MIGHT AS WELL. wrote it about a week ago for shakespearean literature class. its about shakespeare's take on free will vs. fate, specifically in Macbeth
Throughout the annals of literature, philosophy, and all fields of thought dealing with human nature, one important point of contention has been constant: the predominance of either free will or fate. The importance of this dichotomy extends far beyond simple humanistic musing – it has been a prominent subject struggled and debated over in its relation to religion and the extent to which God has control over humanity; the sociological perspective of individualism versus societal determinism; it even takes form in the modern, and still relevant, political, social, and economic debate over the efficiency and propriety of social welfare programs as opposed to the laissez-faire invocation of “personal responsibility.” Although these various forms of the debate are all very different in their goals and levels of abstraction, they all spring from the basic form of that very human question of just how much control we have over ourselves and our world. One would not expect perhaps the most prolific writer in Western history to stay silent on such a critical question, and indeed William Shakespeare has quite a bit to say on the matter. Throughout his volume of works, and especially in the tragedy Macbeth, Shakespeare firmly plants his flag in the camp of Fate: that the greatest and most important of human actions are truly outside of the hands of even those participating.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character, ostensibly driven by blinding ambition, murders his King to take the throne for himself, before his reign is quickly brought to an end through his death. A simple tale, one might say: a villain commits a grave offense before getting his just recompense. However, Macbeth cannot fully be called a villain. As loathsome as Macbeth is characterized by his more noble-seeming enemies in the play, as deep as he sinks into violence and paranoia, and as inevitable as his downfall is, Macbeth through it all is the hero of the play. Quite clearly, by Macbeth’s continued role as hero, there is much more to the story than simply his actions, which taken alone could quickly be judged. Instead, as the tragic hero, Macbeth is meant to be an admirable man led astray by one fatal defect. Here, however, Macbeth is led forward by much more than his commonly cited defect, but by fate itself.
In most all the works of Shakespeare, one finds the author heavily invoking fate. In what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most well know and popular play to the modern era, Romeo and Juliet, the opening monologue contains one of the most famous characterizations in all of literature: that of Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers(1.1, 6).” Here Shakespeare is not simply employing “fate” as a totally abstract concept, but by tying it to astrology (Waters), which was common to do at the time, marks fate as a proactive force of nature. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the plot is driven by fairies – representations of the supernatural – interceding in the lives of the characters, ultimately reversing Demetrius’ feelings for Helena, not an inconsequential feat considering the reader is left to suspect that they live happily married together for the rest of their lives. In Hamlet, the plot and the hero’s motives are influenced by an even stronger representation of the supernatural: the ghost of his recently murdered father. Shakespeare’s oeuvre is clearly rife with the acting of fate.
In Macbeth, a similarly supernatural force sets into motion the events which quickly spiral out of the hero’s control. Not only is Macbeth influenced by the witches – The Weird sisters – who represent the supernatural, but it seems that he is intimately linked with them from his very first line (Kranz): “So foul and fair a day I have not seen(1.3, 36),” uttered only moments before his encounter with the witches. This line mirrors the incantation of the witches in the first scene: “Fair is foul and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filth air (1.1, 12-13).” Such a clear motif used for the introduction of both the witches and Macbeth points to a much more intimate relationship between them than simple cause and effect: indeed, it points to the irrepressible hand of fate itself. From his very entrance to the play, Macbeth is not a man unto himself, but simply a prop on a stage. He is supernaturally linked to the Weird Sisters, and his encounter with them sets into motion something much larger than himself.
