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The Power of Fate vs. Free Will in Medea and Macbeth



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    Throughout both Medea and Macbeth, there is a clear and heavy presence of the gods. This begs the question, are the characters in charge of their own destiny, or are their fates already written? Fate is described as “that which is inevitably predetermined; destiny. ” It can be said that it is the gods who are in charge of creating the character’s fates. In both Medea and Macbeth, there is a common theme of placing too much trust into fate, rather than taking responsibility for their personal actions. In ancient Greek society, it was believed that the gods were in charge of creating people’s destinies.

    People could make their own small life decisions, but that was the extent of their power of free will. In Medea, Euripides seems to be making a point the entire time that the gods have all power, and that Medea is just going along with what the gods want her to do. This is especially evident when it comes to the murder of her sons, as she questions what their purpose for living is; perhaps it is for them to die at her hands. The chorus knows that Medea wants to harm the children, and though they beg her not to, in the end, it is as if they accept their deaths as inevitable.

    By stating “Now there is no hope left for the children’s lives,” they seem to be accepting that the fate of the children is to die at the hands of their mother. Even Medea herself seems to believe that the gods want her to kill her children, which is clear when she says “The gods/And my evil-hearted plots have led to this” (1014-1015), as if she believes that she has no choice in the matter, and that the gods are the ones leading her to this terrible fate. However, Medea clearly could have stopped herself from doing this terrible deed.

    In the end, the fact that Medea is elevated in a godly way, leaving Jason to suffer, shows that the gods are on Medea’s side, and that what she did was right. Jason’s fate was to lose his children and new bride, just as fate had Medea kill her brother and abandon her motherland. Perhaps it was living as a barbarian that left Medea as an outcast and seen as a witch by the Athenian people. Medea prayed to Hecate, “the goddess who abides in the shrine of [her] inner hearth – the one [she] revere most of all the gods” (57), who also happens to be the goddess of witchcraft.

    Medea and Hecate have distinct similarities. Hecate, a foreigner (like Medea), took vengeance on men who wronged her. Because of this, Medea would possibly blame Hecate for driving her to do her evil acts. Hecate also has a major appearance in Macbeth. In Act 3 Scene 5 of the play, Hecate appears in front of the Weird Sisters, and tells them that she will prepare apparitions to make Macbeth “spurn fate, scorn death, and bear/ His hopes ‘bove wisdom, grace and fear” (3. 5. 0-31), and that “security/Is mortals’ chiefest enemy” (3. 5. 2-33). As humans, we all desire to feel secure. In Macbeth’s case however, the idea that he has nothing to fear and that he is immune to any harm is what ultimately kills him. It is the prophecies that the witches give to Macbeth that set him up for his demise. Firstly, the witches proclaim that Macbeth will be king. After hearing this prophecy, he says “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,/Without my stir” (1. 3. 144).

    By saying this, he seems to be saying that the witches are stating “chance” rather than “destiny. With this in mind, he feels that though the witches say he will be king, he needs to do a little more to make his chances better. After Lady Macbeth hears about the witches’ prophecy, she is concerned that her husband will not do enough to take the throne. She doesn’t take what the witches say as fate necessarily. Instead, she knows her husband’s only option is to kill Duncan, and her greatest fear is that he won’t be able to do it. After Duncan is found murdered, Donalbain and Malcolm flee the scene, trying to escape their fate.

    This shows that they, like Macbeth, seem to believe that fate is something that can be changed depending on your actions. They believed that their fate was to be murdered like their father, but by getting out of the country they are able to save themselves. With the first prophecy coming true, Macbeth believes that the witches truly know his destiny, though he goes out of his way to make them happen. In reality it is purely coincidental. Before the two murderers leave to kill Banquo, Macbeth says “Rather than so, come fate into the list,/ And champion me to the utterance! 3. 1. 70-71). At this point, Macbeth is confronting fate head on. He wants to fight his destiny until the very end, no matter how bitter it may be. At the end of this scene, Macbeth explains that Fleance also “must embrace the fate/Of that dark hour” (3. 1. 136-137). Macbeth feels that Fleance’s fate is that he will be murdered as well. Macbeth takes the witches’ prophecies literally in all instances, when he should have interpreted them more, such as the “born of a woman” prophecy.

