What is it about Macbeth that stands out from the other Shakespeare tragedies? I think it might be easier to ask: what makes Macbeth a tragedy at all? Even though his eerie meeting with the Three Witches sets him on a destructive path, his rise and fall are truly of his own making, driven by his hunger for power. We the audience don’t cry for him when he gets killed in the end; rather, we are pretty satisfied by the event. Nor do we mourn Lady Macbeth as she descends into madness and suicide. Shakespeare has other heroes destroyed by their inner demons: Othello is eaten up by jealousy; Hamlet is doomed by his own indecision; King Lear, that old fool, is humiliated by his wicked daughters. Actually, none of these seem tragic to me, but at least we get a morality play of sorts. But not with Macbeth. His is a fairly straight-forward tale of ambition led astray; the bad guy gets it in the end.
Or is it that simple? Macbeth is a pretty multi-faceted story if we take a closer look at it. First of all, there is the supernatural angle. King James I, reigning monarch and Shakespeare’s patron, was the Witch Hunter extraordinaire. Why throw in the witches who seem to get away with wreaking havoc on poor unsuspecting Macbeth (not to mention Banquo, who certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered). Perhaps this was called a tragedy because Macbeth couldn’t resist the Witches’ spells, and so he was really a victim of their evil designs?
If you look at Shakespeare’s source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, he suggested the Witches could have been “weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie“. The word “weird” has its origins in the Saxon word wyrd meaning fate, or personal destiny. Some even attribute the first modern use of the word “weird” to Shakespeare. If you look at the Weird Sisters from the Scandinavian point of view, the word wyrd translates to Urðr in Norse, namely one of the Norns of Scandinavian mythology who controlled the destiny of mankind. I favor this interpretation and used it in my novel.
Back to James I, if we remember that the King had only been on the throne for three years, there’s a good possibility that Shakespeare was introducing Scottish history to the English masses by glorifying the ancestors of their new King. Macbeth was written one year after the Gunpowder Plot, when James was nearly blown up with his Parliament. Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were horribly tortured, and it has been thought by some that the play was intended as a cautionary story for any other potential king-killers.
So it has been said that Shakespeare wrote this play specifically to please James I, which certainly makes it unique. I would be inclined to throw it in with the History Plays instead of Tragedies; after all, we have the Tragedy of Richard II and the Tragedy of Richard III grouped in with the Histories. Why is that? I see Richard II as much more a tragic figure than Macbeth. Who made this decision, anyway?
On the other hand, the historical Macbeth died two years after the Battle of Dunsinane (and not by the hand of Macduff), so I suppose the play is more imagination than history anyway.