The Impact of Fate Upon Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

The Impact of Fate Upon Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

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   What reader can deny the awful compulsion which fate and ambition inflict upon the morally lost Macbeths in Shakespeare's Macbeth ? This paper will treat the impact of fate upon the Macbeths
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson explains the stand taken by Macbeth in his relationship with fate:

He pits himself no merely against the threat of hell but also against the enmity of "Fate" (as represented in the prophecies of the Weird Sisters):


come, Fate, into the list,

And champion me to th' utterance.

He brags to his wife:

But let the frame of tings disjoint, both the worlds suffer,

Ere we will eat our meal in fear [. . .]. (70-71)


In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack explains that the witches are associated with fate:


Except in one phrase (I.3.6) and in the stage directions, the play always refers to the witches as weyard - or weyward - sisters. Both spellings are variations of weird, which in Shakespeare's time did not mean "freakish," but "fateful" - having to do with the determination of destinies. Shakespeare had met with such creatures in Holinshed, who regularly refers to the supernatural agents with whom Macbeth has dealings as "the three sisters," or "the three weird sisters," i.e., the three Fates. (185)


L.C. Knights in the essay "Macbeth" explains the place of fate in the decline of Macbeth:


 "One feels," says W.C. Curry, "that in proportion as the good in him diminishes, his liberty of free choice is determined more and more by evil inclination and that he cannot choose the better course. Hence we speak of destiny or fate, as if it were some external force or moral order, compelling him against his will to certain destruction." Most readers have felt that after the initial crime there is something compulsive in Macbeth's murders; and at the end, for all his "valiant fury," he is certainly not a free agent. He is like a bear tied to a stake, he says; but it is not only the besieging army that hems him in; he is imprisoned in the world he has made. (102)


In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye stresses the connection between the witches and fate:


The successful ruler is a combination of nature and fortune, de jure and de facto power.

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He steers his course by the tiller of an immediate past and by the stars of an immediate future. [. . .] It is this synchronizing of nature and fortune that soothsayers study, and that the witches in Macbeth know something about. We call it fate, which over-simplifies it. (88-89)


The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three Witches who are anticipating their fateful meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious and contradictory "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." King Duncan learns that "brave Macbeth" and Banquo are bravely resisting the "Norweyan banners" and the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. When these forces are vanquished, Duncan bids Ross to greet Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Before this happens, however, Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Futilely, Banquo cautions, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths," but Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies since they seem to represent fate, or the controlling intrusion of the supernatural into his own personal world.


After the king's announcement that "We will establish our estate upon / Our eldest, Malcolm," Macbeth says, "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap," for his scheming is seriously underway. At Inverness in Macbeth's castle, his lady, after appreciating his letter detailing the witches' prophecies, reacts with, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised," yet she fears that her husband's nature is "too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" - words whose meaning becomes clear in her subsequent statement: "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements." Both Macbeth and his lady appear to be coming under the domination or strong influence of the witches' fateful utterance.


Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." Furthermore, Macbeth recognizes that King Duncan's "virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off," while the captain has only "vaulting ambition" on his own side; thus he says to his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business." She responds with an accusation of cowardice, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?" Her cold cruelty stands out as she re-converts Macbeth to the murder:


I have given suck, and know

How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this. (1.7)


Lady Macbeth, it would seem, is more controlled by fate than her husband; she will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. Macbeth is forced to recognize her total lack of maternal sensitivities: "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males." Macbeth feels the pressure of the impending "bloody business" and thereby has a vision of the murder instrument:


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? (2.1)


In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Immediately he is striken with guilt as he exclaims, looking on his hands, to his wife, "This is a sorry sight," and "I had most need of blessing." At this point Lady Macbeth reveals the direction of the play with her response: "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad." The crime continues to haunt Macbeth: "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'" and "'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'" He acts as a type of his wife's subsequent reaction - where fate is leading -- when, alarmed by a knock at the door, he exclaims: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?"


The next morning Macduff and Lennox arrive to awaken the king. Lennox relates the strange happenings of the evening:


The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,

Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,

And prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion and confused events

New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird

Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth

Was feverous and did shake. (2.3)


It is obvious that the whole of nature is being stirred by the fate-driven crimes of the Macbeths. Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan; he informs Malcolm. Macbeth kills the chamberlains, next to whom the bloody daggers are found.


As Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office, Ross comments that Duncan's horses have reverted to the wild state and are biting one another - an occurrence most unnatural -- like the murder of a virtuous king. In soliloquy Macbeth, given over totally to the fate-inspired inclination to be king, gives the rationale behind his murder of Banquo:


For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;

For them the gracious Duncan have I murder'd;

Put rancours 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! (3.1)


Meanwhile the queen is lamenting the state of "doubtful joy" in which the royal couple is living. Both she and he are nightly afflicted by "terrible dreams," and his mind is "full of scorpions," so that the king thinks it "better be with the dead." What a gruesome reward for following fate's beckoning!


