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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

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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 possession.

-- Monsignor Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense
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.

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). [1] 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 human being.

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 play's action.

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" [2] 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." [3] 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 nor witch.

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 violet, she.

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 desire.

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,
Signifying nothing.

[1] All quotations from Macbeth are from the edition published by Ignatius Press: Macbeth, ed. Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).

[2] 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).

[3] "Burnt Norton", 1.9-10.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Interviews, Articles, and Book Excerpts:

A "Bard's-eye" View | Joseph Pearce | The Preface and Prologue to Through Shakespeare's Eyes
Digging Into the Bard's Beliefs | An interview with Joseph Pearce
Fr. Joseph Fessio and Joseph Pearce Talk About Shakespeare | Ignatius Insight video
Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? | Joseph Pearce | Chapter One of The Quest for Shakespeare
Finding Shakespeare and Reclaiming the Classics | Joseph Pearce
The Cross and The Holocaust | Regis Martin | From the Prologue to Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness

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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