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macbeth 5

According to Shakespearean scholar, A.C. Bradley, "while the influence of the witches' prophecies on Macbeth is very great, it is quite clearly shown to be an influence and nothing more. There is no sign in the play whatever that Shakespeare meant the actions of Macbeth to be forced on him by external powers." Bradley's argument is valid; the witches provide the spur Macbeth needs to act on his overbearing ambition, but it is ultimately the choice of Macbeth and Macbeth alone to pursue his thirst for the throne - to turn his thoughts into actions. The influence of the witches is indeed no more than an influence, as is demonstrated by Macbeth's initial reaction to their prophecies, his subsequent independent decisions to murder for the kingship, and his own admittance in the end that his actions were of his own doing and not forced on him by external powers. Macbeth's immediate reaction to the witches' prophecies is the first clear piece of evidence that Shakespeare did not intend for them to be anything more than an influence. Upon first hearing their prophecy that he will be king, Macbeth's response is telling: he starts. This reaction suggests that before Macbeth even stumbles upon the presence of the Weird Sisters, he has thoughts of becoming king. Moreover, the suggestion is not simply that he has considered it - for starting is a sign of guilt, of which he would have little if his thoughts were innocent - but that he has considered acting on it - a crucial distinction. The prophecy itself contains little but the mention that he will be king: "All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter!" (I, iii, l. 50)1 Indeed, Bradley observes that the witches "merely announced events: they hailed him as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter. No connection of these announcements with any action of his was even hinted by them...In any case, the idea of fulfilling it by murder was entirely his own."2 Macbeth reveals in his first soliloquy that he is tempted by the notion of killing Duncan for the crown, and though the idea is firmly rooted in his mind, he cannot act on it. Clearly, the influence of the witches on Macbeth at this stage is important, as it revives and heightens his consideration of taking action to become king - an idea he and Lady Macbeth have discussed at an earlier time. Nevertheless, one cannot credit the witches with the responsibility of his choices simply because they suggested he would become king - his own inner desires led him to act, and he was free to do otherwise. Additionally, the temptations brought on by the witches were within him in the first place. Author Germaine Greer argues, "Macbeth's vulnerability to the witches is not caused by...superstition on his part, but by corrupt desire which moves him to take a false step."3 The desire that Greer refers to is seen by Macbeth as his ambition. This ambition is vital to Macbeth's existence, and again calls into question the true influence of the witches: if it is so overpowering that the mere mention of the possibility of reigning as king causes him to start, as if guilty of his thoughts, then one must question just how much influence the prophecies have. One must also consider the presence of Banquo in this initial stage. Bradley points out a contrast in Macbeth and Banquo's reactions; while both were given prophecies, Banquo remains somewhat indifferent to them and Macbeth becomes murderous.4 This contrast suggests even at this point in the play that while the witches' comments certainly influence Macbeth, they are no more than an influence. It is Macbeth alone who chooses to interpret the prophecy as such that he would have to commit murder to fulfill it, for Banquo had no such thoughts. In the end, it is Macbeth's internal ambition that causes him to start and drives him to kill Duncan, and not the external force of the witches. Macbeth's reaction to his initial encounter with the witches is merely the first of the evidence that their influence is no more than that; his subsequent decisions to act on their prophecies further reveal that although their influence is great, external forces such as themselves are not the driving force behind Macbeth's key actions in the play. After his murder of Duncan, Macbeth is plagued with a guilty conscience; he is unable to sleep, eat or rest. Even still, the influence of the witches is great; though he is tormented by the consequences of his act, the prophecy of Banquo's lineal future troubles him to the point where he chooses to act again. Again, however, he uses the witches' prophecies only as a starting point, and acts on his own desire to remain king. Before, he murdered Duncan to become king - partly an influence of the witches' prophecies. Now, he murders Banquo to keep the throne - an idea entirely his own. Professor John Lawlor attributes Macbeth's decision to continue murdering beyond Duncan not on the influence of the witches, but on fear: "A career of murder is necessary to secure his kingship; every head of potential rebellion is to be lopped."5 Certainly, his actions progressively become less concerned with the prophecies of the witches, and more concerned with the fear of losing the throne. In contrast to his initial reaction upon hearing his prophecy, Macbeth is now decisive and willing to act on his desires without the considerations he once had. He admits that he is "...in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er." (III, iv, l. 135-137)6 After the murder of Banquo, Macbeth acts of his own free will again; he chooses to meet the witches a second time for further information. Bradley notes this change in Macbeth: "[The witches] no longer need to go and meet him; he seeks them out. He has committed himself to his course of evil."7 The witches are determined to "draw him on to his confusion" (III, v, l. 29)8 and give him false security, but it is again an independent choice on Macbeth's part to both accept their latest prophecy and kill Macduff's family - an act entirely independent of the witches. Thus, Macbeth's subsequent independent decisions to murder in order to maintain his place on the throne demonstrate that the witches' are simply an influence on him; his actions are not the doings of external forces, but of himself. Finally, the clearest evidence that the witches' prophecies are no more than an influence on Macbeth is in Macbeth's own interpretation of their responsibility for his actions. Throughout the play, Macbeth never pawns the responsibility of his actions off on the witches. He curses them for deceiving him throughout - yet at no point does Macbeth ever blame them for his own choices. He cries out, "be these juggling fiends no more believe'd, / That palter with us in a double sense, / That keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope," (V, viii, l. 19-22)9 but in doing so, he is cursing himself for allowing himself to fall under their influence to a greater degree than he is blaming them for his actions. This awareness is key to both an understanding of Macbeth and of the influence the witches exert over him: he understands that the actions he took have consequences, and knows that although the witches did mislead him and did direct his actions, it was his choice to commit murder and it is only he that is to be blame for making that decision. As Bradley further states, "The prophecies of the Witches are presented simply as dangerous circumstances with which Macbeth has to deal..." He adds, "Macbeth himself nowhere betrays a suspicion that his action is, or has been, thrust on him by an external power."10 Macbeth chooses to accept the witches as truthful in the early stages of the play because they bring the promise of his kingship, which he has already considered taking by force at that point. In the end, however, upon facing the truth that Macduff is indeed capable of killing him, he realizes that the witches have misled him. Their influence is undeniable; Macbeth would not have been as self-assured if not for the prophecy that he would only be killed from a man not born of a woman. Nevertheless, their influence is just that - an influence - and he is fully aware of that. Macbeth is free to act independently of their prophecies, and does so often. What is significant is that he never denies that at every step of the way, he has a choice. In short, Macbeth's acceptance of the consequences of his actions as being solely his own responsibility is further indication that his actions were not forced upon by external forces such as the witches, but were of his own design. Ultimately, Macbeth's actions in the play are - as Bradley argued - not forced on him by external powers, but chosen by him. The influence of the witches is indeed significant, but Macbeth's guilty initial reaction to their prophecies, independent choices to commit further acts of murder not foreseen by the witches, and refusal to blame them for his actions all demonstrate that they were no more than an influence on him. At every point in the play, Shakespeare makes it clear that Macbeth has the ability to make his own choices, and his actions are a consequence of that free will. Perhaps Lawlor encapsulates this issue of free will in Macbeth best with his question, "If a man is to go to his doom, how far does he exercise a choice which is recognizably free?"11 In Macbeth's case, the answer is, "quite far."
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