As mentioned earlier, the common interpretation is that Macbeth is a tragic hero led astray by his one fatal defect: ambition. It is not, though, his ambition constantly pushing him forward. Certainly, Macbeth’s ambition was quickly piqued after hearing the prophecy of the Weird Sisters, but even with the acute desire he held for the throne, he himself was fighting against the murder of Duncan will all this being. In Act One, Scene Seven, Macbeth even attempts to call off the murder, “We will proceed no further in this business (1.7, 32),” and requires substantial urging from Lady Macbeth in the form of one of the most impassioned and provocative speeches in all of Shakespeare for him to even reluctantly begin to once again consider the murder. Even Lady Macbeth, initially characterized as unscrupulously ambitious and one who would never shrink from murder herself, shows that it goes against even her inclinations to commit the murder:
Alak, I am afraid they have awak’d,
And ‘this not done; th’attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready,
He could not miss ‘em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t. (2.2, 9-13)
Lady Macbeth here realizes that holding an ambitious which takes murder to fulfill, and truly doing the murder are two very different things. Despite having, that same night, dispensed such a passionate speech decrying Macbeth for his lack of action despite his ambition, Lady Macbeth herself realizes she could never commit the murder. The entire portion of the play set at Macbeth’s castle reads as Macbeth being pushed forth, against all his inclinations, towards the murder like a cog in a machine.
The aftermath shows that there was nothing truly “willful” about Macbeth’s murder of Duncan. Macbeth recalls being physically unable to pronounce “Amen” while in the King’s room, and hearing voices cursing him. These are not the reactions of a man willingly committing a shameless murder to deliberately usurp power. True, Macbeth did physically commit the act, but with all the supernatural phenomena surrounding the murder, from the prophecy of the witches which set it in motion, to the ominous calling of the owl and Macbeth’s inability to utter “Amen,” there is much more going on than simply one man’s actions. Nothing about Macbeth’s true feelings changes immediately after the murder either, as he is immediately and gravely guilty: “To know my deed, ‘twere best not to know myself (2.2, 76).” With such external force necessary to push Macbeth, against his constantly voiced moral and practical antipathy, and his immediate grief after he finally commits the murder, it is hard to fully accept that he is being driven by his own personal characteristics. There is instead something pushing Macbeth forward, despite his attempts to reverse his course and despite even the cruelly ambitious Lady Macbeth’s inability to commit the murder where the chance presented itself: it is the invisible but ever present hand of fate itself.
Nor does Macbeth revel in his new role as King after the murder has grudgingly been completed. In fact, he seems to have undergone a complete transformation of character. The formerly noble warrior, for all of whom honor is of the highest importance, resorts to employing lowly street murderers to rid himself of Banquo and Florence, enticing the murders with the most blatant of lies: “This I made good to you in our last conference; passed in probation with you how you were borne in hand, how crossed; the instruments, who wrought with them, and all things else that might to a notion crazed say, ‘this did Banquo (3.1, 80-85).’” How could a man as firm in character as the reader is initially made to believe Macbeth is undergo such a complete transformation if he was truly acting autonomously under his own aegis? Moreover, if such a man were to willingly seize power for pure ambition’s sake, would he not relish in the power and status of his new life? But that is far from Macbeth’s perception of his new life as King:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this pretty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. (5.5, 18-25)
Macbeth is lamenting life itself, voicing the futility of all human action. Indeed, with the intermittent appearance of the Weird Sisters, the reader is always reminded that the force “[lighting] the way to dusty death” is not only a rhetorical device, but, in the world of Shakespeare, a very real entity: none other than the embodiment of fate, the supernatural, or any other force pushing history forward outside the control of mortal wills.
Macbeth is far from Shakespeare’s only treatment of the preponderance of fate over human action, but it is perhaps a perfect microcosm of his view on the issue. True, Macbeth was indeed the one committing each act which led to his downfall, but all throughout the reader can see him being driven by something greater than himself. Despite Macbeth’s noble proclivities, his great apprehension leading up to the murder, and even the inability of his wife, who had just portrayed herself as resolutely ambitious, to actually commit the murder when faced with the realistic possibility, Macbeth is constantly driven forward to his ultimate demise. The periodic appearances of the Weird Sisters serves as a regular reminder to the reader that the story is being engineered by forces far greater than the humans involved. It would be easy to simply classify Macbeth’s story as that of a man’s actions and their consequences, but when considering Shakespeare’s other works, Macbeth’s constant protests to almost every step his journey takes, and the supernatural events surrounding all of the play, it is clear that something more is afoot. Fate, according to the world of Shakespeare, is what truly drives the human world forward, and Macbeth is no exception.