Free will and Macbeth

“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”


Do we have free will? This is one of mankind’s most loaded questions because the answer depends on the one’s worldview and how we perceive and react to circumstances beyond our control.

The question of free will becomes a theological argument for those who seek to find meaning in tragedy or everyday disappointments. “Yes,” they may argue, “we have some free will but ultimately God is in control.” For others who do not ascribe to divine intervention the question is viewed as an exercise of rational philosophy (though first they argue over the term “free will”). Some feel that those who are not enslaved have absolute free will, while others argue that agents of free will can only act upon their own will as long as circumstances allow, therefor no one has absolute free will. For example, you may want to go outside but if a snowstorm blocks your door then you cannot act upon your will.

Of course no well-rounded debate over free will would be complete without the argument for moral constraints; and this too is a very loaded question and must remain in the shadows least this post becomes a ten page essay on ethics and free will. The point to all of this is simple, most arguments for and against free will come from a position of arguing over the role that outside forces play as impediments to absolute free will. But, what about internal forces?

Psychologists might argue that there are some free agents who absolutely do not have free will (in fact we may not want to call them free agents); that the ability to act as they wish is hampered by the mind that drives their behavior. We would never say of the mentally ill that they will themselves into depression or delusions nor can we (or should never) say that they have the ability to will themselves well. The point is, while most of use want to be happy, chemical reactions in the brain play a large role in our ability to do so.

But what about those who are not mentally ill, but find themselves driven to certain behaviors through either the will of others or through their own inability to do little more than react to each moment without the much inner reflection? Do these people possess free will or is their internal hard wiring such that they cannot act on anything but impulse?

A classic example of someone who seems driven, not by will, but by impulse and external forces is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespeare asks us to consider free will in one of his shortest but most powerful plays. Shakespeare is cagey with his answer on the subject. He presents us with a man who may or may not be acting on his own will, and asks us to come up with the answer.

As I see it, Macbeth was a man who never stops to consider his actions and is continually pushed to action by either wild imagined impulse or the will of those around him. His own will, or call to action stems from his fears of what may come next and this fear stems from what had just happened.

We see this from the very start. After winning a battle and saving the Kingdom of Duncan, Macbeth is confronted by three witches who offer a prophetic greeting.

“All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis! All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor! All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter”!

Macbeth is rightly confused. He is no Thane of Cawdor, as far as he knows Cawdor still lives! As for being King, he at first seems hesitant to consider the possibility but as the Witches fade from view, he seems bewitched and is quietly contemplating the idea when his companion, Banquo comments on Macbeth’s demeanor. As they talk a herald approaches calling Macbeth thane of Cawdor. This tile is given by King Duncan in thanks for Macbeth’s victory. Macbeth begins to consider the witches prophecy and goes so far as to write a letter to his wife telling her of the strange encounter.

The play is driven by Macbeth’s actions; how he “earns” his title of King and what he will do to hold on to power. Through out the play we are asked to consider whether this man would have eventually usurped the throne or if it he is acting on internal impulse and external encouragement. At one point he hesitates to go through with the plan to kill Duncan but his wife scolds him and questions his manhood prompting Macbeth to go ahead with the plan (or does he use her words as an excuse?). One bloody deed leads to another as the body count adds up. Macbeth is not satisfied to just kill the King, he gets rid of anyone and everyone who he considers to be a threat to his throne.

His actions can be seen as being driven by thoughts of previous actions and of the thoughts of what is to come. This is not a man who spends much time contemplating how his bloody deeds are affecting his free will. He could have just as easily been content to be the good King he first envisioned but it is Macbeth’s over active imagination not his will that compels him to only consider the present moment and even then he is unsure how to act rationally. His thoughts are driven purely by his impulsive imagination. One has to wonder if the witches cast a spell or if the power of suggestion is just as powerful.

The is a good example of the many layers Shakespeare gave to each play. Some just focus on Macbeth as a personification of the saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A deeper reading of the play is an opportunity to see that Shakespeare had more to say about the human condition and what drives our behavior.

Shakespeare is asking us to look at what happens when we don’t stop to analyze our behavior. He seems to offer impulse as the dark side of free will. Some times exercising our free will means we don’t act on impulse and instead contemplate our possible actions their rippling effects they may have on others.

