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"Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow": The Question of Free Will in Shakespeare's Macbeth

One of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies takes place in Macbeth Act V Scene V, right after Macbeth hears the news about the death of his wife, and it is filled with pessimism and despair. At that point in the play, after years of killing and lying, Macbeth is the king of Scotland but the enemy’s armies are marching towards his castle. He orders his people to prepare for battle and to hang the banners but the news of his wife arrives, and the sudden realization of what his life has been and always will be finally dawns upon him.

Macbeth instructing the murderers employed to kill Banquo, by George Cattermole.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;"

Macbeth, Act V Scene V

A thought suddenly crosses Macbeth’s mind, something he had not thought about before: the meaning of the word “hereafter.” When Lady Macbeth (Act I Scene V) and the three witches (Act I Scene III) told Macbeth that he will be king “hereafter,” he interpreted it as 'some time in the near future', a future that presented itself full of possibilities. He had the opportunity of killing the king and taking the throne, and he took it. However, five acts into the play and Macbeth’s future has completely shifted. What previously was “hereafter” became “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and even though both make reference to the future and they could be interpreted as synonyms, they have very different connotations. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” represents a weary future where Macbeth sees himself damned to repeat the same hateful event over and over again: killing and killing, again and again. Furthermore, Macbeth connects the concept of “hereafter” to his wife and the three witches, implying that he blames them for his situation. They whispered promises in his ear and he was foolish enough to follow them.

This soliloquy raises a question to Macbeth’s character that was also a worry for Christians during Shakespeare’s time: the notion of free will. During the 16th century, the debate on free will and predestination was particularly heated. The discussion between Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) represented the warring sides of Christianity that would eventually cause the breaking of the religion during the Reformation. While Erasmus famously described free will as “a power of the human will by which man be able to direct himself towards, or turn away from, what leads to eternal salvation” (Erasmus, 2004, p. 21), Luther maintained that human beings were unable to act their free will under the influence of sin (Erasmus, 2004, p. 301-310). Essentially, the argument was based on predestination; if the future is made of choices or if humans are bound to do what is written for them to do. Erasmus rejected Luther’s ideas arguing that the notion of predestination makes holy scriptures meaningless, and even though the influence of divine grace was crucial, it was free will that eventually shifted the scales in matters of vice and virtue.

Lady Macbeth, by George Cattermole.

This argument brings a new depth to the character of Macbeth. The reader is left wondering if Macbeth did have a choice or if he was damned to end the way he did. It becomes even more interesting when Shakespeare’s Macbeth is compared with the Holinshed’s Chronicles, a work published in 1587 that described British history (England, Scotland, and Ireland). For the figure of Macbeth, Shakespeare was influenced by two different characters from the Chronicles. He used the real Macbeth but with the actions of another character named Donwald. In the Chronicles, while the king was staying at Donwald’s castle, he decided to murder him with the help of his wife (like Lady Macbeth). They drugged the king’s servants to keep them out of the way and Donwald went to the king’s chambers and cut his throat. His reaction was also similar to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; after searching the castle looking for the body and the murderers, he ended up blaming the king’s guards and killing them. After the murder of the king, some strange phenomena happened: “Horses in Lothin, being of singular beauty and swiftness, did eat their own flesh and would in no wise taste any other meat. In Angus, there was a gentlewoman that brought forth a child without eyes, nose, hand, or foot. There was a spar-hawk also strangled by an owl” (Holinshed, 2004, p. 160). This is very similar, almost identical, to the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth in the play: the night of the regicide, strange things happened like dreadful screams, the shaking of the earth…

Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath, by Théodore Chassériau.

