One of the greatest philosophical and scholarly debates since the age of Enlightenment is the argument over whether human free will actually exists, or is it just an optimistic illusion. This deliberation has been the subject and driving force of multiple tragedies, perhaps most famously Sophocles’ Oedipus Rexes and William Shakespearean Hamlet and Macbeth. These timeless classics placed literary recognition and relevance to the conflict between fate and free will, and have inspired countless works of drama, especially tragedies, since their original creation;
Arthur Miller in particular focused on this paradox of destiny in his renowned plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. In all of these plays, from the ancient to the present, none makes a definite, straightforward analysis of fate versus free will; they are united in their lack of unity. All of the works present a tragic situation that reflects and ponder the question of fate, yet all refuse to resort to an explicit answer for it is much too complex a concept to be deserving of an easy and clear-cut solution.
Oedipus Rexes and Macbeth are the archetypical works when regarding the question of ate versus free will, as they both present tragic heroes who are crucially influenced by prophecies. The two plays have very similar introductions for their heroes, both being lavishly praised for their actions that have helped the general integrity of their homeland. In the opening scene of Oedipus Rexes, a priest of Zeus turns to Oedipus when the city of Thebes is suffering from a Arguable ! 2 terrible plague; the priest tells the king that “It was by your own/wit and strength” that the destructive sphinx was defeated . In the beginning of Macbeth, after King
Duncan receives a report that Macbeth brutally executed a traitor in battle, the king cries “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman! “2. This introductions serve to set up these men as heroes, who by their own bidding and determination achieved nobility and respect for their admirable actions for their country. Prior to being exposed to their respective prophecies, these two men of power seem to be strong, faultless, and lauded by all around them. Free will achieved these men greatness; both came from humble backgrounds and upbringings, and through personal strength, wit, and bravery, were able to become recognized warriors and heroes.
In Act One, Scene Three of Macbeth, the titular hero along with his friend and fellow captain Banana encounter the three mystical witches who present Macbeth with a forecast of the rest of his life. Their first lines towards Macbeth are structured in terms of past, present, and future: the first witch hails Macbeth as “thane of Gleam’s”, Fate and Free Will in Classic Tragedies By Toby-Arguable the second as “thane of Castor”, and the third witch as “king hereafter”3.
A messenger towards the end of the scene confirms that Macbeth has Just been appointed thane of Castor, proving the validity of the witches’ divination’s and informing that Macbeth will one day be king and Banana will father kings. Nothing else is said by the witches; not when Macbeth will be appointed, and under what circumstance. They have presented Macbeth with his ending, but not a means to be there; thus, while Macbeth is now controlled by fate by knowing his ultimate destiny, he still has free will in Page 60, Slavish Translation. 3 l. Iii. 50-52 Arguable 13 his decision of how to handle his wait for the throne. At this point, it is still possible for the newly-appointed thane of Castor to continue with his noble and heroic actions and wait patiently for King Duncan to pass away from natural causes or fall in battle, and then assume the throne. Yet it is heavily implied that Macbeth immediately considers murdering the king: he asks himself, “why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs”4.
The witches never told him that he would immediately become king, nor that he would have to resort to violent and unlawful methods to obtain the crown, yet this assumption is instantly formed in Machete’s mind, of his own free will. In the ext scene, his violence is reinforced when he is reminded of Dunce’s heir Malcolm; Macbeth famously says aside to himself, “Stars, hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires”5. Macbeth is a warrior at heart, and violence comes naturally to him, yet he does have a conscience, the only obstacle in his plot to murder his king, friend, and cousin Duncan.
This is thwarted by his wife, the only person even more murderously ambitious than Macbeth, who determines that Macbeth is somehow “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”, and convinces, or rather orders, her husband o kill the king. Once Macbeth kills the king, he has crossed the point of no return. His ravenous ambition, a tragic flaw, has seen him become the unworthy king of a suddenly diseased and depressed Scotland. He has parts of his fate outlined to him by the witches, which are consistently proven to become true: yet he tries to change the negative prophecies that describe 4 1. 1″. 41-143 5 l. TV. 50-51 6 l. V. 18 Arguable ! 4 his downfall, as if these were somehow untruths meant to undermine him. This is of course ridiculous; it is nonsensical that only the positive parts of the prophecy would mom true, and the detrimental segments could somehow be avoided. Machete’s ill- fated attempts to circumvent fate reeked of desperation and stubborn ambition, some of his tragic flaws that led him to mishandle his course of action once his fate was revealed to him. In the Greek classic Oedipus Rexes, once again a titular tragic hero is trapped in a conflict between fate and free will.
However, Oedipus finds himself much more constricted by fate than Macbeth, for his prophecy is revealed at birth to his parents, causing his entire life to be influenced by this revelation, unlike Macbeth who only ad the final few months of his life affected. Oedipus is much more pitiable as his unfortunate fate was entirely inescapable, having been decided by the gods since birth. Therefore, it is difficult to blame Oedipus for his actions; abandoned and left to die as a child before being adopted by Corinthian royalty, he had no way of knowing that the man he murdered and the women he married were his parents.
