The Unfortunate Fate of Macbeth
Fate, in the classical sense, is something that will, unquestionably, happen at some point in the future. Macbeth’s fate is told to him by three witches early on in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, putting the plot in motion. Chiefly among these is that Macbeth will be king by the end of the play. This does indeed happen, as do the rest of the fates told, save one. The question, then, is this: is this fate fulfilled in events occurring after the play’s conclusion? The answer has to do with fate, free will, and truthfulness.
Fate is something that must happen and is a prediction of free will, but those telling it are not always necessarily telling it truthfully. Some might argue that some of the events that the witches describe result from free will entirely, that fate had nothing to do with the events that occur. The witches, or, in this case, apparitions, predict some events that are unquestionably a result of fate, however. Most notably of these is that: Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him. (IV. i. 96-98)
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An event as major as this, predicted so precisely, could not possibly be simply a result of free will. That is not to say, however, that fate caused the soldiers to carry the trees; fate never causes anything in stories such as this, rather, it merely exists. Fate is often conceptualized as an invisible force with godlike qualities. In stories such as Macbeth, it is more comparable to a document to be read, rather than a divine presence. The witches and apparitions are supernatural beings gifted with the abilities to read the document that is fate. Fates exist whether they are read or not.
If one does read their fate or that of another, it was their fate to do so and therefore did not alter fate, which cannot be altered. Following this logic, it was always fate that Macbeth, “shalt be king hereafter” (I. iii. 51) and the witch’s fate to say so to him. It might be argued that the witches used their free will to relay Macbeth’s fate to him and that would be a valid point. The counterargument to this is that the witches did not necessarily know their own fates. The most significant event that causes readers to doubt fate in Macbeth is the Witches’ prediction about Banquo.
They tell him that, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (I. iii. 68), meaning that his son will be the first in a line of kings. At the conclusion of the play, Macbeth has tried to have Banquo and his son, Fleance, murdered, but Fleance survived, and Malcolm is the king of Scotland. The fact that Fleance is not king at the end of the play may cause confusion to the reader, as Shakespeare quite possibly intended, leading them to doubt that fate exists in Macbeth, which is, of course, untrue. This leaves two possible scenarios.
The most common one is that Malcolm, along with any other direct descendants of King Duncan, will die, leaving the throne open to Fleance. The manner in which the deaths occur is irrelevant, be it battle, an accident, old age, or otherwise. The alternative is that the witches were simply lying about that one part. The witches are, presumably, humans with supernatural powers and are therefore capable of lies. It is readily apparent that they wish to cause mischief in the affairs of ordinary humans and that they know of Macbeth’s ambition.
There is no reason why the witches couldn’t have made that part up with the intention of getting Macbeth to kill his own best friend for their amusement, leaving Fleance without a crown. Fate and free will are always complicated and contradictory elements in literature. Any story with Fate as a major theme must find a balance with free will in order to make any sense at all. Macbeth maintains a fairly healthy balance between the two, aside from the twist involving Fleance. Fated events will always occur and are always intertwined with free will.