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Free will or fate?Is there evidence of Macbeth's actions being guided by destiny or...

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sly-2314 | Student, Grade 11 | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted March 19, 2010 at 11:20 AM via web

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Free will or fate?

Is there evidence of Macbeth's actions being guided by destiny or by free will?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 19, 2010 at 11:31 AM (Answer #2)

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In my opinion, all people have free will and can do what they want.  I do not see anything in Macbeth that makes me think that he is not choosing to do the things he does.

The witches' prophecies do, of course, influence him to act.  However, he has to interpret the words they say and it is his actions that make the prophecies come true, for the most part.

If Macbeth were being controlled by destiny, I do not think he would have felt so guilty.  I do not think he would have seen the ghost of Banquo or the bloody dagger.

I think Macbeth is just a normal human being who is influenced to act in some way, but the choice is ultimately his -- he is just influenced, not forced.

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted March 19, 2010 at 12:03 PM (Answer #3)

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Concerning free will and predestination in Shakespeare's Macbeth, our views on whether or not people have free will are irrelevant.  Macbeth is a character in a play, not a human being.  In answering this or any other question about a work of art, what matters is what's in the work of art. 

What's for sure is that Shakespeare raises the issue in the play and reflects questions that were on the minds of thinkers in his day.  Predestination vs. free will was an issue in Shakespeare's time, as, in fact, it still is today.  Shakespeare's play reflects this.  The issue may be seen as a refinement or continuation of the question of fate, which goes back at least as far as the Greeks.

The fact is that in the play the issue is ambiguous, and an argument can be made supporting that Macbeth was controlled by fate, or that Macbeth maintained free will. 

At the heart of the issue are the witches.  Do they really know the future?  Do they just know the future, or do they control it, too?  Or are they just insightful and well-informed? 

Magic and the supernatural were acceptable ingredients in Elizabethan theatre, so they certainly cannot be easily dismissed and explained away.

Another aspect of the question centers on how ambitious Macbeth was before the witches started making their predictions.  There is evidence that he was and that he wasn't, but nothing conclusive. 

One certainty in the play is that once Macbeth makes it past the assassination of Duncan and the killing of the grooms, he keeps his wife out of the decision-making process, orders more killings, and seeks out the witches again on his own to get more information and reassurance.  That much is sure. 

But as to the extent of fate or predestination influencing him to murder Duncan, you'll have to look at the evidence in the text and decide for yourself. 

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted March 19, 2010 at 6:02 PM (Answer #4)

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There doesn't appear to be anything in the play that suggest that Macbeth was a pawn of the Gods and unable to make a decision on his own. He was weak, of course, and his ability to carry out the murders of King Duncan and the others that followed were not necessarily started by the witches, but by Lady Macbeth herself. It was her goading early on that led him to commit the acts he did. He might have been stirred up by the prophecie3s of the witches, but without the actions of Lady Macbeth, he would not have had the will nor the strength to commit those acts in the first place. 

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted March 20, 2010 at 4:06 AM (Answer #5)

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In the play "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, the author shows us a man whose actions go out of control - towards the end of the play it is difficult to see how much of this is Fate or destiny and how much is his own fault. One interpretation is that if we picture fate as being in our genes (in other words our body/personality codes are all mapped out for us before we are even born and drive our actions on a certain trajectory) then we could say that Macbeth was bound (by fate,birth or genes) to end up doing what he did. Environment influences how far this has an effect, Macbeth learnt somewhere that his actions were wrong - Macbeth says "Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis all As the weird women promised;and,I fear Thou play'dst most foully for't." -

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cetaylorplfd | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted April 16, 2010 at 5:15 PM (Answer #6)

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I agree with Post #3--the issue could go either way depending on the reader's/viewer's interpretation of the play.  When looking at the witches' prophecy for example, one could argue that fate had predetermined Macbeth's outcome--the witches predicted all that would happen to Macbeth.  On the other hand, one could argue that Macbeth enacted free will in the situation--the witches told him that he would be King of Scotland, but they did not tell him how he would end up in that position.  Macbeth made a free decision to kill the king for his title.  Similarly, many of the details in the play could be interpreted from both angles.

