Macbeth is by far my favorite Shakespearean play for several reasons, the most prominent of which is the supernatural element of the Witches and their prophecy which disrupts and changes the fates of the play’s characters. Beyond that, it is a remarkably short play; whose own brevity works to highlight the quick and desperate backslide into madness that is caused by the existence of the prophecy. Like other works of literature before it (such as Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex), Macbeth illustrates that prophecies and the actions that we take to avoid or fulfill them should be considered carefully and cautiously, i.e., what is the price of our actions/inaction.
The idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy was not a new concept to Shakespeare or his contemporaries. Earlier Greek plays and stories such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Within the play, King Laius, Oedipus’s father, receives a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi (oracles were, at the time considered the most accurate/trustworthy source of information on future events as they were directly linked to the Greek god Apollo and gifted the ability of future sight. As such, oracles were consulted for any number of small and great reasons. And the most famous and accurate of oracles was the Oracle of Delphi). The prophecy that King Laius received was that if his wife ever gave birth to a son, that his son would grow up and kill him and marry his mother, Jocasta. Once Oedipus is born King Laius tries to avoid the prophecy by ordering the death of his son. However, in doing so, he seals the future in which the oracle prophesized. Many Greek plays and stories of heroes are structured with the placement of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as in Oedipus Rex the catalyst/source of the death, misery, and madness begins with prophecy…
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!”
Lesser than Macbeth and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!
(Act 1 Scene 3)
By all means of rational thinking, the Witches were not a source by which Macbeth should not have trusted, in-so-much that all would have been well in his house had he not mulled over their words or told his wife that they had prophesized (which was, 1. That Macbeth would become the next thane of Cawdor, 2. That he would become king, and 3. That Banquo’s children would rule after Macbeth). The initial issues with this situation are the Witches; Macbeth does not know who these creatures are, he does not know what type of beings they are, and he does not know as to why they would tell him this in the first place or what they gain from doing so. But he becomes so focused on the lure of power (the lure of the crown), so enraptured by the tantalizing idea that he would become king that not only does he allow himself to begin to think of it as a distinct possibility, (he makes the clear choice to allow himself to become enrapture/seduced by the possibility of becoming the next king). And he is so blinded by the prophecy that he does not consider two crucial factors: 1. How will he become Duncan’s successor? and 2. Why will Banquo’s children gain the throne and not his own?
At this point in the play, it feels as if Macbeth is merely treating the encounter that he and Banquo had with the Witches as a strange/vivid hallucination and their prophecy as just an intriguing and fanciful dream (I say it this way because up until Macbeth speaks with his wife he has already contemplated how he would, in fact, become king and he cannot think of an answer that would make the second part of the prophecy true and instead mulls it over quietly, unsure of what he should do next).
After hearing the prophecy, Macbeth sends a letter to his wife detailing what the Witches told him. And upon reading the letter, Lady Macbeth begins to think of the significance of the prophecy and of ways in which she can assure that it comes to pass. That being said, I doubt very much that Lady Macbeth believes in the prophecy of the Witches, but in her own ambition clearly sees the opportunity that has been neatly laid before her and her husband (and why not, the Witches whether real or not, have already put the idea in Macbeth’s head).
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal
(Act 1 Scene 5)
And she urges Macbeth to take action and seize the throne by committing murder, thus, setting off the chain of events that leads to their own downfall.
Both Oedipus Rex and Macbeth problematize knowing what the future will hold. And whether they wished for the outcomes to come true or not, the choices of these characters lead to a solid understanding of the types of consequences that are met when you wish to change/keep said outcome; and in doing so, also reveal the true danger that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Link to Text:
Link to Image: