They believed in the idea of Wyrd, or the Nordic version of fate. This fate was based on past events of an individual's life. Their future would be adjusted accordingly by Wyrd, much like the Eastern idea of Karma, (Herbert 1995). It was the destiny of all men, based on what individuals had done previously in their lives. This element is prevalent throughout Shakespeare's Macbeth, in that his fate is what eventually leads him to his downfall. Because of his treacherous actions in murdering the King and his friend Banquo to steal the crown, Macbeth ensured that Wyrd would eventually come to take its revenge for his deceitful behavior. This pagan tradition did not fully die out with the region's conversion to Christianity; rather it moved from a strong religious practice into folk tales. Anglo-Saxon traditions and beliefs are still engrained into British literary traditions.
The earlier idea of Wyrd was later transitioned into the current English phrase "weird." The three witches are associated with this earlier Anglo-Saxon tradition, "The weird sisters, hand in hand," (Macbeth I.3.32). Their prophecies end up reality, showing their link to Macbeth's destiny. The naive Macbeth did not fully see the ramifications of their prophecies before he commenced in his plot to take action into his own hands and kill the king. Shakespeare portrays the political and social structure of the Anglo-Saxon culture within a surreal world of witches and fate which emphasize the religious mythology as well, (Boyce 73). The repetition of the three witches, the three prophecies, and the three murders responds to the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity, "Thus do go about, about, / Thrice to thrine, and thrice to mine," (Macbeth I.3.32-35). However, this trinity brings tragedy rather than grace. The witches serve as a darker counterpart to the Christian practices of the day, but also represent the earlier concept of fate. The ease in which Macbeth adapted into the evil figure he became is framed by language. He begins to speak in oppositional terms, how the witches speak. Their evil had blended with Macbeth's character. Many of come to believe that "the witches objectify Macbeth's inner state and especially his motives for action," (Markles 303). His actions could be the cause of the witches' dark influence over the Scottish lord. They were the ones who first called him king, "All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king thereafter!" (Macbeth I.3.50). Many believe that they are the origin on his dark ambitions. However, in the scene where Hecate, the head witch, chastises the witches; she does so by saying that Macbeth acted on his own accord and that they had not fully persuaded him to serve their means, "All you have done / Hath been but for a wayward son, / Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do, / Loves for his own ends, not for you," (III.5.10-13). This seems to suggest that Macbeth had used the witches for his own good, rather than them using him as an instrument of evil. Later, Hecate pledged to turn this on Macbeth and destroy him.
The characters of Macbeth broke the social and religious conventions of their era, with what ended up to be devastating consequences. Both Macbeth and his wife stepped out of the traditional Anglo-Saxon roles and took action to benefit themselves, however going against fate has serious consequences, "Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles," (Macbeth V.1.70-71). Their part in intervening in the will of fate was their downfall. Each character had their own responsibilities in the leading themselves to certain doom.
Lady Macbeth broke out of her conventional role as a docile female in Anglo-Saxon society. She defied her allocated role through her manipulations and her ambition for her husband, (Boyce 63). Lady Macbeth knew that her husband was unable to fully commit murders on her own, "Thou wildst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / the illness should attend it," (Macbeth I.5.17-19). She took it upon herself to converse with her husband regarding his need to kill Duncan, this was very much unlike the role which the Anglo-Saxon culture allocated women; women were objects which served and united people through marriage. Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth tempt fate with her own ambitions for her husband which led her to break out of her assigned place within society, "That I may pour my spirits in thine ear / and chastise with the valor of my tongue," (I.5.25-26). Lady Macbeth saw that Macbeth would not choose to do what he needed to do on his own, and so she manipulated the situation and pushed him to kill Duncan. She completely abandoned her role as quiet female, and thus took on more man like qualities to pursue her goals, "Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / and fill me from the crown to the top / of direst cruelty," (I.5.39-42). She would have tried to be king herself if she was a man, but since she was female she did the next best thing and got her husband the crown. This ensured that fate would have disastrous consequences for her as well. Although she did not physically kill Duncan herself, the guilt she felt for breaking her docile female role after encouraging her husband, eventually overwhelmed her and led her to her death.
Macbeth broke the most engrained taboo, he killed the king. His actions ensured him the throne; however, they also ensured a horrible fate at the end of the play. With a natural death of a king come natural progressions of order, especially since the king is supposed to be of divine lineage. By killing the king, Macbeth disrupted the natural order of his life and his country. Killing one's kinsmen and friends was considered a disastrous taboo. For Macbeth to be so treacherous to kill his closest associates and king was linked to blasphemy. This was commonly practiced by lords of this time, however, which shows the importance of stories warning against the disastrous consequences of such an act. Macbeth knowingly went beyond the roles allocated to him through his destiny. When Macbeth went to see the witches after he attained the crown, he showed how much he disregarded the rules of nature and the idea of Wyrd. Macbeth's response to the witches calling him king in the first scene is not one of full surprise. Even at this early stage of the play, he shows signs that he may have already been thinking to make a play for the Scottish crown. He was suspiciously dumbfounded. Banquo notices Macbeth's strange reaction, which later ensures Banquo's death at the hands of Macbeth's henchmen. Banquo, on the other hand, does not pay attention to the witches' prophecies. This shows how is character is that of a true loyal thane. He was later rewarded for his loyalty, for it was his descendents who eventually took the crown and reigned for centuries. He believed himself to be beyond the reach of both men and fate, "The pow'r of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth," (Macbeth IV.1.102-103). However, unfortunately for Macbeth, fate did evoke its revenge on the deceitful Scottish lord. Macbeth believed that he was safe from the figure of Malcolm. Malcolm, however, was being used as an instrument of fate. Through Malcolm, Wyrd which is not "of woman born," eventually destroyed Macbeth.
The play Macbeth is riddled with influences of Anglo-Saxon culture. The social structure and the religious beliefs, both pagan and Christian, frame the story. Through the preservation of Shakespeare writings, such as Macbeth, this Anglo-Saxon culture lives on through the ages within classic literature.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare a to Z. Round Table Press. New York. 1990. pp.63-70.
Delahoyde. "Anglo-Saxon Culture." Washing State University Online. Found on Octoer24, 2007 at http://www.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/medieval/anglo-saxon.html
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books. 1995.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence. New York: Barnes & Noble