Study Guide

Macbeth Fate and Free Will

By William Shakespeare

Fate and Free Will

Act 1, Scene 2

CAPTAIN
And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore. But all's too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name) 
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution, (1.2.16-20)

Basically, the captain says here that Macbeth should have died in battle—but he was stronger than his fate. If this is true, then Macbeth has no one to blame but himself. But notice that the captain calls Macbeth "damned quarry": Macbeth may escape fortune this time, but that "rebel's whore" will get him in the end. (Hey, Shakespeare's words, not ours.)

Act 1, Scene 3
Banquo

BANQUO
Look, how our partner's rapt. (1.3.156)

"Rapt" comes from the Latin word "raptus," which means to be "seized" or "kidnapped." (Brain snack: It's the same word that gives us "rape," which clues you into the way that women were viewed as property—rape was a crime against a man's property rather than a crime against a woman.) But back to the play: if Macbeth is "rapt," then he's been "seized" by something outside of his control. Does that mean we let him off the hook?

Weird Sisters (the Witches)

FIRST WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

SECOND WITCH
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

THIRD WITCH
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! (1.3.51-53)

Million-dollar question: are the witches (1) playing on Macbeth's ambition and planting the idea of murder in his head; (2) really privy to some secret info about the way things are going to go down; or (3) actually controlling fate in some way?

Macbeth

MACBETH [Aside]
If chance will have me king, why, chance may
   crown me,
Without my stir. (1.3.157-159)

Here, Macbeth briefly decides to let "chance" take its course rather than fighting things, or, you know, murdering his noble king. Piece of advice, Macbeth: go with this line of thought. But if "chance" is the same as "fate," then it seems to amount to the same thing—and it's not good for Macbeth. Or Duncan. (Decent for Malcolm, however.)

Act 1, Scene 4
Macbeth

MACBETH [Aside]
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. (1.4.55-60)

Uh-oh. Once he learns that King Duncan has named Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland and heir to the crown of Scotland, Macbeth isn't content to wait around for "chance" to intervene. He decides that he must take action, or "o'erleap" the obstacles in his path to the throne. By murder. Well, this seems pretty willful to us.

Act 1, Scene 7
Macbeth

MACBETH
                        Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none. (1.7.50-52)

When Macbeth tries to insist that the murder plot is off, Lady Macbeth needles him (and makes a few impotence jokes) until he finally gives in. That's right—gives in. Saying "I dare do all that may become a man" sounds a lot like he's made a decision.

Act 2, Scene 1
Macbeth

MACBETH
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use. (2.1.44-55)

"The dagger made me do it" isn't a defense we've heard before, but it seems to work for Macbeth. Look at that "Come, let me clutch thee": it sounds a lot like he doesn't have a choice.

Act 3, Scene 1
Macbeth

MACBETH
        If't be so, 
For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind,
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
Put rancors in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.
Rather than so, come fate into the list,
And champion me to th' utterance! (3.1.69-77)

Well, this is interesting. Here, Macbeth is calling fate to his aid, asking it to "champion" him, or fight for him, in the "lists," or the tournament grounds. This doesn't sound like a fate-or-free-will situation; it sounds like a fate-and-free-will deal.

Act 4, Scene 1

THIRD APPARITION
Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. 
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH
                      That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good!
Rebellious head, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom. (4.1.103-114)

When Macbeth comes knocking on the three witches' doors again, he wants another glimpse into his future. They give him riddles. (Thanks, gals.) But look at those riddles: they're designed so Macbeth interprets them to mean that he's safe, which obviously affects his decision-making. Is his death fate? Or is just savvy manipulation?