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Does Macbeth Act as a Pawn of Fate or an Agent of Freewill?

by Sean Lowe 

The question 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.  Macbeth says,

The Prince of Cumberland!--That is a step,
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand! yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (Iiv 11)

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 Duncan ]” (Ivii 16).  She also emotionally manipulates Macbeth into killing Duncan . She accuses the murder-weary Macbeth of cowardice, saying “Wouldnst thou have that / Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, / And live a cowards in thine own esteem” (Ivi 17).  Also, she claims he has “sworn” (Ivi 17) to her that he would kill Duncan and that he is breaking an oath by refusing to kill him.  Macbeth, however, chooses to listen to his unscrupulous wife.  And, ultimately, Macbeth chooses to heed his wife’s persuasions.  Therefore, even though Macbeth is influenced by his wife, he still is an agent of free will.   

After Macbeth’s 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 England to garner an army to topple Macbeth.  Thus, Macbeth’s murder causes guilt that conjures Banquo’s ghost that leads to the Thanes’ uprise and Macbeth’s ruin.  In this way, Macbeth’s free act of murder leads to his ruin.  Macbeth’s reaction to the witches’ second set of prophecies also proves how Macbeth is culpable for his own demise.   The witches bring forth apparitions that tell Macbeth, “beware Macduff / …None of women born shall harm Macbeth. / Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (IVi 54-55).  Macbeth’s acts upon the prophecy about Macduff by having Macduff’s family and servants killed.  This mass murder, although based on the witches’ prophecy, is ultimately Macbeth’s misdeed.  He acts freely and independently.  Thus, he is an agent of freewill, responsible for his killings and responsible for the retributive backlash he receives from Macduff.

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.

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