Divine Tragedy – Macbeth

It is human nature to point the attributes of calamities, misfortunes and disasters to entities that are as far away as possible from us, in order to convert the harsh realities we face into abstract, surreal ideas. And even though we turn our heads towards the skies in order to hold the supernatural accountable instead of ourselves undertaking the responsibility of our actions, we still continue to “humbly [pray to] God to fortify [us] with sound judgment” (Ibn Tufayl, 101). It is this turning of our heads that I wish to examine in our readings along with the role of the divine in human destinies.

I also intend to examine the correlation between the divine and human tragedies, since this is the predominant genre of our texts. The most recent of these texts is Shakespeare’s tragedy – Macbeth – written by the ingenious playwright in 1603. The characters that play the most important role in our quest to understanding the role of the divine in human destinies are the witches or “weird sisters” as referred to them in the play. The witches’ caricature nature lessens their credibility in context of the play’s grim theme.

However, on a deeper level one can interpret them as “agents of fate, whose prophecies are only reports of the inevitable” (SparksNotes). They can also be interpreted as figures that were part of the belief system of the 17th century that helped place the play in a framework that could appeal to the theatergoer 400 years ago. In spite of the conflicting interpretations of the witches, the roles they play in the unfolding of human events, – specifically Macbeth’s actions – are consistent no matter what interpretation employed.

The play begins with the witches meeting Macbeth and Banquo; during the encounter the witches predict the futures of both men. “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! ” and “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (Shakespeare, 17-18). The witches plainly state their futures; there is no suggestion of a path or process that will lead to those outcomes. So why is it then that Macbeth feels compelled to bring haste to a prophecy that is bound to occur? Had he kept patient and suspended Lady Macbeth’s ambition and lust he could have reached the same fate without the bloodshed and dreadful misery.

Evidence supporting this view – an event’s inevitableness guaranteed by fate – can be found in texts much older than Macbeth, particularly in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone, “The power of fate is a wonder, dark, terrible wonder… nothing can save us from the force” (Sophocles, 108). Equal to the witches in Antigone is Tiresias, the blind prophet who predicts Creon’s doom through the death of his son Haemon – the inevitable event – “One born of your own loins, your own flesh and blood, a corpse for corpses given in return” (Sophocles, 115) and despite Creon’s delayed efforts he is incapable of reversing the fate of Haemon.

Further evidence regarding the irreversible nature of fate exists in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s perseverance and commitment on his quest to attaining the key to eternal life is unrivaled and he gets as close as holding the secret in his hand, “He seized it and cut it into his hands… He was calling out, I have it! I have it! ” (Mason, 85) but since it was not preordained and not to be in his providence “A serpent smelled its sweet fragrance and… evoured the plant, shedding its skin as slough” (Mason, 86). The divine does not preordain every single action and event and humans are not just characters that are directed by the creator of the universe. If all actions of men were to be preordained by the divine “and when you shot, it was not you who shot, but God” as Ibn Tufayl claims in his Sufi script then there would be no comprehensive cause for the creation of the universe – “that is that it had always had been as it is now” (Ibn Tufayl, 71).

Consequently, Macbeth’s scheme to murder Duncan and Creon’s stubbornness would not be preordained but on the contrary were human instincts, which are part of the internal motivations and drives that can be seen as a source of mankind’s destruction. The divine has blessed man with reasoning however ignorant he is and this is what differentiates him from beast, which is clearly evident when the prostitute confronts Enkidu and he hesitates before succumbing to her charms. “He wanted to touch it, but then. It made sounds he had never heard, Not like the sounds of his friends, the animals, And he was afraid” (Mason, 18).

Human nature, however, has too often been viewed through the lenses of a pessimistic world, a nature that is dark and sordid and that is inherently propelled by instinct to be bad and evil. Since, man is innately evil – that is when given two options he will opt for the less pious one – he cannot justify his pledge for mercy, which he seeks in order to feel secure in the face of tragedy. Therefore, his pleading can only be justified if he were to seek it by blaming the tragedy on the divine and not upon his actions. “Why, in the name of all my fathers’ gods, why can’t you wait till I am gone – must you abuse me to my face? ” (Sophocles, 103).

Notice that Antigone pleads for sympathy by asking for justice to be served in the name of the gods and not because she innately believes she is right and is willing to take full responsibility for her actions. Further evidence of turning concrete reality into abstract ideas to seek security and mercy from people also exists with Creon’s character. Even though Creon undeniably knows he is responsible for the mishaps “I know it myself – I’m shaken, torn. It’s a dreadful thing to yield” (Sophocless, 116) he wails upon hearing the news Haemon’s death, “Oh my child – what have you done? what seized you, what insanity? what disaster drove you mad? (Sophocles, 122).

Creon says, “what seized you” – implying that something abstract induced Haemon to undertake his action of committing suicide and by doing so he is lessening Haemon’s responsibility as well as his own in the face of tragedy. I believe – and all texts confirm my affirmations – that the divine lays down key junctures, occasions and setbacks in our life, which are preordained. However, the divine leaves the option of how we reach and deal with each juncture, occasion and setback open. Macbeth had the choice of carrying out the assassination or waiting for the prophecy to fold out as it were destined to be.

Our actions, intentions and dealings with those junctures then determines our fate in the afterlife “the jump life to come” (Shakespeare, 39) and molds the junctures that we are to face in the future. Since Macbeth decided to carry out his devilish scheme he encountered another inevitable event – the death of Duncan’s servants. It was inevitable that the servants die that night, but it was not inevitable that they be slain by Macbeth’s dagger, which was an event that was placed by the divine due to Macbeth’s own personal choices.

It is the nature of our personal choices and our “reverence toward the gods” (Sophocles, 128) that inevitableness of events to come. Our less pious choices “are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last these blows will teach us wisdom” (Sophocles, 128). What is interesting though – is humans do not learn from these “blows” or setbacks and continue to think of them as fates and not as punishments that the divine has bestowed upon us for taking less pious routes towards preordained junctures.

It is the accumulation of ignoring these chances for gaining “wisdom” from these “blows” that inevitably leads to the tragic endings of human beings and this is what I believe the texts share in common. It is the ignorance of human beings by not learning from their mistakes and by doing so facing tragic endings, which they bring upon themselves due to the dark and sordid nature that inherently propels man to be bad and evil and not because of the divine’s desire to bestow tragedy upon the fate of mankind.