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Essay: Use of the supernatural forces in Macbeth

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: March 18, 2021*
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  • Use of the supernatural forces in Macbeth
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The supernatural forces are used to great effect in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth.” From the beginning until the end of the play, the forces generate fear, tension and suspense, heightened by the superstition at the time at which the play was first performed in 1606 when even the King, James I, was a firm believer in witches. Although it can be suggested that Lady Macbeth had a more significant role over the events in the play as she took advantage of Macbeth’s pre-existing ambition, Lady Macbeth only achieved that by summoning spirits in order to lose her human qualities. Therefore, it could be implied that it is only the supernatural forces over Lady Macbeth that encouraged her manipulation of her husband’s ambition. Thus, the supernatural forces have the most power over the events in the play as it governs everything.

Through the witches, Shakespeare first presents supernatural chants like ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ The fact that they speak in opposite couplets makes them appear bizarre, and ties to supernatural themes displaying the perversion of nature as if appearances were lost. They also communicate in trochaic tetrameter, which is an unnatural rhythm, distinguishing them from everyone else in the play. Witchcraft was treated very seriously by society during the Jacobean era. The reigning king of the moment, James I, was highly engaged surrounding ideas of the supernatural and witchcraft ideas as shown by the king writing and publishing a book in 1605 called ‘Daemonologie’ which was an efficacious text in which he stated that witchcraft was a reality and that its practitioners should be penalised. We can infer that James’ obsession may have inspired Shakespeare to write “Macbeth” and to have the theme of the supernatural so prominent throughout the play.
The first comment Macbeth makes is “So foul and fair”. This is alarming as the first words Macbeth utters is similar to the witches. This suggests that he has been influenced by the witches to say such comments. This could then indicate that Macbeth’s subsequent murders and visions were of a similar effect of the witches we see in Act 1 Scene 3, suggesting supernatural forces supposedly had control over the acts of Macbeth. The deceit in ‘fair is foul’ foreshadows that Macbeth deceives Duncan and commits the ultimate crime of assassinating him in order to be king. Act 1 Scene 3, in terms of the supernatural, is a critical and crucial scene. The scene opens with the witches contending about their secret intentions. The witches have gathered on a moor, where a horrific storm is adding to the ominous, eerie mood of the scene. Macbeth and Banquo then stumble upon the witches, after their victory at the battle. Banquo describes the witches as “so withered and so wild in attire, which looks not like the inhabitants of the earth,” If Banquo can see the witches then we know that they are not a product of Macbeth’s imagination, driven by his ambition. Banquo believes the witches derive from the devil, after his confrontation with the witches ‘can the devil speak true’. This shows that Banquo sees the witches as a source of evil from hell and has some doubt surrounding the ‘weird sisters’ and their prophecies as he refers to them as ‘instruments of darkness’ and it’s Macbeth who needs the witches to tell him what is already in his own mind, but is too afraid to acknowledge. Macbeth only believes what he wants to hear, which later leads Macbeth to his own downfall by the manipulating witches.

The three prophecies made for Macbeth by the witches are a catalyst of the action throughout the play and are the basis for Macbeth’s storyline. Such predictions force Macbeth to murder Duncan and Banquo and ultimately drive him to hysteria. The witches foresee Macbeth to become Thane of Glamis, his current title. However, prior to the previous prediction, the witches predict that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor, however as far as Macbeth knows; the Thane of Cawdor, Macdonald, is still alive. The third prediction that pushed Macbeth was that he “shalt be king,” Each of these predictions emerge as truth, showing the power and influence of the witches. This ability to predict future events would undoubtedly lead the audience to conclude that the witches and supernatural influenced the play’s events.
Parallel to many medieval European cultures, mediaeval Scotland held a belief in witches, including their ability to make prophecies and influence the outcome of certain occurrences. Shakespeare’s representation of Macbeth’s encounters with the witches developed upon both Scottish belief in witches in the eleventh century and English belief in witches in the Renaissance. Witchcraft was widely viewed as an occult activity, involving some kind of direct connection with the devil, and was therefore perceived as a threat to social stability. Scottish governments often carried out extreme measures against witchcraft, such as the declaration by King Kenneth that witches who called spirits for supernatural help should be brutally murdered.