William Hazlitt, a noted 17th century Shakespeare scholar agrees:

Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm: he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others; he stands at bay with his situation; and from the superstitious awe and breathless suspense into which the communications of the Weird Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future. He is not equal to the struggle with fate and conscience. He now “bends up each corporal instrument to the terrible feat.

Before you read or watch the play (I suggest both) ask yourself, how many times your own free will is acted upon by external forces. As consumers we bend to peer pressure and well crafted ads. How many times have you worn a new color only to be told, “You look great!” Do you then start wearing it more? How about the opposite? You may like how you look but one word from a friend or family member may have you throwing out a beloved garment. Negative thoughts can be just, if not more, damaging.

We like to think we have free will but Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a good example of easily it bends to internal and external forces.

All hail Shakespeare!

5 Replies to “Free will and Macbeth”

  1. Yuval Noah Harari wrote a thought-provoking piece for the Guardian recently on how our capacity for any kind of free will is severely compromised by the Internet, the media and particularly the corporations that control social media. In a way, Macbeth’s equivalent of social media is the trio of witches who ultimately influence his choices with their prophecies: “if you enjoyed that you may also like this title…”

    The problem is that we are walking blinkered into a nightmare of biblical proportions—climate change, a poisoned planet, totalitarian governments—but too many of us are happy to follow the honeyed words of soothsayers and charlatans.

    Another excellent post, Sari.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Chris, for such a thought provoking response! You just gave me a good idea for a new post on The View For Sari’s World.
      Not only do the witches play a stand-in role for the media, Lady Macbeth could be seen as the object of peer pressure. Our free will is subject to thoughts and ideas of our peers. At one point Macbeth decides killing Duncan is not such a good idea but Lady Macbeth (who is also influenced by the witches) pushes him to do the deed.
      And now we have the two bleeding into each other as a new sub-genre of celebrity of “influencer” is hitting the stage. A lot of these Instagramers are charlatans and yes, sadly many of us are allowing them to dictate our actions, even as our planet suffers.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. From another perspective, Shakespeare is illustrating the paradoxical nature of Calvinism. The witches’ prophecy is predestination: fate means Macbeth will do these things. But each step in Macbeth’s descent is driven by his own choices, whether well considered or not. Free will AND determinism, but operating at different levels.

    The psychology of the era would have seen reason as the crowning force of Man’s intellect, and therefore Macbeth’s failure is at least in part due to not reasoning properly. He does not, to use a phrase from our day, pursue enlightened self-interest.

    But there’s a darker perspective emerging in this era and in the next century or so. Hume would see reason as the plaything of emotions, that rather than an independent force, it is used only at the behest of the emotions. It wouldn’t be too hard to read that back into Shakespeare’s play. Of his own, perhaps Macbeth never would have thought to take the throne. But the witches’ accurate prophecy about Cawdor tips Macbeth’s mind more to ambition until he becomes obsessed with it.

    It’s noteworthy that Shakespeare makes no mention of any legitimate basis for Macbeth claiming the crown, even though Holinshed hints at one. In historical fact, Macbeth belonged to a lineage which, at least in legend, converged with Duncan’s in the early days when the Scots settled in Scotland, and indeed claimed to be the senior. Macbeth’s ancestors had ruled in Moray for generations, and indeed his kin would go on disputing the crown for another century and a half, though never so effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You may know this better than I, but didn’t the Scotts “elect” their kings based on their ability as generals? I thought I read that in a couple of places. This is why Macbeth was taken aback when Duncan named his son at heir to the Throne. Having won the civil war, Macbeth may have assumed he would be the next King, and why he so easily gave into his “fate”.


  4. The pre-Malcolm Canmore understanding was that the king’s successor would be among those within a few degrees of blood of the previous kings. And you’re correct, experience in warfare was a plus. This often led to feuds between different branches of the royal family and disputed successions. Duncan’s great-grandfather tried to establish patrilineal descent as the succession principle, so he was succeeded by his son Malcolm, who was succeeded by Duncan, his grandson. But in 1040, when Macbeth slew Duncan, Malcolm was only about 8 or 9, a bit too young for the succession.

    Viewed from the old perspective, Duncan was a bad king. He did poorly fighting against all of his enemies: England, Orkney, and Moray. Probably made it easier for Macbeth to step into his shoes.


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