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Depraved or Determined? Macbeth and the Problem of Free Will | Regis Martin, Franciscan University | From the Ignatius Critical Edition
of Macbeth | Ignatius Insight
The world without God would be a "rale told by an idiot, full
of sound and fury, signifying nothing . . ." The very fabric of an
atheistic society has never been defined better. Life would be a
"tale", a strange dream, an abstract discourse of an exasperated
imagination, "told by an idiot", and , therefore, without unity. Life
would be all splintered into fragments, with no true order, with no vision
beyond the immediate instant, "full of sound and fury", that is to
say, where the single method of relationship is violence, the illusion of
The thing that is so singular and stunning about Macbeth—indeed, it strikes one straightaway—is
that all the magic Shakespeare put into writing it manages so entirely to
harrow and astonish the soul. One simply cannot help but remain riveted by
every line and page. That it so perfectly succeeds in making the flesh creep
and the hair stand on end is quite the best thing about it. The blood fairly
runs cold on reading it. For all the brevity of its telling, those twenty-one
hundred superbly distilled lines are, without question, the bloodiest piece of
theater in town. Written in 1606, a full decade before his death, and following
upon a series of triumphant creations culminating in that imperishable trio,
i.e., Hamlet, Othello, and King
Lear, the tragedy of Macbeth is marked by
sheer murderous violence throughout.
-- Monsignor Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense
But besides being the shortest play Shakespeare wrote, it is perhaps also the
strangest. The Weird Sisters at the beginning, for example—their sudden
appearance in the thunder and lightning of that blasted heath, each possessed
of darkly sinister powers—seem all at once to foretell the terrible
savagery to come. "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee", the three in
turn repeat. "Thane of Glamis! ... of Cawdor! ... that shalt be King
hereafter!" (1.3.48-50).  How can they know? When did omniscience
become an attribute of the creature, especially such base and chthonic
creatures as these? Of course, the very instant Macbeth enjoins them to reveal
their source, the supernatural provenance of their powers, they simply
vanish—"[a]s breath into the wind"—leaving him frustrated
and vexed: "Would they had stay'd!" he cries out (1.3.82).
Nevertheless, for all the accumulating weirdness of the play, there yet stands
a message of starkest simplicity at the center of its telling; it is a message,
moreover, that Macbeth must learn at the cost of his life: Thou shalt
not kill! In other words evil will at last
be exposed, effectively shown for what it is in all its debasing nihilism, in
the sheer repulsiveness of its effect upon the sinner. The implacable logic of
retribution will prove as appalling as the crime itself, consisting of the
soul's slow agonizing descent into a state of such loneliness and despair as to
be finally indistinguishable from Hell. What Shakespeare has given us here is a
study, both brief and pitiless, of the decline and fall of an utterly depraved
But how, one might ask, could it be otherwise? Predestined, as it were, in the
wake of the witches' predictions to commit precisely such butcheries as must
occur in order to fulfill the dark prophecies set out in the opening scene,
what else is the poor man to do? Is he not as much victim as villain?
Constrained by the sheer predictive force of supernatural witchery—driven
mad, in other words, by such "vaulting ambition" (1.7.27) as to
encompass the very throne of Scotland itself—where else but the killing
fields do we expect to find Macbeth? Is he not ineluctably drawn to such
extremities by the pressure of events? Events that he can neither control nor
escape but that will, in the end, consume him as well? Certainly, then, he will
choose the path of violence, the fixed machinery of the play having precluded
all other possibilities.
So declares the sceptic when faced with the seeming iron necessity of the
Here, then, is the question on which the play turns; indeed, the answer will
determine whether or not we actually have a play. For if it cannot be shown
that Macbeth is free to act otherwise, free to refuse the promptings of the
vile spirits, whose blueprint for him is one of mounting villainy followed by
despair and destruction, then there can be no play. A world in which the
choices we make do not finally matter, because our wills are already fixed
beneath the weight of a crushing determinism, is not a human world.