The supernatural is also presented through Lady Macbeth conversing with evil spirits, where she demands ‘take my milk for gall’. The fact Lady Macbeth is talking to spirits is a clear link to the supernatural. The fact she believes they can take her feminine attributes of milk, shows how powerful the supernatural were seen in Jacobean society. Furthermore, ‘gall’ may represent how abhorrent and destructive the supernatural was seen. ‘Take’ may also be Shakespeare referencing the brutal treatment of those suspected to be engaging with the supernatural. Therefore, the supernatural is presented as powerful and feared through Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, in which she interacts with evil spirits. It may not be Lady Macbeth, it could be the supernatural manipulating, her calling on the spirits. This could counteract the suggestion that Lady Macbeth was at fault for impacting Macbeth’s treason as actually, it may be the influence of the witches over Lady Macbeth that caused it. This is further illustrated Lady Macbeth’s franticness is displayed when she shouts ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’. ‘Damned’ suggests Lady Macbeth will be exposed to lifelong punishment in hell. Some people may see this as ironic, as she called on the supernatural yet is now being rebuffed by it. Typically, Jacobean audiences would most likely see this as God’s doing.

11th Century Scotland was deemed a very much patriarchal society. There was a clear concept of hierarchy in society, which Shakespeare demonstrates at different points within the play. The witches have been said to represent women’s attempt to gain power in a society that’s set up to give power only to men. In Jacobean society, women would have been towards the bottom of the Chain of Being and certainly below men. Similarly to Lady Macbeth in act 1 scene 5, the Witches endeavour to make appear increasingly manly in an attempt to acquire more power. Shakespeare gives the characters of the witches beards (You should be women, yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so’) to symbolise this desire.

Macbeth’s hallucinations, or visions present the impact of the supernatural. One example of a hallucination is when Macbeth asks, ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me’. The fact that Macbeth is seeing a floating dagger, in his mind is another demonstration of the supernatural. Here, the supernatural is essentially pressing Macbeth to murder Duncan. Shakespeare could be purposefully highlighting how evil the supernatural is as it is not only telling him to kill – but commit the act of regicide, which in the 11th Century, was possibly the worst crime anyone could commit, along with communicating with the supernatural. During Macbeth’s soliloquy he questions if the dagger is just ‘a dagger of the mind’ or a ‘false creation’. This causes Macbeth to question his own psychological state and whether the dagger is just a hallucination, caused the pressure of Duncan’s homicide and the pressure placed on him by his manipulative and cunning wife, Lady Macbeth. The audience at the time will have been shocked by this as Jacobean society saw king’s as almost holy since they respected the divine right of kings. Furthermore, here, Shakespeare is displaying the power that the supernatural has over events in the play since Macbeth has been driven to insanity by a supernatural prophecy.

The banquet in Act 3 Scene 4 is a vital scene, since it is when we see either the impacts of homicide on Macbeth’s inner voice or the real ghost of Banquo. Macbeth claims to see Banquo’s apparition, but only him at the banquet can see the phenomenon. Banquo’s ghost appears as a reminder to the crime of regicide Macbeth committed and the guiltless blood, he had on his hands in order to gain his place. This scene is a turning point or climax in the play as Macbeth is extremely alarmed and loses his rational mindset. Others sharing the banquet with Macbeth start to become suspicious of him since he speaks out loud, saying, ‘Quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee! Thy bones are marrow less, thy blood is cold’. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost also keeps the audience’s attention at a maximum because Jacobean society were enthralled by the supernatural. Traditional Christian views concerning the afterlife are represented by the supernatural in “Macbeth”. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost illustrates a popular superstition that a person that has died a violent death, cannot rest in peace until the murderer is punished.

The use of the supernatural in Macbeth has been put to great use by Shakespeare in the storyline of the play. The supernatural events, which happen in the play, allow us to question which of the two cause the major events in the play to happen. Is it the supernatural powers and the captivating witches with their prophecies? Or is it Macbeth’s paranoia, neurosis and increasing insanity which leads him to believe hallucinations? To a Jacobean audience the first would have been believed as they believed they were real and devilish. To conclude, I believe Shakespeare suggest that supernatural powers have a major effect on the significant events of the play.

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