Fate, Free Will, and the Tragedy of Macbeth

a person holding sharp pointed knife

In his review of Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, Dr Aidan Elliott, PhD considers a key theme in the tragedy, Fate and Free Will. The play was probably first performed in 1606 before King James I of England (1603-1625), who was also James VI of Scotland (1567 – 1625). The king was a patron of Shakespeare’s acting company and would have been very interested in the story of a brave Scottish general, Macbeth, who became consumed with ambition after he heard a prophecy from a trio of witches that he would become King of Scotland.

The tension between Fate and Free Will would also have been of interest to James I because there was an important theological debate raging in Christendom over the Sovereignty of God and man’s Free Will. The Church of England, which embraced the teachings of the Reformers on this matter, was being challenged by the teachings of Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian.

Not surprisingly, The Tragedy of Macbeth reinforces the view of King James I that he had been appointed by God to rule. Any opposition to the will of the king might very well have a bloody ending, much like Macbeth experienced in the play.

The theory of the Divine Right of the King was believed to be essential for stability in society. No disruptive opposition to the crown was to be tolerated. The king had a Divine Right to rule as he saw fit.

Fate Defined

As Dr. Elliot considers the tension between Fate and Free Will in Macbeth, he begins his observations by defining Fate.

“Fate refers to events outside a person’s control, predetermined by a supernatural power.” Theologians call this supernatural power the sovereignty of God.

Important questions arise.

“Are the events in the play predetermined by a supernatural power?”

“Are the events outside a person’s control?”

“Is Macbeth a puppet of Fate?”

“Does Macbeth exercise his own Free Will?”

“What is the evidence?”

It can be noted that Fate, meaning supernatural power, is reflected in the Three Witches called, the Weird Sisters. These women are not odd, peculiar, or strange; they were the embodiment of Fate, or Destiney. The Weird Sisters foretell the Fate of Macbeth, with total accuracy, which indicates a predetermination of all that was to come to pass.

Theologians would say the Weird Sisters expressed Foreknowledge of Divine Certainty. What they said would come to pass. It was Foreordained to happen.

The Witches spoke to the Scottish military Thane (General), and said:

“All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
All hail Macbeth, that shall be king hereafter.”

~Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 66-68

The anaphor, or repetition of the phrase, “All hail Macbeth”, makes a connection between three ideas. Macbeth is the Thane of Glamis. Macbeth is the Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth shall certainly be king of Scotland. It is without question.

Shortly after the Three Witches spoke, Macbeth received word that indeed he had been made king of Cawdor. The Weird Sisters were right. How did they know? It was his Fate.

When Macbeth discovered the Three Witches had been right in what they said, an ember of ambition began to burn in his soul that would soon enflame the totality of his being. 

As Macbeth considered his future, his friend, Banquo, began to wonder about his own future, his own Fate. What was to be his destiny? The Three Witches were able to give him an answer.

“Thou shall get kings, though he be none.”

~Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, Line 65

Banquo was told that he would beget many children who would become kings of Scotland, but he would never personally be king. That was his Fate. It was a fixed certainty.

Since Banquo can never become king, he cannot use his Free Will to manipulate events. It would be to no avail.

In contrast, since Macbeth was told that he would become king, he could act upon that information, or, he could passively wait for it to happen.

Initially, Macbeth was skeptical.

“…to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief.”

~Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 71-72

The reason why Macbeth thought it was impossible to become king, was because of the current belief that kings were appointed by God. King Duncan of Scotland will only be replaced when he dies.

So, either Duncan can appoint Macbeth to succeed him as king, or, Macbeth can seize the throne by force.

“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that functions
smothered in surmise.”

~ Macbeth, Acts 1, Scene 3, Lines 138-140

Macbeth confesses to imagining murdering Duncan, King of Scotland. Macbeth was contemplating regicide, believed at that time to be the vilest act a human can commit, killing the Divine ruler.

His murderous thought was so fantastic, Macbeth felt paralyzed. He could not function properly, much like Scotland, or any state, which becomes immobilized when the mind is divided as to what should be done. Macbeth wants to kill Duncan, but he cannot bring himself to do such a dreadful deed. Murder is morally wrong.

Another thought comes to Macbeth which gives him a momentary ray of hope.

“If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir.”

~Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, Line 142-143

Macbeth hopes that Fate will make him king without him taking any action. He does not want to exercise his Free Will to determine an outcome.

At this moment, Duncan surprises Macbeth with the news that he has decided upon an heir to the throne.

“We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm.”

~Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4, Lines 137-138

The situation suddenly became intolerable for Macbeth. He now had two men between himself and the throne. He had to remove Duncan, and he had to remove Malcolm. Macbeth feels that he must do something, or the throne shall be lost. He must act upon the information he has received. He must exercise his will in this matter.

To encourage her husband to move towards regicide, Lady Macbeth appears, and speaks.

“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou are promised.”

~Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 13-14

By using the word “shalt”, Lady Macbeth is expressing her own certainty of any dark deeds against the king and the royal family.

