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Does Macbeth Act as a Pawn of Fate or an Agent of
by Sean Lowe
by Sean Lowe
audiences often ask after seeing Shakespeare’s Macbeth is why Macbeth
falls to the depths of evil that he does. Superficially,
it almost seems as if Macbeth is a pawn of fate, with such fateful influences
like the witches and his wife pushing him towards murder and evil.
In reality, however, Macbeth is no mere pawn of fate.
Rather, he freely chooses to let fateful factors influence him to murder
and then chooses to keep on murdering. Thus,
although Macbeth is influenced by the witches and Lady Macbeth, he ultimately
acts as an agent of free will.
The witches and
Lady Macbeth push Macbeth towards regicide, but this influence does not negate
Macbeth’s culpability. The witches
do suggest Macbeth will be king, but Macbeth chooses to listen to them and
produces the idea of regicide. They
tell him first that he is Thane of Glamis and that he will be Thane of Cawdor
and king. Macbeth comes to trust the
witches when he discovers they have been right about his being Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth then begins to believe that he will be king. “Two truths are
told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (Iiii
9). Thence, Macbeth considers murder
as a means to achieve his kinghood. “My
thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” (Iiii 9).
Macbeth’s thought of murder becomes much less fantastical after King
Duncan names his son as the heir to the thrown.
The Prince of
Cumberland!--That is a step,
Although the witches initially
suggest kinghood for Macbeth, Macbeth chooses to accept this premise.
And, Macbeth, as an agent of
free will, fosters the idea of murder. Thus,
even the thought of murder cannot be blamed on the witches, but on Macbeth
himself. Lady Macbeth’s role
as coconspirator also does not clear Macbeth of guilt.
Lady Macbeth acts as the “spur
to prick the sides of [Macbeth’s] intent [to murder
fateful regicide, Macbeth no longer needs witches or a conniving wife to push
him towards evil and destruction; he consciously and independently causes his
own demise. His murder of the
king’s guards, for example, marks his free and conscious plummet to evil.
Macbeth’s murder of Banquo also exemplifies how Macbeth
freely and consciously descends to evil. Macbeth
recalls the prophecy of the witches, saying
They haile’d [Banquo]
father to a line of kings.
Upon my head they
plac’d a fruitless crown,
And put a barren
scepter in my grip,
Thence to be
wrench’d with an unlineal hand (IIIi 35).
Macbeth, fearing the truth of this
prophecy, calls upon murderers to kill Banquo.
When Macbeth gets Banquo killed, he acts as an agent of free will.
Thus his descent to evil is his fault. Macbeth’s
choice to kill Banquo also indirectly leads to his fateful ruin.
Macbeth feels guilty about killing Banquo, and this guilt manifests
itself in the form of a ghost at the royal banquet table. In
front of all the Scottish noblemen, Macbeth says to Banquo’s ghost, whom only
he sees, “Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (IIIiv
45). Macbeth’s hallucination
exposes his guilt to the Thanes, and they consequently turn against him.
From Macbeth’s hallucination-inspired statements, the noblemen realize
Macbeth probably is responsible for Banquo’s murder.
Macbeth’s statements even tip off Macduff, who then leaves for
Looking at Macbeth
from a cause and effect standpoint, the witches seem to be an initial cause of
Macbeth’s tragedy. But ultimately,
it is Macbeth’s fault for allowing this prophecy to propel him to murder and
corruption. Metaphorically speaking,
the witches gave Macbeth a flame, but Macbeth lit himself on fire and kept
feeding that fire until he was completely destroyed.
Thus, it can hardly be argued that Macbeth is a pawn of fate, a victim of
circumstance. Rather, Macbeth
creates his own tragic circumstance, freely murdering his way to his demise.
This page was last updated on 10/10/05.