Had Coast and Alias raised Oedipus as their own son, it would be extremely hard to imagine how Oedipus could fulfill the prophecy, although he must have since the gods declared it to be so at the moment of his birth. If Oedipus had been fully aware that he was going to kill his father and bed his mother, it would have been an act of deplorable free will, yet he cannot be blamed for his actions because of the circumstances that caused his fatal ignorance. Oedipus’ first act of free will, which doubles as his tragic flaw, is his determined and consistent inquisitions to know the whole truth.
Only Treaties, the blind prophet, is aware of the dark truth behind Oedipus and his wife, and refuses to tell the king in order to preserve his sanity, stating “l do not want to give Arguable ! 5 pain to you or myself. Noun question me in vain”7. Oedipus becomes enraged that the prophet withholds information that could save the kingdom, but when it is revealed that he himself is the regal murderer, Oedipus’ fury is amplified, as he disbelieves the truth he so stoutly demanded. Off are blind”, Oedipus tells Treaties, “not only/in eyes but in ears and also in your mind”8. This is, of course, brutally ironic, as a recurring theme of the play is that only the blind truly see: Treaties warns Oedipus that “although you may have sight, you cannot see what trouble you are in”9. Over time, once the king learns that everything Treaties spoke of was true, he knows he just leave the city where he was once considered a hero in order to save it yet again.
He blinds himself in order to truly see, and spends the rest of his days aimlessly wandering the countryside, in a final act of dignified free will. All of Oedipus’ wrongdoings were because of his unholy fate, though as the scholar Bernard Knox writes, “prophecy, in the Greek view, far from excluding free human action actually requires it”10. Had he not chosen to force Treaties to reveal the truth, he would have remained ignorant of his lamentable actions and the city would have continued to offer its wretched plague for an indefinite amount of time.
Unusually, Oedipus had his downfall before he reached nobility; it was only when his tragic flaw of determinedly seeking the truth by his own free will does he realize what he has done, and only then does he truly suffer like few in all of drama have suffered before. In short, as Knox summarizes, “the play is a terrifying 7 Page 75, Slavish translation 8 Page 78, Slavish translation 9 Page 80, Slavish translation 10 Page 39, Knox Arguable ! Affirmation of the truth of prophecy’11, thus exemplifying the power and influence ate has over free will. Unlike Macbeth and Oedipus Rexes, the titular tragic hero in Shakespearean Hamlet is not influenced by a prophecy, but rather a demand from the afterlife. After the mysterious murder of his father, King of the Danes, Prince Hamlet should be next in line to take the throne. But, as he was studying abroad at the time of his father’s death, his uncle Claudia becomes king while immediately marrying Hamlet’s mother, the queen.
Hamlet is immediately conflicted; unlike Macbeth, he is not a naturally violent man, and can sometimes over-think situations (l have always thought that if Macbeth and Hamlet had switched places, both would have fared much better). Yet when an apparition of Hamlet’s father appears and informs Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudia, Hamlet knows it is his duty to avenge his father and take his rightful place on the throne, even though this is conflicting with his natural demeanor and regular cause for action.
He is also the least constricted out of the three tragic heroes mentioned thus far, having his ‘prophet’ telling him what he must do, not what he will do. Hamlet has free will over how to deal with his plan for avenge, and he even has the choice whether to go through with it at all, yet this would be cowardly and dishonorable and never truly considered by the prince. He takes a perfectionist approach, going as far to write and produce a play depicting regicide in order to observe Claudia’ reaction, Just to guarantee that the ghost of King Hamlet was valid in his accusation.
In a key turning point, Hamlet is in a position where he could easily kill an unsuspecting Claudia; crucially, however, the foul king is in prayer, and Hamlet does not want to risk sending Claudia’ soul into heaven. After this, however, there is a noticeable change in 11 Page 43, Knox Arguable 17 Hamlet’s behavior, who becomes much more similar to Macbeth, striking without deliberating and needlessly killing Polonium, and causing his lover Aphelia to commit suicide.
He swears to kill Claudia at the next opportunity, declaring “my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! “12. By the end of the play, every major character with the exception of Horopito is dead. Had Hamlet, presented with the virtually inescapable fate of having to avenge his father by killing his uncle, chose a more erect approach, perhaps all those lives could have been saved. Yet because of Hamlet’s decision to deliberate, his hesitation caused a handful of royal deaths, and eventually gave the sovereignty of Denmark to Fortifiers, the young king of Norway.
The conflict of fate against free will is not uncommon among tragedies, a form of drama which had its foundations created by Sophocles in his Thebes cycle and perfected by Shakespeare in his series of tragedies. Not until Arthur Miller did we have a dramatist worthy of being considered in the same tier as these two literary legends. Two of Miller’s most famous plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible also exemplify the dramatic concept of fate versus free will. Wily Leman does everything in his power to provide for his family, but more importantly, to be liked by those around him.
Yet he has been on a downward curve socially and in terms of sales, and finds himself trapped because of his age in a situation where advancement and promotion is no longer possible, and his only option to save his family is to commit suicide. John Proctor, the tragic hero in The Crucible, is one of the few voices of reason in Salem when the witch trials begin. He is sentenced to death, but is offered a reprieve if he signs his name stating that he acknowledges he was possessed by a witch; he refused to diminish the integrity of his name and is hanged, a great example of how one can be totally undermined by free will.