Does Macbeth determine what happens to him, or is it determined by the witches?

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Harrison Murray, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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That's the question, isn't it? This same question is central to lots of Shakespearean plays and becomes a theme that I think Shakespeare wants his audience to consider. Are we all victims of fate with preset destinies, or are we all making our own choices on the path of life?

I would argue that Macbeth makes his own choices. Sure, the witches hand him some prophesies that seem to have some truth. But Macbeth himself is the one who eventually decides to take Duncan's lifeā€”and in great part because of his wife, who insults his sense of manly honor and courage. Macbeth hesitates in his plans, revealing the nature of his conscience:

We will proceed no further in this business.
He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon. (I.vii.33-37)

He considers a different choice. Yet after Lady Macbeth questions his valor, he recommits to their plans.

In one of his most brutal choices, Macbeth has Macduff's entire family killed, including his wife, his children, and every servant whom he employs. This shows the reach of Macbeth's devastation; he becomes consumed in covering his murder and in forcing loyalty from his subjects, and he will stop at nothing to maintain his hold on power.

Macbeth hears the prophesies of the witches and then decides what to do with the information. In his arrogance, he can't discern that all of their words may not bring a favorable outcome to him. He hears that no man born of a woman can harm him and that he "shall never vanquished be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him." Instead of trying to determine whether these events are indeed possible, he simply allows the predictions to bolster his already healthy sense of pride and further his own plans of carnage.

Macbeth seeks power and fame, and he makes very intentional decisions to bring those plans to fruition. He's not a passive character who simply allows things to happen to him; he carves out plans that will bring him closer to his goals, no matter the cost.

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