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I saw a production of Macbeth a while back. I’d read the play, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen it presented on stage. Maybe it was actually seeing it live that made the difference, but the experience gave me a whole new take on this great tragedy.

The common wisdom holds that Macbeth’s tragic flaw, the profound defect of character that eventually spelled his doom, was his overweening ambition. He had big dreams, and he wanted them too badly. I now reject this assessment.

I am not a particularly ambitious person, but I have been advised that having at least some ambition is a good thing. Fine. I can see where it might be useful in getting ahead. Furthermore, I am willing to agree that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. The same goes for too much curiosity, too much self-doubt, too much self-confidence, or too much pride. All of those traits can be helpful in small amounts, but they’ll burn you if you overdo it.

But none of those, including ambition, is the root cause of Macbeth’s fall. He was ambitious, but that’s not what took him down. His flaw was even more fundamental than that. Indeed, he was cursed with a fatal weakness that is not helpful in any quantity. Macbeth’s flaw, poor fellow, was stupidity. Okay…overweening stupidity, if you insist.

It all comes clear in that scene with the three witches. They lay that prophecy on him — in witch poetry — and he bites so hard on it that he almost breaks a tooth. Then he swallows it whole and spends the whole play trying to convince himself that it must be true.

For the record, here’s what they said:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

And later:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Let me say again that these are witches we’re dealing with — foul and reeking of evil. In fact, they revel in their evil. They're not the Salem witches, falsely accused and burned alive. These are genuine, unabashed, certified witches who traffic in trickery, deceit, and foul play. Why would someone believe anything they have to say? I’ll tell you why: because he is really, really stupid. So stupid, in fact, that he doesn’t know how stupid he is.

I mean, of course witches are going to yank you around. That’s what they do. Did it even enter Macbeth’s mind that their “prophecies” were nothing more than snares to capture the weak of mind? Did he stop to think, at the very least, that he should not take their strange verses literally? That he was not, in fact, invincible, always and forever? Did he for one moment consider the possibility that three scary old hags, smelling of eye of newt and goat gall, might not the best people to take career advice from?

No. And there you have his tragic flaw: being so sack-of-hammers stupid that he blows his status as a war hero, kills all his friends, and ends up dead and despised for all eternity by everyone in Scotland. It may seem odd that Shakespeare would elevate boneheadedness to the level of a hubristic defiance of the gods, but what other conclusion can we draw? The stupid had eaten into his judgment like an infestation of termites. If he were a house, he would have been tented and gassed.

I suppose that ambition, despite its upside, might rise to the level of a tragic flaw and finally pull a hero into tragedy (keep an eye on this year’s presidential campaign.) And there’s no doubt that Macbeth was ambitious. But good for him, I say. Go ahead, try to make something of your life. But do not assume that it's a done deal strictly on the say-so of three tools of Satan. That, milord, would be stupid. Tragically stupid, it turns out.

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