Certainly it is not a world hospitable to the order and setting of the theater,
to drama, where acts and gestures of good and evil remain rooted in the
essential freedom of the human heart. Even to depict evil in all its
hideousness, as in the case of one like Macbeth, requires that real and honest
provision be made for freedom's exercise. Macbeth must not be a mere automaton
of evil, however unnatural the treachery he commits in wishing to kill his own
kinsman and king. True, one whose character has "supp'd full with
horrors" (5.5.13) may seem entirely incapable of turning away from further
corruption; yet to strip him of all moral responsibility for his actions,
rendering his depravity total, would leave him less than human. And certainly,
a mere puppet manipulated by forces to which he cannot but submit is not a
being whose choices may be subject to censure. Do we really wish for him every
possible impunity? "The terrifying compliment"  is what C. S.
Lewis called it, this gift of liberty bestowed by God; it is one that the
Author of our being takes with such seriousness that even the choice of Hell
must needs be respected. It is as if an awful dignity were to surround the
soul, a nimbus of evil as it were, determined on its own definitive
destruction. In fact, suggests Lewis, the entrance to the netherworld, where
every evil will find its comeuppance, is locked from the inside, the damned
souls having slammed shut every possible door that may lead the repentant
sinner to God.
And so the deeds of Macbeth, while they certainly testify to a well-oiled
killing machine, are nevertheless lubricated by the oil of human liberty. Like
any creature of head and heart, the divine image Macbeth bears is destined for
Heaven or Hell, for lasting grief or glory. Before the tribunal of God's truth,
there are no half measures, no room for the equivocal gesture. In the short,
violent history of this man, we observe each disfiguring effect of sin, the sum
total yielding its grotesque and damnable harvest. Yet, for all that, there
must remain, this side of the grave at least, the real possibility of reversing
course, of finding true sorrow amid even the most hardened heart. What is to
prevent, in other words, his having recourse to truth, to grace, to God, whose
transfiguring therapies would then provide escape from that evil to which he
has otherwise given over his life? "What might have been and what has
been", T. S. Eliot reminds us in Four Quartets, "[p]oint to one end, which is always
present."  Notwithstanding the predictions of the witches and the
horrific pressures of his wife, it is Macbeth alone who must face the music.
The music of the play is, in the final analysis, of his own making; the tune he
sings can only be his own, the inspiration for which is taken neither from wife
So what have we got then? To begin with, three wholly repellent spirits of the
night, whose prophecies seem most powerfully to urge Macbeth along the way that
leads to complete dereliction and death. Added to which, of course, are the
perverse persuasions of a thoroughly wicked wife, who, beckoning "thick
night" to come quickly, the better that "my keen knife see not the
wound it makes" (1.5.4, 49), dutifully instructs her husband in the art of
killing the king. Calling on the blackest counsels of the night, they that feed
on mere human thoughts, she entreats most earnestly that they "unsex me
here; / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst
cruelty" (38-40). So resolute, in fact, is she that notwithstanding the
suckled child nursing at the breast, "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" (1.7.56-59). No shrinking
Yes, but suppose they were both to shrink, at the eleventh hour, say, before
the bloody business? Suppose they simply botched it ... what then? Macbeth
certainly appears less than entirely sure that he can pull it off.
"Besides," he says, musing aloud, "this Duncan/ Hath borne his
faculties so meek, hath been / So clear in his great office, that his virtues /
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd, against/The deep damnation of his
taking-off" (1.7.16-20). And as for his more determined bride, even she
appears for a moment to hesitate on the cusp of the horror that stands before
her. "Had he not resembled", she will later tell her husband
confidingly, "[m]y father as he slept, I had done't" (2.2.12-13).
