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Emma Yeoman

In the light of your critical readings how far are

Lear and Macbeth tragic protagonists?

Normally, the common hero would be a character embodying

megalopsychia1. However, both Lear and Macbeth are

conventionally tragic figures, even displaying anti-heroic qualities.

Aristotle’s “Poetics” suggests that a tragic protagonist has

greatness which is readily evident in the play2. The Victorian critic

A.C. Bradley picks up Aristotle’s notion to contend and mentions

that although the protagonist is a person of greatness, they are not

perfect and contain a tragic flaw which can lead to his downfall3.

Unlike most tragic protagonists, Lear’s fall occurs early in the play

when he decides to express his “darker purpose” to Gloucester by

dividing the kingdom between his three daughters. Firstly, this rash

decision implies Lear’s downfall and prepares the audience for what

is to come. Secondly, this would have alarmed a Jacobean audience

who would remember how the question of succession had loomed

large during the reign of Elizabeth 1. However, Lear does not show

many noble attributes before his fall when he loses his temper at

Cordelia and he tells her he will, “disclaim all my paternal care,”

because she refuses to flatter him with praises and love. This is

different to Macbeth who is seen as “brave” and “noble” in the early

stages of the play due to killing the rebel, Macdonwald, and fighting

off an attack from the Norwegians. In this sense of the tragic

Emma Yeoman

protagonists having noble attributes then Macbeth is seen as more

of a tragic protagonist in Act One.

Sean McEvoy, Tony Coult and Chris Sandford, Trangedy: A Student Handbook,
(10 Feb 2009), p.237
Butcher, S. H., trans. 1974. Poetics. By Aristotle. In Dukore (1974, 31-55)
A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, Chapter 2, "The Substance of
Shakespearean Tragedy."
According to Aristotle’s theory of harmatia4, there is a specific

flaw or error of judgement which brings about a character’s descent.

Lear’s fall is clearly seen in Act 1 Scene 1, when he expresses his

“darker purpose” by renouncing power and dividing his kingdom

between his two daughters. It could be thought that Lear deserves

the punishment that he gets because of his rash attitude towards

Cordelia and not realizing how wicked Goneril and Regan are when

they flatter him. Therefore, to rashly divide his kingdom between

them was a mistake to begin with.

Harmatia could also be applicable to Macbeth. The flaw that

Macbeth embodies is hubris; Macbeth admits that his flaw is his

“vaulting ambition”, which almost immediately brings forth his

downfall. However, unlike Lear, Macbeth’s flaw is only brought on by

his wife and his flaw develops to the point that it changes the way

he reacts to different situations and his personality. Up until

Duncan’s murder, Macbeth is full of soliloquies, with two in the first

two acts, showing he is a deep thinker. Immediately after Duncan’s

death Macbeth questions what he has done but later on in the play,

there is a reduction of soliloquies with his third and last one being in

Act Five, showing how his personality and his mind has changed.

Emma Yeoman

Written in the sixteenth century, there was importance placed

on hierarchy and women were seen as an inferior sex so seeing

Lear’s daughters complain about their father would be shocking,

especially when Goneril says that she “will not speak to him” and

instructs Lear to put on a “weary negligence” in order to provoke a

clash between her and her father. As Lear’s host, Goneril has a duty

to protect her father and behave graciously towards him but instead

she prepares to subvert his authority. This could be contradictory to

Bradley’s definition of a tragic protagonist

Sean McEvoy, Tony Coult and Chris Sandford, Trangedy: A Student Handbook,
(10 Feb 2009), p.237

which says that there is no other agent which influences the

protagonist’s flaw. Both the sisters not only anger their father but

also feed their father’s pride. In “Macbeth”, at the beginning

Macbeth is seen as a tragic protagonist because he is seen as a

noble man who is fighting for his country but when he is first

influenced by the three witches who tell him that he will become

"Thane of Glamis", "Thane of Cawdor" and then "king hereafter,"

and it is these predictions that spark his “vaulting ambition”. This is

further influenced by his wife who plans to "pour my spirits in thine

ear" and then tells him:

