The supernatural in “Macbeth”
The use of the supernatural is very evident in the play “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare. As readers, we are introduced to the world of the supernatural (which was widely believed to exist in Shakespeare’s time) in a number of ways. The witches show Macbeth his fate and awaken his ambition, which leads to his ultimate demise. They act like dark thoughts and temptations in the play, which in turn stems from their supernatural powers, to morally confuse and provide the impetus characters for Macbeth.
As a result, they indirectly lead him to his hallucinations of the dagger and Banquo’s ghost, which serve as reminders of his treason. A direct link between the world of the universe and Macbeth’s deceitful actions is also established, nature is unnaturally disrupted by Macbeth’s regicide of Duncan and his other offences. Lady Macbeth also calls on supernatural spirits to “unsex” her, which are described in the most terrifying terms.
The three witches are the most prominent voices of unnaturalness in “Macbeth”.
The description of the “weird sisters” in the first scene of the play gives an indication of the mischief which will eventuate throughout the course of the play. The image that we are given of the witches is an odd one; Banquo portrays them as “withered” and “wild in their attire” and also comments on their “beards”. Shakespeare has them speak in short rhyming verse, which differentiates from the other main characters in the play who mostly speak in blank verse. The witches’ language imitates the casting of a spell, which conveys an impression of the supernatural in their speech. They may be viewed as instruments of malicious forces which seek to lead Macbeth away from goodness, tempting him to choose to fulfill his ambitions by malevolent methods. The interpretations of the witches’ prophecies are made by Macbeth himself, he is responsible for his own damnation. Fate may be fixed, but how it eventuates is a matter of chance of Macbeth’s own choice.
The treatment of the supernatural is also discussed through the parallel between the extraordinary confusion in the natural world and the unnatural human acts by Macbeth. The reversal of the expected natural order is the consequence of the evil forces that Macbeth has unleashed in deciding to fulfill the witches’ prophecies by brutal means. These consequences are seen in his own character, in society and in nature. Readers are told through the conversation between Ross and the Old Man, that day has been substituted by night, while Duncan’s “beauteous” horses have “turned wild in nature” and are said to have “eat each other”, and a falcon has been killed by an owl. Weather is also a symbol of the link between the natural world and the developments between the characters in the play. Stormy weather always occurs hand in hand with the appearances of the witches which establish a gloomy atmosphere over the play. These terrible supernatural occurrences reflect the enormity of Macbeth’s crime.
The hallucinations that Macbeth experience serve as reminders of his growing evil and desire to be king, as well as his guilt for the many deaths on his part. When Macbeth was on his way to commit the regicide, he sees a vision of a dagger glittering in the midnight air, and then suddenly splashed with blood. He calls it a “fatal vision” and speculates if it is a “dagger of the mind”, a false creation, “proceeding from the heat oppressed brain”. The dagger also symbolizes the terrible path on which Macbeth is about to begin. The dagger may not have been the only reason for Macbeth to murder Duncan, but it reinforced his plan of action and how the supernatural deceived him into killing Duncan.
The appearance of Banquo’s ghost is a reminder of Macbeth’s guilt and fear of discovery, invisible to others but a terrifying reality to Macbeth himself. This form of the supernatural is significant because it is a turning point in Macbeth’s reign as King. Macbeth’s conscience is eating away at him, showing him what he has done and forcing him to face it. He realises that there is no way of escaping his troubled conscience but for extinguishing the lives of anyone who proves a threat to him, and this results in the murder of Lady Macduff and her son.
Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy prior to Duncan’s death explores the nature of the supernatural and particularly “evil spirits”. Possessed of evil passion, she calls on spirits to “unsex me (her) here”, which is inhuman as though Lady Macbeth is controlled by a supernatural force which masters her mind and soul. Later in the play, she also suffers from visions and sleep walking, and it is debateable whether these are supernatural or not. As she sleepwalks, she imagines her hand “stained in blood” which cannot be washed off.
The nature of the supernatural is presented on many levels, with the three witches being the most predominant and significant form. The “weird sisters” dictated the outcome of the play through deceit. Macbeth was presented with many situations where the witches hinted at possible outcomes, but they never assured Macbeth with any surety throughout the play. These “unnatural beings” provided the drive for Macbeth to commence on his course of terror. As a result of his actions, there are disturbances in the natural law and order. This shows a direct connection between the happenings of the human beings and the natural world. The hallucinations that Macbeth and to a lesser extent Lady Macbeth are reminders of their guilt at having committed the crimes. Lady Macbeth also calls on supernatural “evil spirits” to take away her femininity, so she could commit the murder herself.
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