When we talk about a tragedy happening to someone we know, or in the news, it is usually assumed that this refers to some kind of disaster happening to a totally innocent party.
When it comes to traditional Greek tragedy, (e.g Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Electra) or to Shakespearean tragedy, (Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear) none of the protagonists is innocent, or even very good. And Macbeth is surely one of the most interesting of all.
According to Aristotle's Poetics, which contain the fundamental definition of tragedy, written over two thousand years ago, a tragedy concerns the story of a high born hero or heroine who is brought low. The most significant factor contributing to their downfall is a 'fatal flaw', often hubris or pride. which brings them down. The resulting experience in the audience is one of catharsis - a purging of the emotions due to experiencing the twin feelings of pity and terror. The pity is for what happens to the hero or heroine; the terror is at the sight of what the 'gods' may do to any of us.
Macbeth is recognised as one of the world's great tragedies. But it is about someone who is fundamentally a serial killer. True, toward the end of the play Macbeth is in a bad way. His 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' speech indicates a heavy load of world weariness. And there is total desolation in his final description of life:
It is a tale told by an idiot
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But it is still the story of s serial killer, so why should we regard it as one of the great tragedies of literature and the stage?
I will leave that up to you to decide. But to help you do so, there is a performance of Macbeth not to be missed. It is another of the English National Theatre's live broadcasts, showing at the Nova cinema in Carlton and at other venues around Melbourne. It stars one of the greatest actors of his generation, Kenneth Branagh. It is probably on only for the rest of this week. Get there!