“To beguile the time,

Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,

Your hand, your tongue: looks like the innocent flower”

Emma Yeoman

Unlike Aristotle’s definition of a tragic protagonist, the

soliloquy of Lady Macbeth shows that there is an outside influence

on Macbeth that caused his downfall. Lady Macbeth says her

husband is “full o’ the milk of human kindness” and so she has to

persuade him to murder Duncan. Holinshed says the following about

Lady Macbeth:

"The words of the three Weird Sisters also greatly encouraged

him hereunto; but specially his wife lay sore upon him to

attempt the thing, as she was very ambitious, burning with an

unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen."5

However, Ian Johnston, in his lecture “Studies in Shakespeare”6

Holinshed's Chronicles, Volume V: Scotland, page 269
A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston
______“All this loss of things which made him a great man has come

about because ______of his own free decisions. Nothing that

Macbeth does in the play is forced ______upon him, and he is never

deceived by some human agent. In that sense, he ______alone is

the architect of his own destruction, and the more he tries to cope

______with what he senses is closing in on him, the more he

aggravates his ______deteriorating condition. His death is thus the

inevitable consequence of what ______he has chosen to do for his

own reasons.”

This critique shows that, despite Lady Macbeth manipulating

Macbeth’s thoughts, it is still not significant enough of manipulation

Emma Yeoman

to cause Macbeth to change so dramatically and so his downfall

must be due to his own free choices.

Aristotle also mentioned that the hero's downfall is partially

their own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or

some overriding, malignant fate.7 In “King Lear”, this is partially true

because it was Lear’s mistake in giving his kingdom to his two

daughters which led to his downfall which Kent warns him about

telling him that it was “hideous rashness”. However, King Lear

suffers too much for it to just be his fault because he trusted his

daughters to take care of him and instead reduce his train asking

him “what need you five and twenty? Ten? Or five?” and he goes

into the storm – something which isn’t necessarily his fault. The

storm shows pathetic fallacy and could mimic Lear’s state of mind

as shown using Freudian theory mentioned later in this essay. This

quality of Lear’s is picked up on by Ian Johnston in his lecture series

“Studies in Shakespeare”8 who comments:

“Lear refuses to compromise. This characteristic makes him,

of course, a
Butcher, S. H., trans. 1974. Poetics. By Aristotle. In Dukore (1974, 31-55)
A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston
______passionately egocentric, loud, and in many respects

unsympathetic character. ______But what redeems him is the quality

of his passion and his willingness to ______suffer. He has launched

himself on a voyage exploring what it means to be a ______human

being once one strips away all the extras that help to tell him what

he ______is.”

Emma Yeoman

Johnston’s critique of Lear makes him seem more of a noble

character at this point in the play compared with the beginning due

to his passion and what he is willing to go through.

In “Macbeth”, Macbeth’s downfall is his own fault but is

mainly caused by the influence of the three witches and Lady

Macbeth who convinced him to kill Duncan. The murder of Duncan

was committed by Macbeth which he immediately regrets, looking

at his bloodied hands saying “this is a sorry sight”. This conveys

how Macbeth is aware of moral boundaries but was just led astray

by the three witches and his wife. The misfortune is not wholly

deserved and the fall also contains some sense of awareness, some

gain in self knowledge and some discovery of self9. This term that

Aristotle coined, Pathe mathe would be applicable to Lear. This is

shown within Lear who really plays the part of a tragic protagonist

because during his turmoil in the storm, he starts to recognise his

faults and changes his character, even telling Edgar to “take thy

place” and tells Kent to “seek thine own ease”. However, it is

difficult to apply Pathe mathe to Macbeth because at the end of the

play he believes that he will not be harmed as he is protected by the

prophecy of the three witches. At no point does he recognise that

what he has done is wrong and try to

Sean McEvoy, Tony Coult and Chris Sandford, Trangedy: A Student Handbook,

(10 Feb 2009), p.237

Emma Yeoman

make amends for it, instead he says, “I will not yield” and continues

to fight against Macduff. Then again, Macbeth doesn’t suffer like

Lear does in the storm and so never had a chance to understand

that greed and killing someone is wrong. In this sense, Lear is more

of a tragic protagonist than Macbeth.

Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its

audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function

of tragedy is to arouse the "unhealthy" emotions of pity and fear

and through a catharsis10 cleanse us of those emotions. “King Lear”

has two editions, the Folio and the Quarto. Both editions end with

the deaths of Lear and Cordelia but Folio ends with the possibility

that Lear dies believing Cordelia lives, as it finishes with Lear

proclaiming “Look on her, look, her lips”. This reduces the bleak

impact of the Quarto edition and the audience feels more pity for

Lear, enabling catharsis. In “Macbeth”, the death of Macbeth, at the

hands of Macduff, gives the audience a sense of relief because

Macbeth has become so morally repulsive with his fluctuations

between despair and bravado, making his own dissolution more

complex than that of his wife. In this way, Macbeth doesn’t contain

as strong of a catharsis compared with King Lear because the

audience are relieved that the throne is in the hands of someone

who deserves it.

Using Freudian theory, both tragic protagonists could be

analysed. Lear does not have a strong Id but a lack of Ego. He does

not make misjudgements based on his desires but instead lack

Emma Yeoman

knowledge and understanding, shown by his overreaction of the

simple world “nothing”. According to Freud, a character with a small

Ego is unsure of where to hold their values creating psychological

confusion. The reason

Sean McEvoy, Tony Coult and Chris Sandford, Trangedy: A Student Handbook,
(10 Feb 2009), p.236

Lear goes mad could be because he does not know how to behave

and act when thrown out by his daughters. This could also be the

reason why, according to both Aristotle’s and Bradley’s definition,

Lear is not considered a tragic protagonist at the beginning of the

play because he is not a heroic character we can relate to. Macbeth

is slightly different however. He begins with a healthy Super-Ego by

telling his wife that he will “proceed no further in this business”,

recognising that it is immoral and wrong to commit murder.

Unfortunately, Macbeth also has a huge Id which is fuelled by the

three witches and his wife, resulting in his downfall. He eventually

gives in to his desire for power by doing the “deed” and murdering

Duncan. Throughout the play, the Ego and Super-Ego in Macbeth

disappears and his Id takes complete control, shown as he becomes

more impulsive and his number of soliloquies decreases. Macbeth’s

change in mental state and the dominating Id that takes control

could show that Macbeth is more of a tragic protagonist than Lear

because it is mentally showing how his tragic flaw is bringing about

his own downfall.

Emma Yeoman

To what extent you feel that Lear and Macbeth are tragic

protagonists depends on your definition of a tragic protagonist. Both

Lear and Macbeth could be considered a tragic protagonist because

their qualities are shared by Aristotle’s theory. Both Macbeth and

Lear are noble people but due to the events they witness and suffer,

their end comes differently between the two of them. Macbeth does

not learn anything from his experiences whereas Lear did. In this

sense, Lear is more of a tragic protagonist because despite his

character at the beginning, the play follows his journey of changing

his character and way of thinking.

Word Count (not including title, footnotes or bibliography): 1, 991


• Sean McEvoy, Tony Coult and Chris Sandford, Tragedy: A
Student Handbook, (10 Feb 2009)

• William Shakespeare, Editor: John O’Connor, Macbeth, (1962)

• William Shakespeare, General Editors: Richard Proudfoot, Ann

Thompson and David Scott Kastan, King Lear, (1972)

• Butcher, S. H., trans. 1974. Poetics. By Aristotle. In Dukore

(1974, 31-55)

• Rebecca Warren, King Lear York Notes (2003)

• A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare,

by Ian Johnston

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