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What Makes a Hero? An Analysis of Characters in Beowulf and Macbeth.

In Beowulf and Macbeth, Beowulf is the only true hero, for he has both courage and an unfailing allegiance to the higher good, while both Macduff and Macbeth fall short of being heroes because they lack one of these qualities.

Hero. This word is thrown around so easily; but what exactly is a hero? The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines a hero as ?a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities? (665). However, courage and brave deeds are not all that?s necessary. For a man to truly be a hero, he must use this courage and these deeds in an unfailing allegiance to the higher good. A man is only a hero if he fulfills both of these requirements.
To really discuss heroes, a definition of courage is needed. In Macbeth and Beowulf, courage is the ability to do something difficult and dangerous, often in spite of one?s own fear, in order to obtain something one wants. These two works provide perfect character studies of three men: Macbeth, Macduff, and Beowulf. By these three men?s actions, we get a clear picture of a hero. In Beowulf and Macbeth, Beowulf is a true hero, while both Macduff and Macbeth fall short of being heroes.
The first quality a man needs to be a hero is courage. Throughout his life, Beowulf acts courageously, providing a perfect example of what constitutes courage. The first time Beowulf appears is as a young man who has come across the ocean, ?to be a match for Grendel/ [and] settle the outcome in single combat?(425-426). Furthermore, Beouwulf says he is doing this, to ?perform to the uttermost/ what [the Danes] want?or perish in the attempt?(634-635). In fighting Grendel, Beowulf is doing something difficult and dangerous, and he is doing it to gain something he desires, the fulfillment of the Danes? wishes. Thus, this is a courageous act. These types of courageous actions are present throughout Beowulf?s life, from this first fight with Grendel, to the fight with Grendel?s mother, to Beowulf?s last and final fight with the dragon. Before this last fight, Beowulf ?sens[es] his death?(2420), yet he still goes to fight the dragon, because it is the only way to protect his people. Beowulf?s willingness to give up his life in battle in order to gain something he desires, the protection of his people, is the ultimate show of courage. Beowulf displays courage throughout his life.
Macbeth is also courageous, and he proves his courage, ironically, in the killing of the king. At first, when Macbeth thinks about murdering the king he describes it saying, ?that suggestion/ Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/ And make my seated heart knock at my ribs? (1.3.147-149). This shows that the mere idea the killing of the king frightens Macbeth. When Lady Macbeth thinks about Macbeth becoming king, she calls it ?What thou wouldst/ highly? (1.5.20-21). Here, Lady Macbeth show that the throne is something Macbeth dearly wants. Thus, when Macbeth, at the end of Act 1 states, ?I am settled, and bend up/ Each corporal agent to this terrible feat?(1.7.92-93) he is showing that he has overcome his fear of killing the king, and has decided to do this difficult deed in order to gain what he wants, the throne. Although this act may be immoral, it is truly courageous, for it requires Macbeth to conquer his fear in order to obtain something he desires. Macbeth?s killing of the king displays his courage.
Macduff, on the other hand, is not always courageous. At the end of the Macbeth, when Macduff kills Macbeth, Macduff appears very courageous. While walking through Dunsinane, Macduff says, ?Tyrant, show thy face!/ . . . Let me find him, Fortune,/ And more I beg not?(5.7.19-28). Here, Macduff is actively searching out Macbeth in order to kill him. This is dangerous and probably frightening to Macduff, yet it is something he wants to do, and thus it is courageous act. Yet, Macduff does not always act courageously. In the middle of the play, Macduff flees his castle in order to find Malcolm. Lady Macduff condemns her husband for this act, saying, ?to leave his wife, to leave his babes,/ His mansion and his titles in a place/ From whence himself does fly?/All is the fear?(4.2.8-14). In this attack, Lady Macduff explains that Macduff?s actions are cowardly, for he is endangering his family by leaving them in a place from which he flees. Macduff acts brave at times, and cowardly at others.
The second quality a person must posses to be a hero, and the one that really distinguishes heroes is their lasting allegiance to a higher good. By looking at this characteristic, we get a different view on Macduff, Macbeth, and Beowulf. Beowulf, proves himself to be a shining example of hero, because he is constantly doing things to further the higher good. At the beginning of Beowulf, Beowulf states his reasons for crossing the seas, saying, ? I come to proffer/ my wholehearted help and counsel./ . . . to defeat [your] enemy and [help you] find respite? (276- 280). Here, Beowulf displays that he is planning to fight a dragon, and risk his life merely to protect other people. Protecting people is obvioulsly promoting the higher good. Thus, Beowulf is a shining example of a hero because he uses his courage to protect others, and to further goodness.
Conversely, Macbeth may be courageous, but his actions are clearly not for the greater good. When contemplating the murder of the king, Macbeth himself notes that the king, ?hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/ Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/ The deep damnation of his taking-off;?(1.7.17-20). Here, Macbeth says that the king has been a good and just king, and that killing him is certainly an evil act. Thus, even though Macbeth displays as much courage as Beowulf, Macbeth?s actions are clearly evil, and work against the betterment of humanity. This means that Macbeth openly destroys goodness and violates the higher good. Even though initially Macbeth appears to be a hero because of his courage, he is not truly a hero because he uses his courage against the higher good.
Finally there is Macduff who, when he is being courageous, uses his courage for the greater good. When Macduff kills Macbeth, he is killing a man whose effect on Scotland causes others to lament its state, saying, ?it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/ Is added to [its] wounds?(4.3.50-51). Killing the person who is causing all of this suffering, the person many refer to as a ?tyrant?(4.3.14), is a virtuous act. Thus, in this part of the play, Macduff?s courage is used to further good. However Macduff is not a hero just because when he is courageous, his courage is used for good. The reality is, that Macduff doesn?t have courage all the time, and although he may be a brave and admirable man, he is not a hero. Macbeth uses his courage for good, but since his courage sometimes fails, he is not a hero.
In the end, what?s learned from all this dissection of characters and motives that?s applicable to more than just literature study? Mainly this: we hold ideals that are unattainable for most, even in literature. Maybe we need to step back and stop using these labels of hero and villain. Instead, we should begin to see that a person is a person, and will do things that are courageous in their lifetime, and will do things that we all look down upon. And this is applicable in all parts of life, especially our study of history. The historical people we revere made mistakes in their lives. They were not perfect demi-gods. Conversely, the people who we most detest in history were not human incarnates of evil. Many of them did a good thing or two in their life, or at least painted a pretty landscape. Recognizing the variations that occur in all people is necessary, or we turn people into emotionless figures who we can neither admire nor learn from.

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