In Shakespeare's Works
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Is Each Human in Full Control of His Destiny?
By Michael J. Cummings...2012 ©
William Shakespeare was among the authors of his time who presented the views of the disputants in a centuries-old question: Does a human being have full control of his destiny?
On the one side were those who believed that forces beyond the control of an individual were partly or entirely in command of his destiny. On the other side were those who believed that each individual was mostly or entirely in control of his life.
Calvinist predestination and superstition influenced the thinking of some. Aquinas's argument for free will—as informed by the intellect and the emotions—influenced others. Some believed they were under the governance of the stars and the planets. Many of the low-born either accepted their lot docilely or blamed fate or fortune for it. In All's Well That Ends Well, however, Helena—a gentlewoman of lower birth than the nobleman she loves—observes:
Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,She then sets her cap for the young man, who looks down upon her, and over time—and with a little scheming—succeeds.
Shakespeare well understood attitudes toward fatalism and free will and presented the views on both sides of the issue through his characters. Thus, we have the following two opposing viewpoints in the same play, King Lear.
Example 1In Julius Caesar, a soothsayer shouts from a crowd to Caesar as he passes, “Beware the ides of March” (1.2.23). The seer, it seems, knows that Caesar is fated to die if he appears in public on the ides. As Caesar continues to parade through the streets, Cassius—who is organizing an assassination plot against Caesar—tells Brutus that men rise in the world through their own initiative, not through a power over which they have no control. When commenting on why he and Brutus are Caesar's subordinates, Cassius says,
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,In Macbeth, free will and fate become intertwined, paradoxically, after the witches predict that Macbeth will become king. Macbeth believes the prophecy but realizes he must make a conscious decision to kill King Duncan for the prophecy to come true.
What was Shakespeare's position on free will vs fate?
Evidence suggests that he believed each man was the master of his life—not stars, not sorcerers, not oracles, and not an arbitrary deity. But he also believed that certain forces—environmental, social, religious, emotional, and psychological, for example—could weaken a man or a woman's ability to make a rational decision. So it was that King Lear fell to ruin because of his lordly selfishness and his foolhardy decision to relinquish his crown and divide his kingdom. Timon of Athens lost everything because of his attempt to please everyone. Coriolanus lost his country and his life because of his overweening pride.Cardinal Wolsey fell from grace because of his political machinations and avarice. The point is that all of these tragic figures doomed themselves through decisions they made, consciously and willingly—albeit the decisions were influenced by character flaws and external forces.
Romeo and Juliet—fiction's famous “star-crossed” lovers—killed themselves because they were under crushing duress and because they were too immature to realize that time and patience could present solutions to their dilemma. Caesar and Macbeth died because they ruthlessly pursued their ambitions.
Shakespeare also acknowledged that ill fortune can befall a human being through no fault of his own. Old King Hamlet was murdered while sleeping in an orchard. Lucrece was raped. Desdemona was smothered to death by a jealous husband. Princes Edward and Richard, just little boys, lost their lives to Gloucester's desire to be king. These tragic outcomes had nothing to do with fatalism or supranormal phenomena. But they had everything to do with the decisions of coldly calculating perpetrators. King Hamlet died because Claudius wanted to wear the crown. Lucrece was raped because her assailant made up his mind to taste of her unrivaled loveliness. Desdemona died because Othello, duped by unfounded rumors about her unfaithfulness, decided to end the life of the person he most loved. Princes Edward and Richard died because of Gloucester's hell-bent drive to become King Richard III.
Of all of Shakespeare's plays, the one that most effectively calls attention to the struggle of human beings to give reign to free will against forces that would limit or cancel it is Hamlet. Throughout the play, Hamlet contends with a perceived cultural obligation to avenge the death of his father and a perceived moral obligation to obey the Bible admonition, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13).
Is he merely a creature of his culture who is expected to execute its dictates without question? Is he a creature of his church who is expected to obey the Ten Commandments? And what of the ghost of his father, which cries out to Hamlet to revenge “murder most foul”? The player king in Hamlet sums up the dilemma when he recites these lines:
Our wills and fates do so contrary run