the text: summary, themes, setting, characters, context, attitudes, analysis of key quotes, essay questions, essay examples
  • Downloadable documents for each video lesson 
  • A range of example B-A* grade essays, both at GCSE and A-Level with teacher comments and mark scheme feedback
  • A bonus Macbeth workbook designed to guide you through each scene of the play

Genre: Tragedy 

  • Shakespeare was educated in classical tragedy (Greek). 
  • The rules: tragic hero, noble-born, brilliant in most ways, but they have a fatal flaw (hamartia) that undoes all of their achievements.
  • The audience knows from the beginning that the tragic hero is doomed. 
  • The tragic hero dies at the end of the play and the audience feels a sense of relief (catharsis) because the hero caused a lot of chaos in their world. 
  • Message: not to be like the hero, a cautionary tale that warns us against having the same flaws as the hero. 
  • Macbeth’s flaws: debatable what his fatal flaw is – it could be ‘vaulting ambition’, being overly influenced by others (especially women), turning away from God, indecision, guilt, madness, greed, lust for power or love of violence.  

KEY TRAGIC TERMS TO USE IN ESSAYS:

Catharsis – a feeling of purification and relief that we get at the end of a tragedy when the world is restored to order.

Hubris – excessive pride, a common fatal flaw in characters. 

Eponymous hero – Macbeth’s name is also the title of the play, we realize that the play is a study of his character. 

Tragic hero – someone who does heroic things but has a fatal flaw that leads to his/her downfall. They’re always successful at the beginning of the play and always start off at the higher end of society. They also have to be likeable at first, and then the audience has to be relieved when they finally die at the end. 

Macbeth was already Thane of Glamis, then he was made Thane of Cawdor. Duncan makes him Thane of Cawdor. Duncan promotes Macbeth as a thank you for helping to win the battle.

Fatal flaw (hamartia) –  a problem a character has that is a flaw that can bring on their downfall. Tragic heroes are almost perfect. And if they didn’t have this flaw then they’ll be a normal hero. Macbeth’s flaw is debatable – many people say it’s ambition or greed, or that he’s easily manipulated by women, and this is a flaw since the witches are women and so is his wife, thus they can manipulate his thoughts easier. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reject religion and the morality and honesty that relates to it, so their lack of faith could be a flaw. Equally, we could say that impatience is the worst flaw – perhaps the prophecy would have come true anyway, and they wouldn’t have had to kill anyone directly. 

Hubris“Too much pride” almost all tragic heroes display some sort of hubris throughout the play. Macbeth displays these flaws when the witches say “hail to thee Macbeth”.

PeripeteiaPoint of no return (Murdering Banquo).

Anagnorisis – the moment where the tragic hero realizes his or her mistake, this always comes after the peripeteia so it’s too late to change.


Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full Macbeth course here.

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