    Rather than thinking through what the Weird Sisters tell him, and letting events pan out as they will, he (and those around him) take matters into their own hands and try and manipulate the situation to make the prophecy come true. Because of this, it is unclear whether or not these are self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ll never know whether or not Macbeth would have become king without murdering Duncan, or if Banquo’s descendants would be king. Most of Macbeth’s actions are also controlled by others, such as Lady Macbeth, though the fact that Macbeth deliberates before he does something like murder makes it appear as if his fate is in his hands.

    As Malcolm’s army closes in on Macbeth, Macbeth still believes that he will be safe, since “The spirits that know/All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:/’Fear not, Macbeth; no man that’s born of woman/Shall e’er have power upon thee’” (5. 3. 4-7). Even at the very end, Macbeth holds onto his faith in fate, but it still fails him. Even still, the gods who are in charge of fate is still respected and looked upon. To take their spite out on a sailor, the witches want to control the winds so that his ship will not make it to port.

    One sister brags “Weary se’nnights nine times nine / Shall he dwindle, peak and pine: / Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d” (1. 3. 25). Despite the fact that the witches are able to control the wind, there is a stronger force preventing his ship from sinking. The biblical significance is also extremely important to the storyline of Macbeth. As Macbeth tries and scrubs away the sins his hands committed, he says “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red” (2. . 63-66). In this moment, it is clear that Macbeth has greatly sinned, and even when he hears a prayer, “[he] could not say ‘Amen’” (2. 2. 31). At this point, Macbeth has lost his relationship with the divine power. His story clearly parallels that of Adam and Eve, from Genesis, Chapter 3. After explicitly being told not to eat the forbidden fruit, Eve succumbs to the serpent’s tempting words and eats it anyways. Then, she entices Adam to eat some as well. This sin is thought to be the cause of the world’s hardship and misfortune.

    Similarly, lured by the idea of being queen, Lady Macbeth is the one who tempts Macbeth to kill Duncan. After surrendering to this pressure, Macbeth’s rule as king leaves Scotland suffering. Because Eve was the one who tempted Adam with the fruit, as punishment women were then condemned to be subservient to their husbands. Despite this, Lady Macbeth still managed to get her husband to do what she wanted. Pre-Macbeth Scotland is equivalent to the Garden of Eden. With this comparison, it seems that Shakespeare is pointing out that this perfect paradise does not exist.

    Even Duncan, who parallels God, still has flaws, and even he wasn’t able to prevent violence. This idea rings true today. Likewise, in Medea, the gods appeared to approve her decision to murder. This also shows that gods are not always perfect pacifists that we’d like to believe. In Macbeth, the equivalent to Jesus would be Macduff, who, rather than self-sacrificing for the greater good of Scotland, instead uses violent tactics. At the end of the play, when the rightful heir to the throne, Malcolm, rules again, it appears all will be well in Scotland. However, according to the Weird Sisters, Fleance will one day rule.

    This foreshadows perhaps even more violence and war in Scotland’s future. Violence is the only way they know how to solve their issues. As Macbeth states, “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood. ” (3. 4. 123). In this way, Shakespeare makes a statement about war and violence, and how even a Christ figure is unable to stop it. Even biblically it can be seen that God loves and is just, but man is imperfect and the creator of all sufferings and evils. Though in both Medea and Macbeth there seems to be a lot of blame on God and fate, in the end it is man who is responsible for their own pain.

    Genesis implies that human perfection is possible, as it was the serpent that tempted Eve and left the world with endless suffering. Without the serpent, sin may have never happened. Using the Bible, Shakespeare uses the story of Eden to display his beliefs on humanity. Though the power of the spiritual and supernatural is a strong theme in both Medea and Macbeth, it is mainly used as a tool to explore the idea of fate. In the end, perhaps man’s fate is already written, but man’s actions are what decide how the destiny is reached.

    Work Cited

    Euripides, and Donald J. Mastronarde. Medea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. “Genesis 1. The Holy Bible: King James Version.” Genesis 1. The Holy Bible: King James Version. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2013. “HECATE : Greek Goddess of Witchcraft, Ghosts & Magic ; Mythology ; Pictures :
    HEKATE.” HECATE : Greek Goddess of Witchcraft, Ghosts & Magic ; Mythology ; Pictures : HEKATE. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2013. Shakespeare, William, and A. R. Braunmuller. Macbeth. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

    The Power of Fate vs. Free Will in Medea and Macbeth. (2016, Nov 04). Retrieved from

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