The king in the Chronicles was described as “too soft,” and after a few years of peace, a rebellion arose because he seemed unable to inflict severe punishments upon those who rebelled. Macbeth, on the other hand, was described as “if he had not been somewhat cruel of nature, might have been thought most worthy to govern the realm” (Holinshed, 2004, p. 160). Macbeth and Banquo will have to deal with the rebellion and with the attack of the king of Norway, and similar to the play, they encountered three witches who had a prophecy to tell them. The first witch said: “All hail, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis!”, which he was after the death of his father; the second witch said: “Hail, Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor!”; and the third witch said: “All hail, Macbeth, that hereafter shalt be king of Scotland!” (Holinshed, 2004, p. 162). Shortly after that, the Thane of Cawdor was on trial for treason, and his title and properties went to Macbeth. Two of the things the witches said were already true, only one was left.

Here is when events go a little different in each work. In the play, Macbeth kills the king the way Donwald did in the Chronicles, while the real Macbeth waited and killed him when everyone was already against him for his unfitness as king. Considering how the murder of the king happened differently in each work, it might be expected for things to end differently as well. Even though Macbeth had ten years of peaceful reign in Holinshed’s Chronicles, both suffered the same ending: they killed anyone that could become a threat to the throne.

Le Spectre de Banquo, by Théodore Chassériau.

In Act V Scene V, Macbeth starts thinking about what he has done and what he has become. He is now a murderer, not only because he killed the king, but also because of all the death that came after that. Here comes the relevance of the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”: he has to keep on killing and killing if he wants to survive. By comparing how both Macbeths end, a question arises whether Macbeth had free will and he ended the way he did because he brought it onto himself, or if he was just predestined to end the way he did no matter his choices. Following Luther’s argument, the fact that both Macbeths share an ending would prove predestination. However, the figure of the witches in both stories brings up some controversy for this theory. As it has been previously explained, the witches influenced Macbeth’s actions. However, if predestination was the rule and they could see the future, why would they need to influence Macbeth? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the witches being able to see a possible future, meaning that the future is in fact in the hands of humans and the witches needed to push Macbeth to kill the king, otherwise, he might decide not to.

Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, by Henry Fuseli.

Nevertheless, this soliloquy constitutes a catharsis for Macbeth, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is full of weariness, and the following sentences: “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time” probably refer to Judgement Day. Macbeth expects to go on carrying the weight of his sins without respite until the end of times. “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death” refers to history and how Macbeth knows that he will be remembered as the worst king of Scotland. With the lines “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more,” he implies that life is a theatre where he played a role that someone else assigned him. Macbeth feels tricked by the witches and his wife. When he inherited Cawdor’s title, he ironically inherited his fate as well: he became a traitor to his country and his king. Macbeth had reached a point where all he wanted was for everything to end, he was sick of the thing he had become, and he knew his future would always be the same: a cycle of killing and destruction tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Bibliographical References

Erasmus, D. (1999). Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 76 (Charles Trinkaus, Ed.) University of Toronto Press. Toronto, Canada.

Gooder, J. (1999) "'Fixt Fate' and 'Free Will' in 'Phèdre' and 'Macbeth'". The Cambridge Quarterly, vo. 28, Nº 3, pp. 214-231. Oxford University Press. United Kingdom.

Holinshed, R. (2004). The First and Second Volumes.Macbeth (Robert S. Miola, Ed.). Norton Critical Edition. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, United States of America. (Original work Published in 1587)

Reid, Robert L. (2005) “Macbeth’s Three Murders”. Macbeth. Bloom’s Major Literary Characters (Harold Bloom Ed.). Chelsea House Publications. New York. United States of America.

Shakespeare, W. (2004). Macbeth (Robert S. Miola, Ed.). Norton Critical Edition. W. W. Norton & Company. New York, United States of America. (Original work Published in 1623)

Stachniewski, J. (1988) “Calvinist Psychology in Macbeth.” Shakespeare Studies, vol. 20.

Visual Sources

Cattermole, G. (ca. 1850). Macbeth instructing the murderers employed to kill Banquo. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, England.

Cattermole, G. (1850). Lady Macbeth. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, England.

Chassériau, T. (1855). Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath. Musée d'Orsay. Paris, France.

Chassériau, T. (1854-1855). Le Spectre de Banquo. Musée de Beaux-Arts. Musée de Reims.

Fuseli, H. (1793). Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head.


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Isabel Panadero

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