Macbeth and Free Will

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In Desiderius Erasmus’s Defense of Free Will, he refutes Martin Luther’s creed that God predestines everyone’s lives and instead asserts that man alone possesses the power to choose his own path to either salvation or damnation. The play Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, raises similar questions – did the protagonist, Macbeth, willingly choose to commit such atrocities as killing the king and his court to feed his own ambition, or did he merely play the role of a pawn, performing that which fate bade him do? Amid much controversy over this issue, evidence both in Erasmus’s critical essay and in the play itself affirms that Macbeth cognitively decides to act as he does in the play, confirming Erasmus’s perspective and suggesting that people have the ability to dictate their own fate through their thoughts, decisions, and actions. Through his interpretation of the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, Erasmus writes in favor of free will over predestination, a concept that, when applied to the character Macbeth, raises questions about the motives behind his detestable actions. In his essay, Erasmus explores the “power of the human” (46) to “turn away from what leads to eternal salvation” (46). According to this opinion, Macbeth makes a conscious choice to pursue a life of crime and sin, instead of simply following his fate. Macbeth’s plea that the “stars hide [their] fires” (1.4.57) so that “light [would not] see [his] black and deep desires” (1.4.58) indicates that Macbeth remains aware that his “wicked, rebellious will” (Erasmus, 48) lies within himself, and he fears the consequences of his sinful deeds. This very fear of punishment reflects the existence of free will in Macbeth - as Erasmus inquires, “why [should God] curse me, when I sinned through necessity?” (47). Macbeth’s clear understanding of the evil that he plans to commit and his fear of divine punishment suggest that characters in Macbeth choose their actions as opposed to following their destiny....