menu

Can Lady Macbeth Be Seen as a Tragic Hero?


Lady Macbeth is a character in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and is arguably the most well known of his female characters. Her role is a complex one, and her character is equally complicated and is therefore a major focus of study for Shakespearean scholars. After coercing Macbeth into committing regicide, Lady Macbeth becomes Queen of Scotland but later suffers from guilt and dies off-stage. Many debate her role as a tragic hero, but when considering certain factors, her identity as a tragic hero becomes clearer and more acceptable.

Tragic Hero Definition

The definition of a tragic hero extends well beyond the assumption of a heroic figure with a tragic ending. According to Joseph Campbell, author of "Hero With a Thousand Faces," a tragic hero is a subdivision of a classic or epic hero. It is a man or woman with a fatal flaw, someone with a rebellious streak, a person with extreme behaviors, someone the audience can identify with, and one who is alienated but also charming with good looks and appeal. Campbell's hero model is one universally accepted by scholars, and was even embraced by George Lucas as a college student which inspired him to create the Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) and Luke Skywalker characters in "Star Wars" -- both tragic heroes by definition.

Identifying With Lady Macbeth

Though she was a villain, Shakespeare's careful treatment of her persona leaves most audiences identifying with her and cheering her on. Harold Bloom, famed Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, described Lady Macbeth in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" as a "powerful character" with a "sublimity" that is "over powering" and one in which we "journey inward" to her "heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit." Like Milton's Satan from "Paradise Lost," Shakespeare has devised a powerful tragic hero in Lady Macbeth that intrigues audiences and draws them into her attractive darkness where our own dark sides of human nature, either willingly or unwillingly, identify with her.

Strength and Loyalty

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth is presented as a devoted and loyal wife who would stop at nothing to fulfill the witches' kingship prophesy. In her famous speech in which she calls on spirits, Lady Macbeth reveals to the audience she is afraid to conjure that which brings "fate and metaphysical aid," yet she proclaims that with "valor of my tongue" she will seek supernatural aid to change "all that impedes thee [Macbeth] from the golden round." She is willing to sacrifice herself for her husband, Macbeth, and at the end of Act 1, Scene 5 she exits as a ghost-like version of her former self where she is doomed to sleep walking and her eventual death under ambiguous circumstances. She is the selfless tragic hero whose loyalty reigned above her own self worth.

Tragedy and Fatal Flaw

Lady Macbeth's fatal flaw begins to truly take shape in Act 3 when Macbeth decides he must eliminate those who threaten his kingship. Macbeth later reveals his plan to Lady Macbeth to murder Banquo -- a perpetual murderous action originating from the loom the tragic hero herself had first spun. Lady Macbeth tries to save her out-of-control relationship by drawing Macbeth from plotting: "How now, my lord! why do you keep alone, / Of sorriest fancies your companions making, / Using those thoughts which should indeed have died / With them they think on? Things without all remedy / Should be without regard: what's done is done." Arguably, her weakened state from dealing with the spirits left her drained and unable to stop Macbeth. She dies a tragic hero -- a loyal and personable figure with a fatal flaw.

About the Author

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.

Photo Credits
  • Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images