Free-will as a determining factor in Macbeth

William Shakespeares Macbeth is a tragic play which details the rise and fall of King Macbeth of Scotland. The impetus for the plays dark progression, along with the source of Macbeths status as a tragic figure, is an encounter between Macbeth and three witches which portends his rise to the throne, his descent into tyranny and his ultimate demise. Some may consider the fulfillment of these witches predictions as a clear sign that Macbeths path is a fated one, destined to happen. Instead, the witches manipulation of Macbeth, his own self-doubt and conflicting thought, and his self-realizing ambition show that it is free-will and not fate that determined the course of Shakespeares play.


While some may consider the weird sisters foretelling of Macbeths future as a sign of his predestined fate, the witches themselves cannot be relied upon as accurate oracles. Instead, they make reasonable assumptions as to the natural course of Scottish politics and utilize their limited abilities to ensure that their predictions come to pass. This is first seen after the witches hail Macbeth as thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo, upon learning of the previous thanes fate from the messenger, both marveled at the witches apparent ability of prophesy, even though Macbeth had already been named thane of Cawdor. This influences the two men into believing that their other prophecies will come to pass. This, in turn, spurred Macbeth to action, which caused him to fulfill through his own free will, though influenced by the witches suggestions of a possible kingship his own predictions. The witches themselves possess no real power to ensure that their predictions come to pass. This is seen during the witches conversation, as the first witch relates the tale of the sailor whose boat she could not directly destroy, but could only tempest-toss. Thus, the witches enact this same kind of power to affect the course of events. This shows that the life of Macbeth is not fated to occur, but is directly influenced by the will of specific individuals.

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Another aspect of Macbeth which clearly shows free will taking precedence over fate is shown by Macbeths deliberations and asides he makes while trying to realize his own ambitions. This is seen in numerous places before the murder of King Duncan (and even after). When initially confronted with the prophecy proclaiming him future king, Macbeth became worried with the initial prospect of what would have to happen to Duncan in order for him to assume the throne. Later, this concern shifts to what Macbeth was afraid hed have to do to Duncan, showing that he did not trust fate to carry out this course of action, and believed that his own inaction would leave the weird sisters prophesies unfulfilled. This is a drastic change from Macbeths prior philosophy that, If chance will have me king/ chance may crown me,/ Without my stir. (Act I. iii. 142-144) Also, before he resolves to finally kill Duncan, Macbeth lists a number of reasons why he should stay his hand in the assassination plot. Amongst these is the ultimate resting place of his immortal soul. His concern for his possible damnation shows that he recognizes the difference between premeditated murder and a fated assassination; if Duncans death was meant to happen and was meant to be done by Macbeth, then he could not be held responsible for his own actions. Also, in his conspiring with his wife, Macbeth raises the possibility of failing, a prospect which would be unthinkable if it was indeed fated to happen.


The final and most obvious source of free-will over fate is shown in Macbeths active fulfillment of his so-called destiny. Even from the beginning, Macbeth felt the burden of realizing his own ascension to the throne. It is his own ambition, spurred by the witches predictions and encouraged by his wife, that caused Macbeth to kill Duncan and engineer his own fate. Later, Macbeths growing mental unrest (shown by his increasing paranoia and the appearance of his phantom victim) began the path to fulfilling the later predictions. Macduff, initially, held Macbeth in high regard, and his inattendance would by any other person signal no more than an inability to travel to Macbeths court. To Macbeth, however, who is obsessed with his predicted abandonment of the throne without an heir, makes Macduff an instant enemy. After the witches feed Macbeth what he wants to hear specifically that Macduff is Macbeths chief enemy Macbeth proceeds to engineer his own death. While the witches prior prophecy hinted that Banquos entire family signaled Macbeths downfall, the second batch of predictions singled out only Macduff. Macbeths consequent murder of Macduffs family shows an act completely motivated by free-will and uninspired by the weird sisters. With this action done based solely on Macbeths decision to do so Macduffs hand is forced. Thus, actions made by Macbeth and Macbeth alone constructed his own death. If Macbeths own action led to his final death, then fate had nothing to do with it.


Free-wills influence was paramount to the story of Macbeth. The weird sisters, though having influence over Macbeth, did not directly see the future events. Macbeths own wavering constitution showed his lack of faith in fate. And his active participation in the fulfillment of the witches prophecies showed that it was free-will, and not fate, which led from Macbeths crowning to his beheading.