Despite her own certainty, Lady Macbeth believes her husband is weak, and so, she attacks his manhood in order to motivate him to commit a despicable deed.

“Yet I do fear thy nature,
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.”

~Macbeth, Acts 1, Scene 5, Line 14-16

The milk of human kindness suggests tenderness, as a mother feeds her baby at her breast. Lady Macbeth believes her husband is too sensitive, too weak, and too indecisive to “catch the nearest way” to the throne, which would be to murder Duncan.

The irony is that Macbeth is a gifted and heroic warrior. He is use to killing people. He is familiar with the bloody carnage of warfare, and yet, he is accused of being too civilized to act in immoral way. Fighting to defend king and country is morally right. Trying to destroy both for personal ambition is morally wrong.

The choice Macbeth faces is whether or not he will move, of his own Free Will, from being a moral person, to being an immoral person. Will he, of his own Free Will, sacrifice virtue and cavity on the altar of personal ambition?

Free Will Defined

It is at this point that Free Will needs to be defined. Dr. Elliott does not define Free Will, which is probably just as well because there is a popular, but pagan, definition of this term.

The most widely prevalent view of Free Will is the Humanist View. Free will is commonly defined as the ability to make choices spontaneously. These choices are not determined by any prior conditions, prejudices, inclination, or disposition.

In contrast, The Tragedy of Macbeth teaches that the choices a person makes are not spontaneous, for there is always an influence on the will. The strongest influence on the will determines what shall be done.

Left to himself, Macbeth was in such an agitated state that he was immobilized from acting. So, what moved the General to act one way instead of another? The answer is easy to discern.

The words of Lady Macbeth questioning her husband’s courage, and manhood, moved his will to commit regicide.

The murder of Duncan, and others, was not a spontaneous action.

Their murder was a cold and calculating response to an assault on his personal pride, and his own personal ambition.

Macbeth could not say, “The Devil made me do it.”

He could not say he had no choice in the matter; he did.

Macbeth could not say he was a puppet on a string.

He could not defend his behavior by whining that he was weak, and a victim of his wife’s nagging.

No, of his own Free Will, Macbeth acted, and in his action fulfilled the Fate he was foretold.

Macbeth could not rail against Fate, any more than any person has a right to rail against God for the choices they make, that ultimately conform to what the Lord has predetermined shall come to pass.

On the Day of Pentecost Peter spoke of Jesus “being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God”, who was “taken by wicked hands” and was crucified and slain (Acts 2:23). Fate, or Predestination, is not incompatible with Free Will, or the choices individuals gladly make.

Macbeth was self-aware that he was violating his conscience. The Bible teaches the conscience can be seared, like a cauterized flesh wound so that it is no longer sensitive.

Said Macbeth,

“If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success.

~Macbeth, Acts 1, Scene 7, Lines 2-4

Macbeth understood there was a Cause, and Effect, relation to his choices, which he wanted to be interrupted.

He wanted to kill Duncan, without any bad consequences, such as a feeling of guilt, the loss of respect in society, or protest from the legitimate heirs of Duncan to the throne. He wanted Malcom to be quiet, and if he would not be silent, Macbeth was willing to kill him too.

Macbeth wanted to “trammel”, or catch in a net, the results of his wicked actions, so that they did not interfere with his success in seizing the throne.

In like manner, individuals want to exercise their own Free Will independent of God, but without the consequences He has foreordained as the penalty for sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). There is physical death; there is an eternal death. Individuals freely chose their own destinies, and then rail against God for working all things together after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11).

It is not uncommon, when a person does something wrong, but does not want to be held accountable, to say they were but “puppets on a string”, just like Macbeth. Individuals are desperate to avoid accepting any responsibility,

Macbeth wanted to sin without a guilty conscience; he wanted no Savior; he wanted no God to confess to. Macbeth wanted a throne, but no cross. He wanted heaven on earth, even if that meant murder, without any negative consequences. Macbeth wanted Duncan to surcease, or die, and he wanted his own success, being king, to prevail.  

By using the word “If”, Macbeth knew that all choices have consequences. Macbeth freely chose to do wrong. In his mind, at that moment, he would pay any price to satisfy his ambition. Such is that nature of sin that blinds the mind, soils the soul, and enslaves the totality of a person. Macbeth knew in his heart he had no-one to blame but himself.

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?”

~Macbeth, Acts 2, Scene 1, Line 33-34

“It is a dagger, Macbeth, and with your own Free Will you took it, and sealed your Fate.”

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* While the dialogue in Macbeth is the product of Shakespeare’s fertile imagination, there was a real Macbeth, King of Scotland, in the 11th century. He took the throne after his cousin Duncan I died in battle in AD 1040.

Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) is the historical source for Shakespeare’s literary narrative of Macbeth, King of Scotland, Macduff, and Duncan.

The Gunpowder Plot (1605), and the execution of Henry Garnet, are also believed to have influenced the play. 

“Fate and Free Will in Macbeth: Key Quotes & Analysis”, Dr Aidan, PhD (You Tube)

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