Tragedy in Shakespeare (Power, ambition and tragedy)

Published 14 Feb 2017

Table of content


William Shakespeare is arguably the best playwright in the entire illustrious history of English Literature. He is known for his versatility in the sense that he has enthralled audience with his comedies, tragedies as well as historical plays alike. He obviously occupies the centre stage in English plays.

However, he is best known for his tragedies that never fail to overwhelm the audience and are famous for being realistic and yet fantastic. In most Shakespearean tragedies that have a political back drop, we find that power and ambition play an extremely important role in taking the plot to its climax and ultimately become responsible for the tragic end that befalls the hero. In this paper, we shall attempt to explore this interesting relationship between power, ambition and tragedy (or justice of fate) as illustrated in Shakespearean plays. We shall use as study, two of Shakespeare’s very famous tragedies- Macbeth and Coriolanus.

In order to understand this intriguing relationship between power, ambition and tragedy, it will be fruitful to first look into the very concept of tragedy in Shakespearean plays. An analysis of the tragedies reveals that Shakespearean tragedies are based on Aristotle’s concept of tragedy as defined by the Greek master in his Poetics. The most important element of a tragedy, according to Poetics, is the concept of the hamartia or the tragic flaw.

The hero, the main protagonist or the central character is shown to us as a noble person with greatness of stature and strength of character. He is presented as the near perfect man with larger than life qualities. The audience is forced to look up to such a character with appreciation and awe. However, the hero has a ‘tragic flaw’. This is a flaw in his character which invites tragedy and brings about the tragic downfall of the hero. Thus, it is to be noted that the tragedy is seen partially as a work of destiny and partially as a consequence of the hero’s hamartia.


Macbeth is a story of how ambition corrupts men and drives them to evil ends. The hero, Macbeth is a noble man, a brave soldier and he is looked upon by the common people. The king also considers him a worthy general and thinks highly of him. Thus, he is a hero in the actual sense of the word until we encounter his tragic flaw. He hears some prophecies made by the witches about his becoming the king in the near future. Blinded by ambition and egged on by his wife, Macbeth kills the noble king in order to take on the throne. Later, we find that the king’s death is avenged and Macbeth falls into disgrace and finally dies.

We find therefore, that Macbeth’s tragic flaw was ambition. He was an almost ideal human being in the beginning of the play. But as the plot builds up, we find him plotting and planning to kill his master and his guest, the King Duncan. Thus, it is ambition that drives him to hatch such an evil plan; it is ambition that causes him to fulfill his desire of becoming king by killing the present King Duncan; it is ambition that corrupts such a noble man and makes him stoop down to such lowly levels.

Macbeth’s good character and noble bearing do create a dilemma for him. It is seen that he reasons with his conscience while hatching the plot to kill the king. He realizes that King Duncan shall be his guest that evening and how immoral it is to stab an unsuspecting guest; he also knows that the King is noble and has not indulged in any wrong-doing to deserve such a death. His inner voice or the voice of his goodness keeps on asking Macbeth to re-consider his decision to kill the king.

However, the tragic flaw (of obsessive ambition) in his character intervenes, overpowers his goodness and reason and compels him to take this extreme step. Also, we find later that once he has secured his throne through murder, he is willing to repeat his evil acts to ensure that it is his progeny (and not Banquo’s, as revealed by the prophecy) that inherit the throne. He plans to kill Banquo and his son to make this possible. Thus, we see that ambition does not let him be content. It drives him to more evil, makes him commit more vile acts and finally leads to his tragic disgrace and death.


Coriolanus is one of the less famous tragedies written by William Shakespeare in 1607-08. This play is not one of the best plays written by the great playwright. As his penultimate tragedy, Coriolanus does not boast of immortal heroes like Othello, Macbeth or Julius Caesar, nor does it have the intricate plot of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. However, its appeal lies in the subtle and intentionally ambiguous portrayal of political drama and viewpoints. The political debate it generates is noteworthy.

The story revolves around the hero Caius Marcius (later Coriolanus) who is a proud soldier and his deeds of valor are famous all over Rome. His brave exploits in the war against Volscians have won him admiration in the king’s court and also his given name Coriolanus. However, below this seemingly flawless exterior lies his tragic flaw. It is revealed that Coriolanus has autocratic tendencies and an extremely bourgeois attitude. He considers the common people as lowly and not worthy of his attention. He deeply resents the fact that he to canvass for votes in front of the plebeians. In short, he seems to be drunk on the aphrodisiac of power.

It is power that blinds him to the importance of democracy. In rage against the people of Rome, who he considers responsible for his exile, he makes peace with the enemy army of Volscians. To get back his lost power and prestige, he concocts the wicked plan of waging war against Rome. So hell bent upon seeking power he is, that he refuses to relent even when his closest and dearest friends come to make him see reason. Finally when his mother begs him to give up his insane plans, he relents and moves back to Antium, the centre of Volscians. It is here that tragedy actually befalls Coriolanus. His ally, the Aufidius (General of the Volscians) becomes jealous of Coriolanus’ rising power and declares that their failed campaign to Rome is due to the treachery of Coriolanus. The hero is assassinated by Aufidius’ men.

Thus we see that power plays a very important in the tragedy. In the first part, we see how power corrupts Coriolanus and makes him forget all reason. He stoops down so low for power that he actually makes peace with Volscians and gets ready to wage a war over Rome. All his valor and bravery that had earlier made him a heroic figure now seem to be a thing of the past. We see him as a villain plotting against his own native land to restore his lost status. Power therefore corrupts a good man and makes him vile. In the last part of the play, we see how power games finally lead to his death. His rising popularity in Antium makes Aufidius insecure and in order to remove Coriolanus from power, Aufidius declares him traitor and causes his assassination. Thus, power makes Coriolanus transform into an anti- hero and it is the power game that finally brings about his end.


It can thus be concluded that both power and ambition cause the tragedies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Coriolanus. Both heroes have their tragic flaw and fall prey to ambition and power respectively. Their good conduct, noble bearing, strong character and bravery are all left behind once they become overly ambitious and wish to be more powerful than they already are. However, this does not teach that ambition and power are in themselves evil. It just brings home the message that when these become uncontrolled and occupy the mind of man like a passion and obsession, they drive men to limits and cause them to do despicable and wicked acts. The tragedy of Macbeth and Coriolanus is a direct consequence of their extreme ambitions and their willingness to leave behind all their virtues for power. This powerful message is one of the reasons why the tragedies of Shakespeare are so loved and respected.


  • Greek Theory of Tragedy: Aristotle’s Poetics, A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College
  • Shakespeare and the Uses of Power, Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Review of Books, Vol 54, no 6, April 12, 2007
  • Outline of Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy in the POETICS, Barbara F. McManus, November 1999 retrieved on 23 April, 2007.
Did it help you?