Reverse Causality in Shakespeare

by Jennifer Wey

Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: Shakespeare: The Tragedies (LARTS 325, Fall 2011)

Shakespeare uses elements of the supernatural to explore the tension between destiny and free will, particularly in Macbeth and Hamlet. However, this tension can also be observed from the perspective of reverse causality, a modern physics concept which hypothesizes that time is multi-directional and can flow backward, allowing the future to affect the present (and the present to affect the past). In Macbeth, three witches inform soldiers Macbeth and Banquo of their futures, and this prediction causes Macbeth to commit many anomalous actions. Similarly, in Hamlet, the ghost of a murdered king appears to his living son Hamlet, stating that Hamlet’s duty and destiny is to avenge his father. This encounter leads to Hamlet’s obsession with his task and how to fulfill it—or not to fulfill it, as his subsequent actions seem to indicate. The belief that future events can rule present events suggests that free will, if it exists at all, must remain within the boundaries of an inevitable fate. While Shakespeare seems to place a high value on those characters who come to realize and accept that they are thus fated (i.e., that they are mere actors in a larger scripted scheme), he is also interested in their prior attempts to assert free will and control their destinies.

The action of both plays is instigated by supernatural beings who serve as agents of future events, portals through which the future can affect characters in their present states. Since witches and ghosts are magical and unearthly creatures, it is debatable whether they are “real” or simply figments of the characters’ imaginations. Shakespeare provides an answer through the context in which the creatures appear. The first time the witches emerge in Macbeth, they are seen not only by Macbeth but also by Banquo, who offers an objective view of the witches’ reality. However, the second time Macbeth encounters a supernatural being, Banquo’s ghost, it is implied that the occurrence is purely psychological, since Macbeth is the only person in a crowded room who can see the ghost. Macbeth then seeks out the aforementioned witches on his own; the subsequent parade of apparitions he witnesses suggests that the supernatural beings have become entirely contained within his imagination. A similar progression into isolation occurs in Hamlet. The King’s ghost is first viewed by a group of men—not even including Hamlet—but later can be seen only by Hamlet, even when he is in a room with his mother. The implication here too is that the ghost has become an invention of Hamlet’s mind.

Since the witches’ and ghosts’ first appearances are the only time they exist in actuality, those are the only instances to observe as signs from the future. The rest of the appearances are illustrations of destiny playing itself out through hallucinations of the main characters. Such hallucinations and their consequent actions would not have occurred without the future’s intrusion on the present. Macbeth’s unstoppable destruction exemplifies this point; only after encountering the witches does he fight to control his destiny, initially spurred on by his wife, but also motivated by his own uncontrollable obsession. Although he tries to forget the witches’ prophecy at first, declaring, “Chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (I.iii.143) and telling his wife that he dares “do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none” (I.vii.46-47), he later attempts to make his own fate by murdering Duncan. From then on, Macbeth loses himself in a chain of actions to escape the witches’ prophecy, murdering Banquo and Macduff’s family, which ironically leads him straight to his destined final battle with Macduff.

Macbeth’s vain struggle is Shakespeare’s portrayal of the tiny window called “free will” in the prison of “destiny.” Free will in Macbeth (as well as in reverse causality) refers to how one reacts to the future one is given. After a character is introduced to his fate, he can choose to accept it or fight it. Ironically, this freedom is a contradiction in itself, because no matter how one reacts, the future has already been set in place and will not change. A further irony is that often, the more a character realizes this reality, the more fate slips out of his control. Macbeth’s witnessing and believing in the witches’ prediction leads to his downfall. On a subconscious level, Macbeth seems to realize all this despite his external actions. In a pivotal moment during which Macbeth imagines a “dagger of the mind” (II.i.33) leading him to kill Duncan, he is at once Macbeth the free-willed man and Macbeth the fated figure, compelled to reach out and grab “false creation” as well as the actual dagger in his belt to commit murder. He drifts eerily toward this inevitable murder, rather like a ghost himself. Macbeth takes actions to oppose his destruction preemptively, but within this resistance is a private knowledge that the more he resists, the more he paves the pathway to his fate.

Hamlet exhibits a similar struggle with the destiny appointed to him by the supernatural apparition in his play. Like Macbeth, he initially tries to escape his future, but unlike Macbeth, his resistance is exercised through inaction rather than action. (This difference in behavior reflects their respective characters—Macbeth the famed soldier and Hamlet the disturbed thinker.) Hamlet is introspective by nature—a poet, philosopher, lover, playwright—and not a political figure or king. Before the encounter with his father’s ghost, he feels insignificant in contrast to his heroic father, whom he compares to Hyperion and Hercules (I.ii.140, 153), and even after swearing to the ghost that he will take revenge on Claudius, Hamlet bemoans, “O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.189-190). From then on, he constantly avoids taking action to fulfill this destiny. He deliberately hesitates to kill Claudius in the chapel, resolving to do the deed when he mistakenly believes Claudius’s soul will be more vulnerable. Then, when Hamlet is finally driven to action during an emotional berating of his mother in Act Three, he rashly stabs the king’s advisor Polonius who is hidden behind an arras, mistaking him for Claudius. As a result of the supernatural visit, Hamlet has become increasingly confused, caught between his characteristic tendency to shrink from real-world responsibility and submitting to a fate he secretly knows must be fulfilled. Like Macbeth, Hamlet’s running away from fate serves only to dramatize his inevitable doom, as well as strengthen his knowledge of the prison in which he is trapped.

At the end of both Macbeth and Hamlet, the main characters reach a crucial moment of realization, when they pronounce the truth of their circumstances and the inescapability of destiny. Although bunkered in Dunsinane castle, defiantly awaiting Malcolm and the English forces, Macbeth is “sick at heart.” He knows that his “way of life / Is fall’n into the sear,” that he won’t grow old or have “troops of friends” (V.iii.19-26). He merely shrugs at his wife’s death, declaring it doesn’t matter because she would “have died hereafter” anyway; life is nothing but “a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” (V.v.29-30). As such, when he discovers that Birnham Wood moves toward him as prophesied, he knows he is trapped, yet is ready to play his part and fight on, thus ending his play (V.v.46-52). He cries, “I will not yield…Before my body / I throw my warlike shield” (V.viii.27-32), submitting to his fate by ironically appearing to fight against it.

Hamlet has a similar moment of realization when he returns from England, having by chance survived a plot against his life; he apprehends a “divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will” (V.ii.10-11). Although he suspects the fencing match set up by Claudius and Laertes is yet another plot, he understands he is part of a larger story that has already been written; he’s an actor in a play, rather than a playwright or director. His ultimate decision is to accept Claudius’s challenge and allow his future to envelop him. He tells his friend Horatio, “There is a special providence…if it be now, ’tis not be to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come…Let be” (V.ii.220-225). Ultimately, this attitude leads him to pick up his sword and confront his uncle, in fulfillment of the destiny prescribed by his father’s ghost.

In both plays, Shakespeare presents characters that draw their audience along as if by hypnosis; as we observe the men’s struggles and glimpse their souls through various monologues and scenes, we develop an admiration and personal tie to the characters. With such sympathetic, noble depictions, the suggestion is that Shakespeare admires those who question, resist, and finally accept their fates, rather than those who submit to destiny without hesitation. Through the heroes he creates, Shakespeare conveys to his audience that what defines people is not the fate they are dealt, but what they do with the futures they are given.


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

—. Macbeth. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.


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