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linalarocca | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted April 16, 2010 at 11:46 PM (Answer #7)

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I agree with post #2 about the fact that Macbeth may be influenced by the witches, but he is ultimately the decision maker around the killings. I do not agree, however, that the illusion of the dagger, and Banquo's ghost is different from fate or destiny. If we look at the knocking, voices, and visions that Macbeth hears and sees, we can find a connection between the witches' presence (in spirit form) and Macbeth's delusions. All of these symbolize corruption in Scotland. Can we not interpret the prophecies as fate or an external force working on Macbeth? I do believe that he allows the witches to drive him to plot the murders because he seeks them and realizes their visions.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted April 30, 2010 at 7:37 AM (Answer #8)

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You have put your finger on a key issue that the play focuses on, and one that Macbeth himself ponders in the play! I agree with other critics here. If we compare Macbeth to other characters who have similar issues regarding free will vs. fate, such as Aeneas in the Aeneid, we cannot really say that Macbeth is a helpless pawn or robot having decisions made for him and leading him down a course of disaster. As Banquo comments in Act I scene iii:

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of Darkness tell us truths;

Win us with honest trifles, to betray's

In deepest consequence.

Just because the witches were correct in their prophecy that Macbeth would become Thane of Cawdor does not mean that Macbeth had to kill Duncan in order to become King. Instead, if he were predestined to become King, arguably, he would not have needed to act to achieve this position. Rather we see the witches' prophecies clearly acting upon a man who had already had thoughts of regicide to gain power and encouraging him and Lady Macbeth to pursue their evil course.

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kristenfusaro | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

Posted August 18, 2010 at 7:19 PM (Answer #9)

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Concerning free will and predestination in Shakespeare's Macbeth, our views on whether or not people have free will are irrelevant.  Macbeth is a character in a play, not a human being.  In answering this or any other question about a work of art, what matters is what's in the work of art. 

What's for sure is that Shakespeare raises the issue in the play and reflects questions that were on the minds of thinkers in his day.  Predestination vs. free will was an issue in Shakespeare's time, as, in fact, it still is today.  Shakespeare's play reflects this.  The issue may be seen as a refinement or continuation of the question of fate, which goes back at least as far as the Greeks.

The fact is that in the play the issue is ambiguous, and an argument can be made supporting that Macbeth was controlled by fate, or that Macbeth maintained free will. 

At the heart of the issue are the witches.  Do they really know the future?  Do they just know the future, or do they control it, too?  Or are they just insightful and well-informed? 

Magic and the supernatural were acceptable ingredients in Elizabethan theatre, so they certainly cannot be easily dismissed and explained away.

Another aspect of the question centers on how ambitious Macbeth was before the witches started making their predictions.  There is evidence that he was and that he wasn't, but nothing conclusive. 

One certainty in the play is that once Macbeth makes it past the assassination of Duncan and the killing of the grooms, he keeps his wife out of the decision-making process, orders more killings, and seeks out the witches again on his own to get more information and reassurance.  That much is sure. 

But as to the extent of fate or predestination influencing him to murder Duncan, you'll have to look at the evidence in the text and decide for yourself. 

I agree with this post; one of the main themes set forth by Shakespeare in Macbeth is the questioning of unchecked ambition. If Macbeth always had unchecked ambition, then you can argue that his encounter with the witches really only acted as a catalyst to actions that would have occurred anyway; however, one may argue that the witches were the only factor to springboard Macbeth's debauchery.

Either side of the argument has a strong basis with supporting evidence. If one would argue that it is fate, then one may bring up the pathetic fallacy that occurs throughout the play (owls screaming, crickets crying, mad horses, etc.), for this literary element demonstrates the Karmic forces of fate. If one would argue otherwise, then one may bring up Banquo's character; Banquo is very similar to Macbeth is stature (which is why he ends up being his foil), and he hears the same prophecies, yet he does not act on this news.

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