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Fate & Free Will

GCSE Exam Question & Answer

Read the following extract from Act 1 Scene 3 of ‘Macbeth’.

Answer both questions below the text.

At this point in the play, Macbeth considers the witches’ prophecies.


[Aside] Two truths are told,

As happy prologues to the swelling act

Of the imperial theme. — I thank you, gentlemen.

[Aside] This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success,

Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man

That function is smother’d in surmise

And nothing is but what is not.

a) Discuss how ideas of fate and free will are presented in this extract.
b) Discuss how these ideas are presented in the play as a whole.

Start with an overview

One of the questions raised by the play is whether Macbeth had any control over his actions or whether he simply followed fate’s path. At this point in the play, he has just heard the witches’ prophecies and contemplates them, wondering whether he should act on them or allow fate to run its course.

Make the point that Macbeth seems to have no free will as he is controlled by the witches

This is the first point in the play that we hear Macbeth’s honest responses to the witches’ predictions and as such it is dramatically tense. Through Macbeth’s private asides, Shakespeare allows the audience to see the inner workings of his mind. There is already great uncertainty; the repetitive sentence structure of the phrase ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good’ show the ambiguity with which he receives the predictions. He is uncertain and with that uncertainty comes indecision; should he act on the prophecies or not? This uncertainty is deliberately created by the witches, whose power to blur appearance and reality is formidable. Their words ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ use paradox to create a sense of confusion; they will give him ‘fair’ prophecies yet these will end up with ‘foul’ consequences. The repetition of the ‘f’ sounds emphasises a sense of forceful power and the monosyllabic words enhance the sense of the chanting of a spell. The Jacobean audience was superstitious, firmly believing in the presence and power of witches. They would have believed that the spell controlled Macbeth and his actions, allowing him no free will.

Move to the point that Macbeth begins to consider how to influence Fate

Macbeth is already thinking of murder; he speaks of the ‘horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs/Against the use of nature’. The language clearly reflects the enormity of the action he is planning; his entire body is reacting dramatically and unnaturally to the thought of murdering Duncan. Regicide was viewed as an unnatural act against God by Jacobean audiences and Macbeth’s physical reaction is an understandably violent one. Even though it might be his fate to become king, Macbeth is clearly considering ways to speed events up and to allow no room for error. This thought terrifies him.

Move to the point that Macbeth does begin to make decisions

Macbeth ends his musings by deciding to let fate control events, saying ‘if chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir’. Yet even as he says this, Banquo comments on how ‘rapt’ (absorbed) Macbeth is, leaving the audience aware that he may well change his mind and ‘stir’ himself to action. This awareness contributes to the dramatic tension of the scene. And soon enough, Macbeth does begin to consider action as his ambition starts to motivate him. Later, he admits ‘I have no spur… but only vaulting ambition… which o’er leaps itself’ and the horse metaphor shows his ambition to be incredibly powerful. Macbeth already knows that his ambition could lead to disaster as it loses control and ‘o’er leaps itself’ yet he still chooses to murder his king. It is his ambition that sets the tragedy into motion. Shakespeare uses the Greek tragedy convention of a tragic and noble hero who has a fatal flaw (weakness), a hamartia which leads to his downfall. Macbeth’s hamartia is his ambition which prompts him to commit dreadful acts.

Move on to show how Macbeth’s actions have no impact on the power of fate

Macbeth is determined to hold onto his crown and to defy the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s children will become kings. Later, he calls for fate to fight on his behalf, saying ‘Come Fate into the list… champion me’ and using the imagery of jousting which shows his combative nature and also references the popular 17th century sport. The imperative verb ‘come’ shows his decisiveness as he challenges Scotland’s destiny. Yet it is all for nothing and fate cannot be changed despite Macbeth’s brutal actions to alter destiny. Macbeth’s last soliloquy reveals his thoughts after he hears the news of Lady Macbeth’s death, just before his last battle, and says ‘life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player’. The tone is depressed and resigned as he reflects on the meaning of life. The theatre metaphor suggests that we are merely actors playing out a pre-planned script and the plosive sounds of ‘poor player’ reveal the bitterness as Macbeth realises that he has lost and his ambition has come to nothing. Fate has led him to his heart’s desire yet it has not brought him any happiness.

Explore whether the characters have any free choice in their actions or whether Fate decides it all

The power of fate is clear. Even though Macbeth tries to change the course of events, Banquo’s sons will still eventually inherit the throne of Scotland. The three witches represent the three Fates, sisters in Greek mythology who controlled men’s destinies, and their power in controlling Macbeth is seen throughout the play. However, Macbeth had many chances to turn from his evil path yet does not choose to do this. He is in control of his destiny throughout; if anything, it is his own fatal flaw of ambition that controls him. The Jacobeans believed in predetermination but Shakespeare was interested in the idea of self-determination, the way in which people control their own lives. This exploration is evident in the examination of fate’s role in the play. It is one of the ongoing questions that ‘Macbeth’ prompts and makes us, even four hundred years later, wonder just how much autonomy we have over our lives.

Essential Exam Tips

  • Aim for five detailed paragraphs; your response will be evaluated on quality not quantity but it’s difficult to make your response good if it is too brief.
  • Most of the exam boards require you to write about context. Check whether your exam board gives marks for this and, if it does, make sure you weave points about Shakespeare’s audience and literary conventions into your response.

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