Shakespeare and Determinism

Determinism has been a topic of literary fascination throughout the ages, from its role in Virgil’s Aeneid to Thomas Hardy’s novels. Shakespeare’s time was one when the free will debate was at its climax. Aquinas’ views on one side, Calvinist Theological Determinism on the other, the 16th Century was the era of many polemic publications on the issue. In reality, though, the issue boils down to the question: are we in control of what we do?

Shakespeare’s plays deal with the matter extensively, but I will assess the issue in three of his seminal works: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth.

The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet reads as follows:

”From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;” (Romeo and Juliet, Act I Prologue)

Romeo and Juliet are presented as being opposed by the very forces of nature, and thus by their destinies. In reality, the impediment of their happiness together is probably the effect of more practical forces, such as social and economic influence. Nevertheless, there is a certain romanticism in describing a pair of lovers as being denied happiness not by the mundane constructs of society, but by the ‘stars’. It is this romanticism which has meant that the term ‘star-crossed’ has entered the English lexis as a way for many other lovers to blame their failed relationships not on the truths of everyday life, but on astrological fate. To blame fate for any given situation was not an uncommon deed in Shakespeare’s day, and neither is it now. It is a natural aspect of the human condition to ascribe situations to the so-called ‘natural forces’. The transferral of blame is appealing, it allows one to rest in the knowledge that they are in a bad situation through no fault of their own.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius remarks:

”The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2)

Cassius is, here, trying to motivate Brutus to rebellion. As much as support of determinism can give one peace of mind, denial of determinism can bring about a unique motivation to change the way things are. This motivation is what Cassius requires of Brutus, and so she exploits the emotive effect of that side of the free will debate. Fittingly, though, Julius Caesar also proposes the other side of the debate. Julius Caesar is told to ”Beware the Ides of March”, an admonition that serves to be most justified when he reaches his demise on that very day, and an ambiguous warning that plays on Caesar’s mind throughout the play.

Macbeth begins with the infamous predictions of the ’Weird Sisters’ that Macbeth will go on to become King:

”All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Macbeth, Act I Scene 3)

Macbeth goes on to commit and incite murders in order that the ’golden round’ be obtained and secured. There is some debate as to what motivates these deeds of ’treasonous malice’, but I see the situation as follows. The witches are not malevolent themselves when the first prophecy is given to Macbeth, and it is not their intention to trick or deceive him, despite Macbeth’s fear that ”The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s / In deepest consequence”. Rather, the betrayal is borne of man. It is Macbeth’s personal reaction to the prophecy which motivates his murders, but is it his personal reaction that gains him the throne? Empirically, yes – but there’s no proof that it could have only happened this way. This is where the ambiguities begin to appear and the central paradox of Determinism is evident. When told his destiny, Macbeth assumes that he himself must act in order to fulfil the prophecy, and when he does, he fulfils his prophecy. We must ask ourselves, though, whether the prophecy would have been fulfilled if Macbeth had not assumed an active role in the happenings – and there is no way of telling. This contradiction is what gives us some of Macbeth’s most famous soliloquies, and the contention between Determinism and personal autonomy is the driving force throughout the play as a whole, leading to much tension and dramatic irony.

So, Shakespeare deals with Determinism in a similar way in all three of the aforementioned plays. Firstly, a prediction is made by a source of authority, whether that be the chorus, a soothsayer, or a witch. Then, the audience and characters then have to grapple with the tension created by the deterministic prediction; they are constantly asking themselves how and when the prediction will be realised. Finally, the play as a whole presents the question which is at the heart of the matter: are we in control of what we do?

I think in reality, what Shakespeare aims to suggest is that whether Determinism is true or not, we are at fault. If Determinism exists, it is a human failure accept a lack of free will which leads to our inevitable downfall. If it doesn’t exist, we are naturally at fault for what we do. As with all good literature, Shakespeare highlights a flaw in the human condition: a need to feel in control. Indeed, Shakespeare undermines the illusion of human control in what are some of his most famous and most beautiful lines on the futility of life:

”All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.” (As You Like It, Act II Scene 7)

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