Macbeth is essentially a study in the power of the supernatural
Macbeth was written in the early sixteen hundreds and this coincides with the reign of James the First of England. The play would therefore have been written with him in mind and considering James the first had a great interest in the supernatural which is demonstrated by the book he wrote on the subject called Demonology, this play would have been greatly enjoyed by him. There was witchcraft, apparitions and ghosts throughout the play.
It wasn’t just the King who believed in witchcraft at the time, almost everyone did.
They believed that witches could curse their enemies, predict the future, bring on night in day, and cause fogs and tempests. One example in the book of this would be when they conjured up a spell to sink a ship upon which a certain captain was that they disliked. With this information in mind, Shakespeare could have written a perfect play to do with the supernatural, its power, and how it affects the king.
Therefore, this play could have been written as a study into the supernatural. We must, however consider other themes in Macbeth to find out whether the supernatural is the strongest and most effective one or whether there are any other ones that affect the characters and the plot greatly. There are, in fact many themes to the play, which is not surprising because it gives the play character and incident. Themes include goodness, evil, and many things associated with those two words. But above all, there is the supernatural, fate, and ambition.
Ambition is the driving force of Macbeth’s life and so many other themes that are explored is a result of this. For tragedy in Shakespearean times you did not have to write about an accident in which good people are unfortunately killed, it is the portrayal of a great person – the hero – who through some weakness of character falls from grace and power (‘Bellona’s bridegroom’) and inevitably dies (‘dead butcher’). The weakness of Macbeth in this case is ambition. He admits this himself when he says
‘I have no spur … but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself’
This acknowledgement comes after he has considered all the good reasons for not murdering Duncan – only ambition is left to overrule his troubled conscience. Furthermore, whilst the influence of both Lady Macbeth and the witches is strong, their power over Macbeth is only possible because the ambition is there. Macbeth, therefore, is a hero but one who is fatally undermined by his ambition; and the consequences of such ambition – also explored through his wife who is similarly inclined – are the fabrics of the play. So, it is ambition that leads the witches to Macbeth as they are aware of his intrinsic evil: ‘Something wicked this way comes’, but it is ambition that leads Macbeth to carnage, treachery, hypocrisy, corruption and deepest evil.
The supernatural, however, plays a slightly smaller role in the play than ambition and is not always present whereas ambition is, it does, however, create an incredible atmosphere of foreboding and evil in the play. The first sign of the supernatural occurs in the very first scene of the play and introduces the witches and you hear the name ‘Macbeth’ mentioned in amongst their riddling rhymes. It is confirmed that they are evil when they speak their final couplet. According to them, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ and this means that good is now bad and bad is now good therefore the witches are violating God’s natural order. The Chain of Being, as it was sometimes known as, was an attempt to give order to the vastness of creation. The idea was that God created everything in a hierarchy that stretched from God, all the way down to the lowest being. Everything had its own place. Accepting your place in the chain was a duty rewarded by God but if you disrupt the chain, as the witches are planning for Macbeth to do, it lead to chaos.
The next time we see the witches is when they are meeting with Macbeth but before they do so, they cast a spell upon a captain of a ship and speak of unnatural things:
‘Like a rat without a tail’ and so is imperfectly formed. Perhaps this image reflects the witches and it gets you wondering what type of creatures or beings they are because they ‘look not like the inhabitants o’the earth’. Macbeth’s first line, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’, echoes the witches and suggests that he already has a very strong link with the supernatural, despite having never met the witches before. The first real sign that confirms that they are witches is hen they speak of the prophecies for Macbeth and Banquo. They inform Macbeth that he will become Thane of Cawdor followed by the king of Scotland, Banquo is told that he will not be king, but his children will be. Macbeth proves his equivocal nature here by entertaining the witches ideas whereas Banquo recognises that they are evil and wants no further part in this. When Macbeth recovers from his trance, he demands to know more but the witches immediately vanish and leave the idea of being king in Macbeth’s head and so the plot for the murder of Ding Duncan is now being thought of by Macbeth alone.
She invokes demonic spirits to come and possess her body and when she asks to be ‘unsexed’, she is asking for all the weaknesses of a woman to be taken away from her in order to be able to complete murderous activities. She also wishes for her blood to be ‘made thick’ to prevent pity from flowing through her blood. The point about her ‘unsex’-ing and her ‘woman breasts’ no longer being used for milk but for murder bares an eerie parallel to the ambiguous sexuality of the witches. It is as if one abandons your true sex and becomes neutral or ‘it’ so it can be considered as less compassionate. We now, therefore have another link with the supernatural and so we have Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches are now all associated with foul doings or the supernatural.
