In The Tragedy of Macbeth, do you think Macbeth would have done all the misdeeds if he had not been tempted by the witches' prophecies?Macbeth

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Yes.  Prophetic characters see the future the same way that we see the past; Macbeth's future has already happened; their telling him his future-titles no more controls the titles he will wear than does my telling you your previous semester's grades controls the grades you already made. 

It's like prophetic characters can watch live broadcasts that  air in the eternal realm; with our temporal nature, though, we're not tuned in to the air like the witches are.  We humanize Time, bind it in hours, mark it as we live it.  But at the anagnorisis stage of his fall,  Macbeth recognizes his misunderstanding of Time as his flaw--as his impatience to control what all along flows indeed "without my stir."  In fact, with his reply to Seyton's (pronounced Satan's) news of LM's death, Macbeth gets his amen--he ties together eternity, mortality, and prophecy: "She should have dies hereafter; there would have been time for such a word."  His understanding turns to resignation, despair, self-reflection, and emptiness as he sees the circular rather than linear nature of time. 

His subsequent lamentation shows he's trapped himself in that circle, for he cannot escape Time by words: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . / to the last syllable of recorded time . . ." nor words by time: "a tale told by an idiot . . . / Signifying nothing."  Ironically, from this awareness on out, the play moves "quickly"--setting up Macbeth's  death and a new life's timely return.

This is interesting and gets to one of the basic enigmas in the play: the nature of the witches.

Do the witches really have the supernatural power to see the future, or are they malevolent troublemakers who have Macbeth in their sights and have fun trifling with him? Hecate wasn't really thrilled when she found out what they had been doing.

If they really can see the future, does that mean it has happened already on some universal plane, or that it is destined to happen as time advances?

And if it is destined to happen and Macbeth will wear the robes, does that mean that his specific actions are destined also? If he had not acted, would he have become king anyway, as he once said, "without my stir"?

And then I also wonder . . . if Macbeth's future was the past he hadn't caught up with yet, then what of free will? Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to be a tragic figure. Can there be tragedy without free will, or does the protagonist simply become an unlucky Thane who drew a bad hand?

 

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I don't think so. There is nothing in the play to suggest that he would have become such a vicious traitor, and there is much to suggest that he would not have. Macbeth had been a friend and defender of King Duncan for a long time. He had fought for Duncan, bravely and with no fear of his own life. His title, Thane of Glamis, indicates that Duncan had rewarded him in the past for his bravery.

In the beginning of the play, Duncan makes Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, in addition to being Thane of Glamis, to reward him for having been such a strong and valiant general in their most recent battle. Macbeth was famous for his courage and loyalty to Duncan.

Macbeth was repelled by the idea of killing Duncan. He agonized over it. Only his ambition pushed him into Duncan's murder in order to get the crown. There is nothing in the play to suggest that Macbeth ever had acted upon his ambition, or was even aware of it, until the witches' stop Macbeth and Banquo on the heath and tell their prophecies. It is their words that make Macbeth visualize something he would never have thought of on his own.

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

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Macbeth's future is not destined in that it is predecided before he acts.  His future comes as a result of his freely willed choices--the prophetic characters have seen those choices--their prophecy reports the news.  So Macbeth's eventual throne occurs--and that's all the witches say at this point in the play to him.  Whether the news inspires him or not is moot at this point--but to the play the game a bit... the witches see him as king before they tell him the news--and yes, the "before" that I note is meaningless to the witches, but in the linear scheme of things, I'm of the mind (at least until I'm disabused) that by the time they give the news, his throne is a future done deal--and this interpretation I'm also coming to based on their similar presentation of his  Thane of Cawdor title; they report the Thane of Cawdor's "former title" before Macbeth knows about it, but their report does not influence Duncan's freely willed decision to award Macbeth the robes.  So if we flip time backwards and imagine the witches have likewise seen Mac as king, then their news also comes too late to have any influence his already enacted freely willed choices that have brought him to the throne.  Just as he doesn't know he's Thane of Cawdor, he doesn't know he's king.

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

Posted on

Yes.  Prophetic characters see the future the same way that we see the past; Macbeth's future has already happened; their telling him his future-titles no more controls the titles he will wear than does my telling you your previous semester's grades controls the grades you already made. 

It's like prophetic characters can watch live broadcasts that  air in the eternal realm; with our temporal nature, though, we're not tuned in to the air like the witches are.  We humanize Time, bind it in hours, mark it as we live it.  But at the anagnorisis stage of his fall,  Macbeth recognizes his misunderstanding of Time as his flaw--as his impatience to control what all along flows indeed "without my stir."  In fact, with his reply to Seyton's (pronounced Satan's) news of LM's death, Macbeth gets his amen--he ties together eternity, mortality, and prophecy: "She should have dies hereafter; there would have been time for such a word."  His understanding turns to resignation, despair, self-reflection, and emptiness as he sees the circular rather than linear nature of time. 

His subsequent lamentation shows he's trapped himself in that circle, for he cannot escape Time by words: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . . / to the last syllable of recorded time . . ." nor words by time: "a tale told by an idiot . . . / Signifying nothing."  Ironically, from this awareness on out, the play moves "quickly"--setting up Macbeth's  death and a new life's timely return.

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