macbeth is more evil than you thought

It took a reading of Macbeth for me to realize that most of the long-form theorizing ad nauseam I’ve done about time travel in movies applies just as well to any story with prophecies or other sorts of fortune telling. If a character doesn’t traverse time, at least information can.

To summarize my taxonomy of time travel: The only two legitimate sorts of time travel in movies are “closed loop” versions (a common term, evidently) of time travel and, on the other side, what I labeled “open loop” universes. You can go back and read my explanations of those, but the gist of it is that in closed loop universes, fate fixes the future; there is only one future and it has already been determined, even if a temporal tourist attempts to tweak it. In open loop universes, however, time travel itself changes the future so that there’s always some question about what is to come. Of course, this allows a place for free will to trump destiny, where in a closed loop situation you’re pretty much stuck with whatever is going to happen.

Now, to Macbeth: At the beginning of the play, the Weird Sisters tell Macbeth that he’ll be Thane of Cawdor (a “thane” is a title of yore) and then even King of Scotland. Given this information about the future, the astute time travel connoisseur will immediately want to know what sort of universe William Shakespeare is positing — implicitly or explicitly — in Macbeth. Is Shakespeare’s story one in which, once a vision of the future arrives in the past, it has the ability to upset the course of events so that a new, unseen future comes into being instead? (That would be open loop.) Or, alternatively (and, more to the point, mutually exclusive with the open loop), is the Scotland of the play a place where the future is already definite – a future where Macbeth has “already” (so to speak) achieved the crown? (Never mind the paradox that maybe Macbeth only commits the murders that he does because he is prompted by knowledge of a future where he has already done so. That is, he does it because he learns that he will do it. This is actually a pretty okay paradox by time-travel standards.)

picture by JD Hancock via cc

picture by JD Hancock via cc

Over the course of the play, evidence mounts that the cosmos of Macbeth is the latter. After Macbeth lands the mantle of leadership, it seems as though the play is saying that he’s bound to his (bloody) fate. When he consults with the Weird Sisters a second time, they make some awfully specific predictions, and they come true: Macbeth is indeed slain by a man not born of woman (or at least, not exactly) and Birnam Wood really does make it to Dunsinane. It all seems to say, yes, all of reality is merely acting against some predetermined script.

This raises some pretty big questions about how culpable we are in a universe designed like this. Think of it this way: If Macbeth was always destined to betray Duncan, then in what way can we call him culpable for actually doing it? In this type of world, we merely go through the paces that have already been set, and in that sense, absolute responsibility for one’s actions is equivocal.

And yet, by the end of the play, there is one prediction that hasn’t come true. The Sisters had, in their first round of revelations about the future, said that Banquo’s descendants would be kings. But at the end of the tale, it’s Duncan’s son Malcolm that takes the throne back, not Banquo’s son Fleance.

It seems that audiences of Shakespeare’s time would have understood this as fine and good, since the rise of their own king, James, substantiated the Sisters’ prediction: Banquo, in the popular telling accepted at the time, was an ancestor to James. So, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the witches would have been right again.

That’s good for them, but as a modern reader, I find this ending a bit disjointed: In a dramatic sense, it feels incomplete. Moreover, the prediction is plausible enough within the action of the play and I don’t see why it would ruin the drama to close the circle and have Fleance ascend to the throne, even through some kind of contrivance. In a world where Macbeth manages to land the throne for himself through a little regicide and dissembling, it’s not unthinkable that the son of his equal would find a way to unseat Macbeth in turn. (Maybe I’m also saying I find it a little hard to swallow that Macbeth grabs the throne so easily, but that’s not quite the point.)

Most importantly, I guess, by persisting in this line of questioning, I come to another reading of the play, one that’s more fun and even slightly Inception-esque in its intrigue.

Look at it this way: Up until the very end of the play, the witches have been startlingly accurate in their forecasts, which suggests that the future is already unchangeable. If you agree with my logic above, this means that Macbeth’s evil is ever so slightly mitigated; showing us that the witches’ predictions were an excellent accounting of the future, the play itself suggests that Macbeth never really had a meaningful choice in what he did.

But then, at the last moment, when we find out that Banquo’s son Fleance is not poised to become king, it suddenly seems that the sinister Sisters might be fallible after all. And if they’re not always right, maybe the future isn’t fixed after all, which then implies that Macbeth’s crimes were, in the end, not inevitable at all.

This revelation wipes away whatever little allowance we can give the deadly king. By failing to deliver on this one prophecy, it would seem that Shakespeare could be signaling to the audience that fate was never as fixed as the rest of the play assumes. In effect, it’s Macbeth’s worst damnation: He was never bound to do the evil he did. Which means, in turn, he chose it in some very fundamental way. If there are degrees of evil, Shakespeare manages to increment Macbeth’s even after the man is dead.

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