Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Which is responsible for Macbeth's downfall, fate or free will?  

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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From a God's-eye perspective, it was always inevitable that Macbeth would act as he did and that he'd end up paying a very heavy price for his treachery. In that sense, one could say that his downfall was fated. But from an earthly standpoint, the exact opposite conclusion can be drawn, which is that Macbeth was wholly a victim of the bad choices that he made.

At every turn, Macbeth chose to act as he did; no one ever forced him to murder Duncan, or wipe out Macduff's family, or turn himself into a bloody tyrant once he'd taken over the Scottish throne. Though he was certainly encouraged to take his actions—by Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters—he still had to go through with them, and for that he required free will.

Besides, the prophecies of the Weird Sisters are so vague that they require Macbeth to fill in the details. They require him to make these prophecies come to life. And that can only be done by the deliberate exercise of free will. No matter how tempting the witches ' prophecies...

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profour | Student

Many scholars believe it is a combination of both. As the Weird Sisters symbolize fate (the word “wyrd,” of which “weird” is derivative, is the ancient term for Fate), their appearance so early in the play with prophesies for Macbeth and Banquo sets in motion the action for the rest of the play. A common argument is that if the witches had not shown up, Macbeth night never have gotten it in to his head that he could be king. He would never have written Lady Macbeth the letter that detailed his meeting with the witches, and Lady Macbeth, therefore, would never have hatched the plan to assassinate King Duncan.
Of course, this is Shakespeare. The play exists entirely BECAUSE we are supposed to believe that Macbeth is a victim of Fate. As the witches tell him, “All hail, Thane of Glamis! All hail, King hereafter!” He’s just doing what is foretold..... isn’t he?
Act 2, when Macbeth kills the guards offstage, is where free will steps in. Macbeth makes a conscious decision to murder more people in support of his reign as king. As he descends further into his own madness by hiring murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, Macbeth draws further away from Fate and closer to the decisions that create his undoing. In Act 3, Macbeth says, “I am in blood steeped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Loosely translated, Macbeth is cognizant of his mistakes, of what he has done, but also recognizes that the shortest way out is through, and not backwards. He cannot change what he has done to get where he is. But HE did it. HE made the choice to murder more people.
Ultimately, the question of Fate vs Free Will is not a simple one to answer. While Fate may have begun the chain of events, Macbeth’s Free Will is responsible for his own downfall.

growly | Student

The real answer to this depends on when you lived. To the people watching Macbeth in 1606, they believed that witches were as real as terrorists, and had the power to make good people do bad things. Today, we believe that all people have free will and choose their fate [or have psychological problems and cannot make their own decisions]. In the play, you need to contrast how Macbeth and Banquo each react differently to the witches prophesies. Clearly, Macbeth seems more 'corruptible' than Banquo and to that degree he is an easier target for the witches. We never find out why the witches decided to choose Macbeth in the first place? Was it random? Did they think he had the 'seeds of evil' in him? Could they have corrupted Banquo? How you answer that will determine to what degree you think Macbeth is responsible for his own downfall...