Free will, prophecies, and fate- themes that seem to transcend time and weave themselves into our stories and literature, begging the questions of whether they truly exist and where they come from. Shakespeare’s Macbeth explores the three in a tale of trying to “play God” to one’s fate and, in doing so, meeting it tragically. In the play our protagonist Macbeth encounters three witches (shown above) who prophesy that he will one day claim the throne. Intrigued by this prospect, Macbeth informs his wife who then manipulates him into murdering the current king, Duncan, and framing another. Although Macbeth’s ploy is successful, Macbeth and his wife grow mad with guilt- the former slew in battle and the latter driven to suicide.
We see a similar turn of events in Oedipus. Born to Jocasta and Laius, the infant Oedipus is prophesied to one day murder his father and wed his mother. In an attempt to avoid this fate, the king and queen exile Oedipus and sentence him to death. Through what can only be fate (wink wink) Oedipus avoids this untimely death and grows up far from his home and parents. Once a man, he travels far and away to Thebes- unaware that this is his home- accidentally slaying Laius and later marrying Jocasta- unaware that these are his parents. Upon realizing his sins Oedipus gouges out his eyes, physically and metaphorically blinding himself. Where Macbeth tries to achieve his fate, Oedipus runs from it. Still the fate of both men is met- each shrouded by carnage and tragedy.
The scene I have chosen from Macbeth addresses the contemporary yet not-so-contemporary issue of free will. In the scene Macbeth is, literally, approached by his fate: the three witches (to which we can draw the parallel of The Fates who appear as three witches in Greek lore). The witches then tell him his fate of kingship, raising multiple questions: Was this always his fate, or has the act of them telling him this prophecy created this fate for him? Had he not been told this would he become king? Would he be murdered for his treachery? Would Lady Macbeth kill herself? Similarly, in Oedipus we can ask ourselves whether any of the events would transpire had the prophecy been withheld from Jocasta and Laius. Does the act of telling the prophecy set it into motion? Or has it always been in motion, with the act of telling simply a means of propelling it? Can we escape from our fate once we have become aware of it? Or will we always find our way back to it as we run away? These questions are simultaneously ancient and contemporary; we have been pondering these truths since civilization began and continue to do so today. We have sought answers through religion, philosophy, and literature. The question of free will versus fate is one that is explored both in Oedipus and Macbeth. It is one that continues to plague us today as we must each ask ourselves whether we are the commanders of our own minds or if there is another- a greater, incomprehensible thing which permeates us completely and decides the past, present, and future. These are questions to which we have infinite answers and no answers, and questions we must continue to explore through Shakespeare, through Sophocles and through those few and far between.
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