The first scene in act two has a very small hint that the supernatural has taken over Macbeth’s mind and is now helping him make every decision necessary. He imagines seeing a dagger before him which guides him to the murder of Duncan and Macbeth is already very dependent on the supernatural. He says ‘Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest.’ Meaning he thinks his eyes are being deceived by seeing a dagger which does not exist, or they are providing him with more evidence to go and kill Duncan. He believes that it is leading him to go and kill Duncan and so that action is carried out
After the murder of the king has taken place and his body discovered by Macduff, we have a scene with Ross and an Old man representing the people of Scotland whose memory goes back an extensive way. The two characters discuss the events of the night of the murder. In their conversation we learn that a deed as evil as this has never been committed as far as the Old Man can remember:
‘But this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.’ These supernatural events include darkness smothering out all the light: ‘By clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp,’ which Ross says is similar to crucifixion of Christ and the darkness that enveloped the land at that time. There was also
‘A falcon towering in her pride of place
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.’ This continues bird imagery but and could be said to be like the murder that has taken place where the mousing owl is Macbeth, and the falcon was King Duncan. There was also story of the King’s horses turning wild and breaking free of their stalls then eating each other. All these creatures somehow know that the king has died and perhaps this chaos signifies the disobedience of the Chain of Being and a way of punishment. Again these eerie events help to develop the supernatural atmosphere which envelops the play.
Act three scene four is probably one of the scenes with the most supernatural atmosphere in the play that involves the ghost of Banquo. It raises interesting questions about witchcraft and psychology. The supernatural motif is certainately well developed because we have had the witches and their prophecies, the dagger that led Macbeth to the murder of Duncan, and now we have the ghost of Banquo. He ironically takes the only occupied seat, Macbeth’s – as his descendants will his throne – ‘push us from our stools.’ But whereas Banquo and Macbeth saw and heard the witches, here only Macbeth is seeing the vision and that is made clear when Lady Macbeth tells him that ‘You look but on a stool.’ This part in the play can become very eerie because the director has the choice here, whether to show the ghost or not. This is also a psychological choice because the ghost could all be in Macbeth’s mind and the directors decision will put an added emphasis on the role of the supernatural
Act four scene one, however, I think is the scene with the largest signs of supernatural within it. It contains six witches and Hecate, 4 apparitions, and many spells. The original three witches are casting a spell and preparing to meet with Macbeth when Hecate enters and approves of their work. She leaves just before Macbeth enters commanding the witches to answer all of his questions that are responded to with three apparitions. They are very cryptically worded as most of the prophecies have been but he is told that he should fear Macduff, that he cannot be harmed by one born of a woman, and that he is secure until Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane. He then presses for more information, using almost abusive language, about Banquo’s offspring (who shall be king some day) and is perplexed and mortified to see a vision of eight kings, all descended from Banquo, who appears further down the line. The witches vanish and Macbeth curses them. His response is to try and kill Macduff but he has fled to England and so he gives orders for his wife and children to be slain.
The supernatural atmosphere is charged with evil here. The witches’ spells are particularly nauseating in the level of detail they depict – here, if any further proof were needed, is evidence of precisely how unnatural these hags are. Prior to his arrival, Macbeth is described as ‘Something wicked’ and so is not even someone any more suggesting he has undergone a change to make him neutral or ‘it’. He is one of their ilk now. That line is one with the overall effect of evil in dehumanising the personality and so can almost be considered as an animal.
Earlier uncertainties have been stripped away. Before the witches informed Macbeth of the prophecies, now he demands of them what he wants to know and even threatens them that if they ‘deny him this, an eternal curse will fall on them’. When he leaves, there is no more agonising about what action needs to be taken and he does not even consult his wife – Macduff’s castle is to be attacked and ‘his wife and babes’ are to be killed. One other consequence of his visit is that the certainty of security which has been troubling Macbeth from the outset. One factor in establishing the trustworthiness of the prophecies in Macbeth’s mind is the speed with which they happen: ‘Cawdor’ followed immediately upon the pronunciation of it; now, having been told by the witches to fear Macduff, Lennox appears with the same warning. Of-course the irony of it is that the prophecies are all double-edged and turn against him showing the deceit capable of the supernatural. Banquo’s comment accurately reflects the truth: ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.’ These words are prophetic but Macbeth, however, ignores them to his great cost.
The supernatural is indeed present in much of the play and I believe it is the strongest theme in Macbeth because of all the evidence seen here. It is clear that it affects many of the characters from the witches to Lady Macbeth. All of Macbeth’s actions are because of prophecies by the witches, visions and apparitions. The play shows you what the supernatural is capable of such as casting spells to overturn a boat that is far out at sea or just simply plant an idea in the mind of a worthy warrior. The play ends with a cliff-hanger or a flaw in the supernatural: the witches prophesied that Banquo’s children would be rulers of Scotland but it is Malcolm that took the crown. Another flaw is that perhaps Macbeth would not have been king if the witches had not told him he would be. The witches, however, may just have acted as a catalyst so instead of Macbeth becoming king in five years, he becomes king in five months instead. Therefore this study into the supernatural could be showing how the supernatural is correct in many ways, but can always have the power to be wrong.
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