Written by William Shakespeare in the 1600s, Macbeth remains one of the most popular, influential, and powerful creations of Shakespeare. It depicts the rise and fall of King Macbeth, and deepens in the motives of the actions of an individual, here – the main character Macbeth; as well as raising the question of whether he was in control of his destiny, or under influence of people and events that surrounded him. The relationship between fate and free will is the most elaborate theme, that permeates the tragedy from beginning to end, and leaves the platform for discussion, thus still allowing the reader to draw a subjective conclusion regarding this point. What determines the path of Macbeth? Is it free will, or fate indeed?

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As the path of Macbeth opens for a reader, the future king meets three witches. Witches predict that Macbeth will become king. “All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” (Shakespeare 1.3.50-55), quote of one of the witches represents a beginning of Macbeth’s rise to power, triggering him to think about killing Duncan. This is the main factor influencing the future decisions of Macbeth, the decisions, that contributed to the actual realization of the prophecy. Shakespeare’s placement of three witches at the front of the events is a way of shaping readers’ perception of the text. Wilson states that the author’s use of language is crucial in portraying the witches as a supernatural factor and in separating them from the rest of the characters in the play (147). Thus, the witches personify fate. Presented by Shakespeare as sublime above ordinary people, the witches represent something that is not under control of a person, but rather that has the control. In The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth, by Kranz, the author focuses on the poetic metre of the witches’ lines, stating that “on the one hand, the tune clearly distinguishes the witches from the human characters, who always speak in blank verse, rhymed iambic pentameter, or prose” (352). The entrances and exits, used by the author, create tension, making the reader, or the audience of the visual representation of the play, to feel uncomfortable while the witches are in action. The witches appear and vanish adding the feeling of uncertainty.

Macbeth’s wife also influenced his decisions, however using a more trivial but emotional approach, encouraging her husband for straight actions towards gaining the power. Despite this, Macbeth seems to still choose the murder on his own. The freedom of Macbeth’s will is expressed in his reflections; a soliloquy with himself, in which he talks about the murder of Duncan; the murder which is still only a fantasy, “present are less than horrible imaginings, my thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes so my singe state of man that function, is smothered in surmise, and nothing is, but what is not.” (Shakespeare 1.3.147-155). Neither witches nor Lady Macbeth could force Macbeth to kill Duncan, but they manipulated him, implanting the idea of a murder in his mind. Hence, fate, or influence from the outside, substitutes free will. And until the end, freedom of will and destiny remain closely intertwined. This way the play makes an important distinction: fate may dictate what will be, but how that destiny comes is a matter of man’s choice or, free will.

There is no doubt that the strongest argument for the presence of free will is Macbeth’s own desire to become king. “Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, and make my seated heart knocks at my ribs” (Shakespeare 1.3.147-155) This was said before he murdered King Duncan, and shows the guilt he was feeling for even thinking about murder. Being a victim and slave to egoistic and cruel ambition, Macbeth feels uncomfortable about it, proving the point that he is not forced to do it. Shakespeare sharpens the reader’s attention to the sense of Macbeth’s guilt by means of supernatural phenomena arising on the path of Macbeth. The floating dagger and Banquo’s ghost, seen by Macbeth are ambiguous, and give the reader a choice to decide, whether they are real phenomena, or signs of Macbeth’s traumatized state of mind, caused by Duncan’s murder. Given that Macbeth is a play, the interpretation of these elements also depends on the observer’s role as either a reader of text or an audience member. The effect of representing this spiritual item as a hallucination is that the audience are led to feel sympathy for Macbeth. In contrast to that, Lady Macbeth’s death meant that she was broken by severe guilt. She cannot accept the man that her husband has become due to her own insistence. Sympathy now is changed for critique. Macbeth killed Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff and her son. All this guilt results in her death, after a suicidal agony, which I think points on the possibility of suicide as a way of escaping the intolerable reality. 

Macbeth is full of extreme compression and emotional gravity, despite the fact of intentionally simplified dialogues, hence making them closer to usual conversation, at the same time saving uncertainty. The characters are rarely telling things straight. Each scene combines drama and mysticism, ambiguity, leaving a sense of incompleteness, thus confirming that, despite the fact of Macbeth’s own choices, he was motivated and pushed towards the goal.

  • Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “English Epicures and Scottish Witches”. Shakespeare Quarterly 57.2 (2006): 131-161. Print.
  • Kranz, D. (2003). The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in “Macbeth”. Studies in Philology, 100(3), 346-383. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4174762
  • Roy, K., Law, H., Kortes, M., & Shakespeare, W. (1989). Macbeth. Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Canada.