Thursday, January 1, 2015

MacBeth and Prophecy

In the meantime, our Shakespeare group has started reading MacBeth.  The story should be familiar as is its central, unsolveable riddle.  The three Weird Sisters (it is unclear whether they are flesh and blood or spirits) greet MacBeth and hail him as Thane (lord) of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King to be.  MacBeth is Thane of Glamis, but thinks it impossible for him to become Thane of Cawdor, much less King.  But then it turns out that the Thane of Cawdor was part of a rebellion that MacBeth just defeated and MacBeth is given his title.  Suddenly kingship is within his grasp.  He goes on to murder the King, frame his bodyguards for the murder and then kill them, attempt to kill the King's sons (although they get away), murder his best friend Banquo who is the only other witness of the prophecy, and then go wild and start killing everyone else who might threaten his power or resent his previous murders.  It adds up to quite a body count.  So the great question is, did the Weird Sisters set him off on this course, or was it his choice.

My answer has always been that the Weird Sisters awakened some latent evil impulses in MacBeth that would other wise have lain dormant, but that the evil  impulses were there to begin with or they would never have awakened them.  And the proof of it is Banquo.  The Sisters say that Banquo will be the ancestor of kings, but not a king himself.  Banquo leaves the matter to Destiny and makes no attempt to bring it about himself.  Banquo is a clear model of what one is supposed to do under the circumstances.  MacBeth from the start wavers between leaving it to Destiny and trying to give Destiny a push.  (He ends up opting for the push, obviously).

MacBeth is an example of several literary conventions about prophecy.  The prophecy always comes true, though not always in the way you expect.  Hearing the prophecy often plays a rule in bringing it about.  And the prophecy that appears to be a blessing turns out to be a curse.  (Given how being King turns out for MacBeth, it seems fair to say that it was not worth having).

But I actually mostly want to post about several words that could be used to characterize the prophecy and the things that come about beyond our power -- Luck, Chance, Fortune, Fate and Destiny.*  All of these mean things that come about beyond our power to influence, but they are not the same.  My Shakespeare discussion group has used several of these words and particularly explored what they would mean in an Elizabethan context, but I don't see how one case use them today except to mean what they are understood today.  And interestingly enough, no one else seems to be using my favored word here -- Destiny.

Chance gets used a lot, including by MacBeth.  ("If Chance will have me king, why Chance may crown me.")  I would classify Chance, along with Luck and Fortune as not only impersonal, but random and purposeless.  Things that happen by chance (or luck or fortune) do not happen for any reason or as part of a greater design, they just happen.  They are beyond our control, but they do not imply any superintending purpose, or anything that is meant to be.  Chance comes out of nowhere for no reason and that is all.  What makes Chance different from Luck or Fortune is that it is a more neutral term.  There is nothing to suggest that things that happen by chance are either good or bad, they just happen.  And while there can be bad luck or bad fortune, for the most part these terms mean something good that just happens to happen -- an unexpected windfall that comes your way for no apparent reason.  To the extent there is a difference between them, it is probably that Fortune has at least some connotation of being all-encompassing, while Luck usually means just a single event.  In addition to Chance, our group has talked a lot about Fortune, often personified as a fickle goddess.

Which means that Fortune is beginning to veer off in the direction of Fate or Destiny.  These terms, I would say, do not mean just random happenstance.  They mean things that are meant to happen, often as part of some grand design beyond our comprehension.  Neither term is neutral.  Fate means something bad that cannot be escaped.  These days it is often equated with doom or death.  Destiny, by contrast, implies something grand and glorious.  Thus it is the term I use when applied to MacBeth.  He does not see becoming King as a random event, but a part of some grand design.  That rules out Chance, Luck, or even Fortune.  He does not see it as doom, but as something glorious. That rules out Fate.  Therefore, the best description of what he sees in the prophecy is Destiny, and his great error is trying to give Destiny a push.

But, of course, one of the great conventions of prophecy is that, although it always comes true, how it comes true is not always what you think.  What seems like a blessing is often a curse.  And what MacBeth takes to be Destiny turns out to be Fate.

*I capitalize them because they are being treated, not exactly as gods and certainly not as personal, but as things so powerful that people have little choice but to prostrate themselves before them.

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