Orson Welles as Macbeth

Noble Macbeth

Nobility

In “Poetics”, Aristotle suggested a tragic hero should be “highly renown” and come from an “illustrious” family. In (I.iii), Macbeth mentions the title he inherited from his father during his first meeting with the three witches: “By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis”. In the feudal systems of the Middle Ages, noblemen were often rewarded with impressive titles, such as lord or sir, and granted lands if they supplied military support to the king. In Scotland, the chief of the clan was given the title thane. Therefore, Macbeth is already a high-ranking member of the ruling class at the beginning of the play.

In (I.iv), when King Duncan rewards Macbeth the thane of Cawdor for his heroic efforts against the “merciless Macdonwald”, this adds to the protagonist’s power and importance. He is certainly someone the audience should respect and admire because he is both “highly renown” in birth and his actions.

King Duncan calls Macbeth “noble” at the end of the second scene and Banquo refers to his “noble” partner moments later in the third scene. This repetition reinforces the tragic hero’s reputation. In fact, he is labelled “noble” five times in the play and the epithet “worthy” is also used seven times to describe the character.

By establishing the Macbeth’s great importance and status in society, Shakespeare is trying to make his downfall more scandalous and shocking.

Dramatic Convention

From the early tragedies of ancient Greece to our modern superheroes on the big screen, dramatists have often relied on mythology and legends for their plays. In 1949, Arthur Miller, a famous playwright who was once married to Marilyn Monroe, sarcastically wrote that these stories were “fit only for the very highly placed, the kings or the kingly”.

Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis who seizes the Scottish throne and becomes king. Therefore, the story is of national significance.

Playwrights followed this dramatic convention of making sure their protagonists came from an “illustrious family” and were “highly renown” because that status in society increased the sense of risk and danger in the plot. In other words, the more power and privilege a character assumed, the more they had to lose from their error of judgement or fatal flaw. A pauper who lost a few pence in the gutter is not dramatic. A Scottish nobleman who betrays his king and threatens the destruction of the nation should, by contrast, grip the audience’s attention.

Staging

Shakespeare reminds the groundlings in the Globe Theatre of Macbeth’s nobility through some straightforward staging. The opening to the third act is probably one of the best examples.

The scene takes place in a “palace”, which is at the very heart of Scottish politics and power. Macbeth enters the stage to the sounds of a trumpet or cornet. In Elizabethan theatre, these blasts signaled the arrival of an important character and would thrill the audience. Of course, the actor playing Macbeth is probably wearing a crown – the ultimate symbol of authority. The stage directions also suggest the new king is followed by a retinue of “Lords, Ladies, and Attendants”. This presentation of the protagonist must have been a wonderful spectacle for the original audience.

Further Reading

Aristotle also suggested the tragic hero should possess wisdom. Macbeth’s skills as a military leader satisfies this demand. You should read our analysis of Macbeth’s bravery for more information about the protagonist.

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