Macbeth immediately, without the development of any other

 

Macbeth
and Aristotle’s Poetics

An
Aristotelian Tragedy is defined as an “imitation of a complete, whole, action
possessing a certain magnitude” (13). The imitation is the writers attempt to
satisfy the audience’s need to experience real emotions, ones that a people
generally can relate to. The essence of a tragedy is the plot. “Well- being and
ill-being reside in action”, Aristotle writes, “and the goal of life is an
activity; not a quality” (10).  In
Shakespeare’s dramatic play Macbeth, Macbeth’s
turbulent character stifles all other facets of the tragedy, especially the
plot. The way in which the events unfold contradicts two of Aristotle’s main
components in his format for a proper tragedy, the completeness and magnitude.

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Aristotle
first mentions the necessity of completeness in the plot. Aristotle stresses
the need for the plot to be “a whole which has a beginning, a middle, and an
end” (13). The beginning should not just be an arbitrary mark signifying the start
of the story, it must happen for a reason, validly setting the cause- and-
effect chain of the tragedy into action. However, in Macbeth, the incentive
moment of the witches’ ambiguous prophesy happens suddenly, lacking a complete
explanation. In fact, the plays incited incident happens immediately, without
the development of any other aspects of the tragedy. The beginning gives way to the middle
rapidly, when Ross greets Macbeth with the noble title Thane of Cawdor,
fulfilling the prophesy and thereby fixating Macbeth on the notion of murdering
King Duncan. The theme of “o’erleaping”, which is relayed through Macbeth’s
reiteration of the phrase, permeates the action of the play. When Macbeth
realizes that King Duncan plans on crowning his son, Malcolm, as his successor,
he ponders that the seemingly inevitable crowning of Malcolm is “a step on
which I must fall down or else o’erleap” (29). This idea actualizes Macbeth’s
tendency to take his fate into his own hands, thus preventing the action of the
tragedy to unwind in a natural way. Aristotle stipulates that “an end is that
which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or
in general, but there is nothing else after it” (13). A well-formulated plot
should not begin or conclude at an arbitrary point. In Macbeth, however, the
play ends incomplete, with no anagnorisis.
This recognition is essential to the catharsis
of the tragedy. In the closing scene of the play, Macbeth remorselessly
declares, “I will not yield/ To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet/
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse” (187). The play ends with Macbeth’s
death and with the announcement that Malcolm will be crowned at Scones. However,
the audience is left wondering how Banquo’s son, Fleance might become King,
which was mentioned in the witches’ prophecy. Thus, the tragedy concludes
open-ended, leaving the audience guessing the fate of Scotland.

The
second Aristotelian aspect to the plot is magnitude. Aristotle specifies that a
plot must have a “certain length, one that can be readily held in memory” (14).
The length must be one in correlation to the greatness of the content. In
Macbeth, on the other hand, the speech promotes the effect of dubiousness and
ambiguity. In one instance when the servant arrives to deliver a report,
Macbeth exclaims with hysteria, “The devil damn thee black, thou cream faced
loon!” (169). Other examples can be found in the witches’ prophecies in
addition to Macbeth’s frequent (soliloquies, monologues). Aristotle continues
to describe the definition of magnitude by explaining that “the magnitude in
which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability
or necessity gives rise from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune
to good fortune” (14). In Macbeth, the sequence of events unfolds as a result
of Macbeth takes matter into his own hands, thus the action is not derived from
fortune, but from Macbeth’s own motivations. An overarching motif in the play
is equivocation. Through this theme, Shakespeare conveys the notion that
nothing is truly as it seems. Although the prophecies of the withes spurred
Macbeth’s decisions, the confusing speech was marked with a notable ambiguity.
Furthermore, the downfall was not truly the fault of the witches, but a result
of Macbeth’s malicious ambitions. Macbeth is not told by the witches that he
should resort to murder, this is a conclusion he reaches on his own, revealing
his true nature.

In
Aristotle’s Poetics, the primacy of
plot is stressed. Two of the most prevalent components that Aristotle deems
necessary to the plot are completeness and magnitude. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth,
the action of the play did not match the requirements of these two criteria.
Thus, although Macbeth may be a tragic story, it is not an Aristotelian
tragedy.