In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head", but Fleance escapes, causing the king to complain: "But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears." At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. When the ghost disappears, Macbeth with jolliness toasts the health and happiness of everyone; but when the spirit reappears, the king is once again agitated:


Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!

Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;

Thou hast no speculation in those eyes

Which thou dost glare with! (3.4)


The queen attributes her husband's psychological problems ("Strange things I have in head") to the fact that "You lack the season of all natures, sleep." She is oblivious to the presence of fate in their lives. Later, when the "midnight hags" utter their incantation,


Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)


Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. Macbeth resolves to assist fate:


But yet I'll make assurance double sure,

And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;

That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,

And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1)


Meanwhile in England, Malcolm asks Macduff, "Why in that rawness left you wife and child, / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love, / Without leave-taking?" Macduff stands resolutely behind Malcolm with a final condemnation of Macbeth who is seen as firmly in the grip of fate:


Not in the legions

Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn'd

In evils to top Macbeth. (4.3)


Malcolm, symbolizing the opposite of the Macbeths' evilly inclined fate, confesses his moral shortcomings to test Macduff's loyalty:


But I have none: the king-becoming graces,

As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,

I have no relish of them, but abound

In the division of each several crime,

Acting it many ways. (4.3)


Macduff, an example of goodness and uprightness who has retained his spirituality despite his close association with Macbeth, defends the moral integrity of Malcolm's lineage:


Thy royal father

Was a most sainted king: the queen that bore thee,

Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,

Died every day she lived. Fare thee well! (4.3)


At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" Macbeth requests of the doctor, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased." The doctor voices the evil moral nature of the queen's problem:


Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds

Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds

To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:

More needs she the divine than the physician. (5.1)


When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts to the relentless pace of ongoing time rather than to a eulogy of her:


She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5)


As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the English general acknowledges how time will reveal all:


The time approaches

That will with due decision make us know

What we shall say we have and what we owe. (5.4)


Angus expresses the fear within Macbeth with "now does he feel his title / Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief." But Macbeth repeats to himself the fate-inspired words of the witches, "'Fear not, Macbeth; no man that's born of woman / Shall e'er have power upon thee.'" To Macbeth the messenger announces that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane, causing Macbeth to hold onto the one tiny morsel of hope, "What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none." Fate has played a nasty trick on him once; will it do this a second time?


In the fury of combat, Macbeth reveals his name to young Siward, and the latter responds, "The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear." Young Siward dies; and the father, being informed of his son's death, responds in Christian fashion as a contrasting, opposing force to the Macbeths' evil, fate-motivated actions:


Why then, God's soldier be he!

Had I as many sons as I have hairs,

I would not wish them to a fairer death:

And so, his knell is knoll'd. (5.8)


When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king guiltily confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return with the head of Macbeth. Malcolm declares his intention of facing the future as king of Scotland with the help of God; he says that


by the grace of Grace,

We will perform in measure, time and place:

So, thanks to all at once and to each one,

Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone. (5.8)


Thus it is that the dooming fate of the Macbeths is replace with the God-centered faith of Malcolm - a welcome and overdue change.


Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants the place of Fate in Macbeth's life:


Then, like a cog slipping naturally into its own notch, his thoughts turn to the Witches and their prophecy, and he concludes that he has defiled his mind for the descendants of Banquo he has murdered the gracious Duncan for them; he has poisoned his own peace of mind and given his immortal soul (eternal jewel) to the devil, the common enemy of man - all this to make the descendants of Banquo kings! Rather than face such an outcome, he challenges Fate to enter the lists with him against Banquo and champion him to the last extremity, even though that extremity be death itself. (57)


Macbeth: "If Chance would have me king, why, Chance may crown me without my stir."

A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy references Fate in the play to the Witches' prophecies:


The words of the witches are fatal to the hero only because there is in him something which leaps into light at the sound of them; but they are at the same time the witness of forces which never cease to work in the world around him, and, on the instant of his surrender to them, entangle him inextricably in the web of Fate. (320)


In his critical volume, Macbeth: a Guide to the Play, H. R. Coursen explains the concept of Fate within the play:


Macbeth's tragedy is not that he decides to kill Duncan but that he cannot become independent. Even if a weaker agency than God, he would be his own, himself alone. But he cannot fight free of his implication in the way things are any more than Lady Macbeth can free herself of its embeddedness in her. The world and all within it must be of a piece if their particular version of destiny is to be acted out. Fate cannot "come . . . into the lyst." Fate is not an option except as it - like "Chance" - is allied with God, a category properly defined as the will of God. (56)




Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.


Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.


Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: a Guide to the Play. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1997.


Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967.


Knights, L.C. "Macbeth." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.


Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.


Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth., no lin.


Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

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