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Macbeth (The Pelican Shakespeare)

Macbeth - Stephen Orgel, William Shakespeare Review #2 in a series of 3[Link to previous review in the series]Tonight's episode: Fate and Personal DecisionsThere are a lot of themes going through this book, but the three biggies for me are:1) Greed, and being seduced by power2) Fate and personal decisions3) Data interpretation and data qualityThis review will address the second of these.Fate and Personal DecisionsFate is a major player in this yarn. In fact, without Fate, this is just another violent tale of a dictator's rise to power... something that has been done to excess over the past hundred years. With Fate, however, the play seems to offer timeless instruction on the nature of mankind and forces larger than ourselves. The difficulty is that Fate is a mysterious entity, so there are (at least) two possible interpretations of how Fate might work in this play. Either:A) Fate is an ironclad course from which mortals cannot waver. The players in this drama are mere passengers on a ride whose beginning, middle, and end are known and cannot be altered. In effect, people are automatons carrying out Fate's program. If this is the case, there isn't really any such thing as Good and Evil, because nobody really has agency, or if they do have choices, they aren't meaningful choices, because nothing they choose will change anything. Everything has been predecided. Without choices, there can't be anything like Good or Evil.or B) Future history is malleable. Naturally there are historical and statistical forces at work which might shape a big picture, in which certain events must eventually come to pass, in one way or another, but for any given individual, there is choice. If this is the case, then what the three witches declare as Macbeth's destiny is really just one of many possible paths. He is an active participant in forming his future, based on the choices he makes. He is a moral agent with free will, capable of choosing for Good or for Evil. The first interpretation would make for a pretty pointless play. It would describe an amoral universe without drama or uncertainties. It would also fly in the face of most major religions, which- despite their other differences- all seem to agree that free will exists. The second interpretation is more engaging and relevant to how most of us understand the world. Shakespeare makes clear that he's in the Second Interpretation camp through a revealing bit of dialogue: when Macbeth goes to visit the three sisters for a second time, one of the hags marks his approach to her sisters (to whom she has no motive to lie), muttering: "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."Aha! So the play is set in a universe where wickedness (i.e. Good and Evil) exists. Thus, Macbeth does have free will, and the choices he makes do matter in shaping his future.This means the witches' predictions for Macbeth represent just one possible path of many. By announcing it to him, they were influencing him. They weren't neutral oracles, acting as an eye to read the future; they were Fate's instruments acting as a hand to push events in a certain direction. They were participants in human events, "in the mix" (so to speak), making choices of their own and pushing an agenda. Being supernatural, their motivations and agenda are beyond my fathoming... or not, I don't know, but in any case I won't try to divine them here.Instead, I want to keep analyzing Macbeth. Should he have known the sisters were trying to influence him? Maybe he couldn't outright know it, but it is the most conservative assumption he could have made. A healthy dose of suspicion would have served him well in this scene.So let's get back to the action: Macbeth and Banquo encounter the weird sisters, who hail him as future Thane of Cawdor, and after that: king.What should he do?Before taking any action, he should ask himself a few questions:1. Who are these women?2. Can they really see the future?3. If so, are they telling him the truth?4. What is their reason for telling him?5. Can the future foreseen be altered?Of course he can't know the answers to these questions, but it's worthwhile reminding himself of this.It would also be worthwhile for him to question the unspoken assumption of the prophecy: that he should want to be king; that King of Scotland is a station he should aspire to. A political man used to leading, a Thane and a General, Macbeth would likely conclude that he did in fact crave the title, but the exercise of at least questioning this might have given him pause.Next step: how to proceed? What should Macbeth have done with the information he was given? The possibilities are infinite, but after a thoughtful analysis, one would hope a smart guy like Macbeth might consider the often-overlooked option of doing nothing at all.He doesn't know what the witches want, whether they are friend or foe, or whether what they say is the truth. All he knows is that by telling him something, by interacting with him and attempting to alter his view of reality, they must want him to do something. By proceeding as if he had never heard them... by continuing to conduct himself as he always had, Macbeth could at least have bought himself some time to learn more, assured that he wasn't being conned into something. It's a low-risk course of action, because if Fate is real, there's nothing he can do about it, so presumably he isn't hurting anything by ignoring the witches. It may be difficult for a man of action like Macbeth to accept, but inaction is an option. In fact, the play's events confirm this: Macbeth does nothing of consequence between hearing his fortune and the time he really is pronounced Thane of Cawdor. So what made him think he needed to do something special (i.e. plot a murder) to become king? Apparently, Destiny doesn't require his active participation.So I've been meandering a bit, and if you're still with me, I'm grateful. All the jawboning I've done up to now has been in the service of establishing two points:1) Macbeth does have the ability to make choices; but2) Despite the choices he makes, he can't necessarily control the ultimate outcome of events.Do you see where I'm going with this? Macbeth can control how he conducts himself, but he can't necessarily control the course of his own personal history, since it is dependent on a lot of external factors beyond his managing (e.g. what other people decide to do, etc.). In simpler form, Macbeth can control his MEANS, but not necessarily his ENDS. Ahhhhhhh... it's the old debate about whether the ends justify the means! And given the final scene, it's pretty clear there's no debate about it: there is simply no way the ends justify the means, because the means aren't even in a position to guarantee the ends. So Macbeth is a morality play, filled with lots and lots of blood-spattered immorality, over the course of which it slowly becomes clear how this four-hundred year old fantastical story of witches and prophecies applies to us in 2012. We are, to a much greater extent than Shakespeare ever imagined, surrounded by conniving soothsayers in our daily lives. Whether browsing the internet, channel surfing on television, or walking down the street in our hometowns, we endure almost constant solicitation from prognosticators who foresee possible visions of our future selves, which they dutifully report to us here in the present, so we might act accordingly. What have they got to say to us? You will be wealthy.You will be beautiful.You will be counted.You will be loved.You will be safe.And like the weird sisters, these tea leaf readers don’t just provide unbiased views of our possible futures; they’ve got a path in mind they want you to pick. No byte of information passed in this interlocking military-industrial-entertainment complex we inhabit comes untethered to a commercial, political or otherwise biased ulterior agenda. That isn’t to say predictions we hear might not come true, or that you might not benefit from them in some cases, or even that all message bearers come with malicious intent. I think Shakespeare is just cautioning us to step back and pay heed to where these messages come from, who is saying them, and why. There is, after all, no such thing as a free palmreading.[Link to next review in the series]