Nevertheless, her confidence restored, she answers the counsels of timidity
with the sheerest scorn. "We fail! / But screw your courage to the
sticking place,/And we'll not fail" (1.7.59-61). Together, then, both Lady
Macbeth and the Weird Sisters manage mightily to stir the pot that will bring
to boil the soul of this man. But, once again, it is he alone who consents to
swallow the brew. It is Macbeth, and he alone, who, plunging the dagger into
the royal flesh, thereupon tells his wife, "I have done the deed"
(2.2.14). It is he, then, whose soul already stands condemned, defiled deep
from within by evils whose later externalization will thereupon provide the
action of the play. After all is said and done, it is Macbeth who, conceiving
the murder first in his mind and heart, will accordingly move to consummate the
All this brings us, finally, back to the blasted heath. For it is here, amid
the fog and the filth, that we glimpse the full scale of Macbeth's malice. How
differently the two, Macbeth and Banquo, react to the strangeness of the scene.
The encounter with the Weird Sisters—"[s]o wither'd, and so wild in
their attire/ That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth / And yet are
on't" (1.3.40-42 )—strike the two visitors in ways so vastly different
as to reveal an essential, sundering incommensurability between them. Unlike
Macbeth, whose undoing will soon enough follow upon the fulfillment promised,
Banquo appears almost indifferent, insouciant even, before the event, serenely
impervious to the aura of fear and menace that surrounds the scene. "If
you can look into the seeds of time", he tells them, "[a]nd say which
grain will grow and which will not, / Speak then to me, who neither beg nor
fear /Your favours nor your hate" (1.3.58-61).
The point is, Banquo is not the least disposed to throw over the entire moral
order in order to effect the happy outcome of whatever promises may be
vouchsafed to him. And yet quite extraordinary things are promised to him.
"Lesser than Macbeth, and greater", he is told by the first witch.
"Not so happy, yet much happier", predicts the second. "Thou
shalt get kings, though thou be none", the third tells him (1.3.65-67).
What sense can he make of it all? A healthy suspicion seems in order when
bedeviled by such as these—a suspicion that he admirably maintains
throughout, reminding Macbeth how insidious the arts of witchcraft can be.
"But 'tis strange", he tells him, "[a]nd oftentimes to win us to
our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, /Win us with honest trifles,
to betray's / In deepest consequence" (1.3.122-26).
Still, leaving aside the devilish stratagems of the sorcerers, the real
question is, why should Macbeth want to kill the king in the first place? What
drives him to so desperate, so damnable an extremity? The answer, if there be
one, eludes our grasp. Why is there evil for any man to do? Why does man choose
wickedness rather than the good? Why must all of mankind labor and languish
beneath a fallen world? The play bespeaks a depth it cannot plumb. At its best,
it provides an evocation, an illustration—an absolutely stunning
dramatization, no less—of that aboriginal sin, the primal mystery of
iniquity, whose dark and deadly fruit has brought on the continual fall and
destruction of man in every age.
Macbeth's sins have left him so despised and dishonored, so utterly bereft of a
single saving grace, that by play's end he will have become like the baited
bear, cornered and hacked to pieces by enemies wholly bent on his
extermination—but not before he gives utterance to his rage and despair
in words that, more than anything yet inscribed in the language, express the
heart of a world shorn from God. Shakespeare may have given us a villain of
singular viciousness; he has nevertheless endowed this excrescence with lines
of the purest poetry. It is the final hour of his life. His enemies draw near,
their purpose deadly; his wife, the woman he has loved, lies freshly dead, the
victim of her own hand. And so from an abyss of bitterest, blackest despair, he
finds the words exactly to express the predicament of man without grace,
without God. It is a condition of nihilism that, when extrapolated onto the
stage of society, reveals a world stripped of every supernatural reference.
"The very fabric", as Luigi Giussani so memorably put it, "of an
atheistic society has never been defined better."
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!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
 All quotations from Macbeth are from
the edition published by Ignatius Press: Macbeth, ed. Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
 In chapter 3 of The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes, "We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a
Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with
which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we
come up against what I have called the 'intolerable compliment' ... it is
natural for us to wish God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous
destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less" (C. S.
Lewis, The Problem of Pain [The
Macmillian Company, New York, 1962], pp. 42-43).
 "Burnt Norton", 1.9-10.
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Regis Martin is a Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the author of several books on
spirituality and theology. His other works include The Suffering of Love, The
Last Things, Garlands Of Grace, and
Flannery O'Connor: Unmasking The Devil.
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