In Desiderius Erasmus’s Defense of Free Will, he refutes Martin Luther’s creed that God predestines everyone’s lives and instead asserts that man alone possesses the power to choose his own path to either salvation or damnation. The play Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, raises similar questions – did the protagonist, Macbeth, willingly choose to commit such atrocities as killing the king and his court to feed his own ambition, or did he merely play the role of a pawn, performing that which fate bade him do?
Amid much controversy over this issue, evidence both in Erasmus’s critical essay and in the play itself affirms that Macbeth cognitively decides to act as he does in the play, confirming Erasmus’s perspective and suggesting that people have the ability to dictate their own fate through their thoughts, decisions, and actions. Through his interpretation of the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, Erasmus writes in favor of free will over predestination, a concept that, when applied to the character Macbeth, raises questions about the motives behind his detestable actions.
In his essay, Erasmus explores the “power of the human” (46) to “turn away from what leads to eternal salvation” (46). According to this opinion, Macbeth makes a conscious choice to pursue a life of crime and sin, instead of simply following his fate. Macbeth’s plea that the “stars hide [their] fires” (1. 4. 57) so that “light [would not] see [his] black and deep desires” (1. 4. 58) indicates that Macbeth remains aware that his “wicked, rebellious will” (Erasmus, 48) lies within himself, and he fears the consequences of his sinful deeds.
This very fear of punishment reflects the existence of free will in Macbeth – as Erasmus inquires, “why [should God] curse me, when I sinned through necessity? ” (47). Macbeth’s clear understanding of the evil that he plans to commit and his fear of divine punishment suggest that characters in Macbeth choose their actions as opposed to following their destiny. Macbeth’s evil actions, however, are not completely driven by an inherent evil nature; although he does have free will in the play, he becomes a slave to his ruthless ambition because of his own moral weakness.
As Erasmus writes, “there are certain seeds of goodness planted in men’s minds” (50), although “the will is perhaps more inclined to evil than to good” (50). In other words, everyone possesses both good and bad within them, and it is up to the individual person to “[turn themselves] towards, or away from, faith” (48-9). Macbeth’s apparently latent moral code surfaces occasionally throughout the first act in his moments of wavering in his violent resolve; he tells Lady Macbeth that they “will proceed no further in this business” (1.7. 34) in one of the scenes preceding the murder.
However, the manipulative Lady Macbeth must only mention that which Macbeth desires and question his masculinity to crush Macbeth’s good side and force it to submit to his evil ambition. The ease with which Lady Macbeth extinguishes Macbeth’s doubt of the evil plan highlights Macbeth’s weakness for his ambition. Macbeth becomes a slave not to the devil, but instead to the very evil that resides within himself.
Neither heaven nor hell predetermines Macbeth’s actions in the play; it is in fact his inability to compromise his ruthless ambition that ultimately forces him into crime. He chooses to sin of his own accord, and therefore faces his final punishment that sets the world back in order at the end of the tragedy. Through their individual works, Shakespeare and Erasmus imply that humans have free will to determine their own actions, and only the strongest of heart will succeed in accomplishing the work of God.