Academic Work

One-Man Tragedy: The Duality of Character in Macbeth

by Crystal A. Sershen

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts
to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study
New York University

September 28, 2009


This work examines the enigma surrounding Shakespeare’s Macbeth by exploring Macbeth’s duality of character and its repercussions upon the traditional rituals of the tragic genre. Shakespeare’s canon grew ever darker in its maturity, and his later tragedies turned toward introspection, evoking the self-examination characteristic of the Renaissance ideal of “man as the measure of all things.” This somber propensity was manifested in Shakespeare’s evolution of the tragic form to the “inner tragedy,” in which character and self-reckoning were paramount. The supreme specimen of inner tragedy, Macbeth infuses a single soul with the emotional and psychological qualities of both hero and villain. A solitary character filling the roles of both protagonist and antagonist, solely and simultaneously, is a discrete occurrence in the playwright’s canon. Shakespeare accomplishes this by manipulating audience response through dramatic structure, most specifically his deft employment of the soliloquy and the aside, to engender communion between Macbeth and his audience. Shakespeare thereby asks the spectator to identify with a villain, negating a major component of the tragic formula, catharsis – a unique event in the history of the dramatic form. The origins of the enigma surrounding Macbeth can be traced to this breaking of the tragic formula.

The English Restoration began a long tradition of liberal adaptations and rewritings of Shakespeare’s works that altered the plays’ language, length, characters, and consequently their meaning. Further violence was done to his plays when they were mounted under the production values of the proscenium stage, which denied the connection between actor and audience essential to Macbeth’s dramatic success. The intimate relationship between player and playgoer so vital to Elizabethan stagecraft was eradicated, and a play such as Macbeth was doomed to misinterpretation.

The reembracing of Elizabethan stagecraft in the latter twentieth and twenty-first centuries led to a rediscovery of theatrical conventions native to Shakespeare’s works. Thus, Macbeth could be reunited with the Elizabethan stage conventions essential to conveying the play’s meaning as an exploration of the humanity of murder.

PDF:  One-Man Tragedy

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