Supernaturalism in Macbeth
The supernatural plays an important role in the tragic world created by the tragic masters of the tragedies. In Greek tragedies, the supernatural figures were made to appear on the stage to resolve the crisis at the end. The prophecies by the oracles and omens and portents give to the Greek tragedies a supernatural effect. As a matter of fact, in Greek tragedies, belief in impersonal forces operating in human life reinforces the supernatural effect of the play.
A more effective use of the supernatural is found in the romantic tragedies of the Elizabethan age in England. Supernaturalism in the hands of some Elizabethan dramatists is crude and horrible as in the Revenge tragedies of Webster and Tourneur. But Shakespeare makes use of the supernatural in such a way that it gives psychological and moral dimension to the play.
In Macbeth, the supernatural lends to the play a weird enchantment; it creates an uncanny atmosphere of mystery and awe without which the play’s theme and tone cannot be made vocal and vibrant.
The supernatural in Macbeth consists of the omens and portents, Banquo‘s ghost and the witches. The air-drawn dagger pointing to Macbeth the way to Duncan‘s chamber is purely subjective: it proceeds from his fevered brain. It is more a mental vision than a physical sight.
The omens and portents are used to create the atmosphere of supernatural mystery and fear. Macbeth’s act of murder is an act of disorder and so Nature is unruly. It causes commotion in the natural world. Macbeth is a cosmic tragedy – evil pervades the whole universe.
- Macbeth 55 Important Questions and Answers
The act of hatred causes the disruption in the moral world. There is a prodigious and ghastly tempest with ‘screams of death’, the owl clamours through the night, the earth itself shakes. We are thus aware of a hideous abnormality in the universe. Darkness is predominant and suggests the all-pervasive evil. The nightmare and unnatural quality of the Macbeth universe is suggested by the abnormal behaviour of Nature and the animals. Animals are abnormal because the human world is sub-normal. A falcon attacked and killed by a ‘mousing owl’, and Duncan’s horses eat each other. The owl clamours through the night.
Banquo’s ghost appeared to Macbeth because he alone was guilty. Professor Curry thinks that it was an infernal illusion created by devils to bring Macbeth to his material ruin. Kenneth Muir remarks, “the fact that we no longer believe in demons, and that Shakespeare’s audience mostly did, does not diminish the dramatic effect for us.” We may not believe in the objective existence of devils, but they and their operations symbolize the working of evil in the heart of men. To the guilty, it presents terrible visions and monstrous fancies.
Critics like Professors Stoll and Shucking are of the opinion that the ghosts of Shakespeare have been made much of by the romantic critics. The ghosts in Shakespeare are ‘vivified corpses. They are grossly melodramatic representations of the supernatural. Whether the ghost of Banquo is objective or subjective is not important to us. What is significant for the drama is that Shakespeare has succeeded in producing an illusion about its reality. The blood-boltered Banquo appears to our view and we see with Macbeth the uncanny apparition. The appearance of the ghost of Banquo serves an important dramatic purpose. It is ironical because Banquo remembers Macbeth’s request:
“Fail not our feast”.
It throws light upon one aspect of Macbeth’s character – his vivid, visual imagination. The phantom of Banquo haunts Macbeth’s mind – it is the externalization of his guilty conscience. – Moreover, it exposes Macbeth Macbeth is appalled at the sight of the ghost and makes certain disclosures which establish his guilt as fact to all. Thus Banquo’s ghost plays an important part in the action of the play. The ghost is seen by Macbeth and the audience, and so it makes an undeniable impression on a crowded stage. It creates the atmosphere of horror and mystery. Banquo’s ghost is one of ‘night’s black agents’ who haunt Macbeth in the dark world in which he lives.
The Witches: Many critics are of opinion that the witch scenes are interpolations. Cunningham thought that Act I, Scene I was written by Middleton. Act I, Scene iii, 1-37 was supposed to have been written by Middleton according to the Clarendon editors and Cunnighham. The Hecate scenes are also thought to be from Middleton’s The Witch.
It may be pointed out that The Witch was not written until 1616. It is also impossible to believe that the two songs of Hecate scene were added to Macbeth. Kenneth Muir suggests that Middleton himself was influenced by Macbeth, when he wrote The Witch. There are a number of parallels between the two, and this may be explained by the fact that the two dramatists drew on similar sources for their information.
Shakespeare’s witches play a very important part both on dramatic and symbolic levels. We do not know Shakespeare’s personal opinion of witchcraft whether he accepted the tenets of James Demonologie or whether he adhered to the skeptical position of Reginal Scot. But the belief in witchcraft could be used by him for dramatic purposes at a time when almost everybody supposed that witches were “channels through which the malignity of evil spirits might be visited upon human beings”. (Curry: Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns).
Shakespeare has made significant departures from Holinshed in his characterisation of the witches. In Holinshed’s chronicles, there are wizard. a witch and the weird sisters. The sisters predict that Macbeth will be king, the wizard warns against Macduff, and the prophecy about Birnam wood comes from the witch. Shakespeare makes them all into one. He invests them with a certain mystery. They meet in thunder, lightning or in rain, and “hover through the fog and filthy air’……, their aim is to ‘wreck the state of man’. In their nature and aspect, they look not like the inhabitants of the earth, they ‘seem corporeal’ but ‘melt into the air’ like the ‘bubbles of the earth’. The mystery about them is heightened by their attachment to such abominable creatures as ‘paddocks and ‘graymalkins’. They are anomalies of Nature. They have withered looks their fingers are choppy, their lips skinny, their attire wild. They look like women, yet they are bearded. Their favourite sport is to kill swine for nothing. Another will take revenge on a sailor’s wife who has denied her a handful of chestnut. Thus they are mischief-making beings. They are earthy as well as airy. They are objective as well as symbolic.
The witches are indeed demons or devils in the form of witches. They are elemental beings with something sublime and abysmally evil about them. Their prophecies on Macbeth are a mere influence and nothing more. They present to Macbeth dangerous circumstances which Macbeth has to tackle. They tempt Macbeth only because they know his ambitious dreams. The first scene of the play, as L. C. Knights has noted, ‘strikes one dominant chord’ and that chord is evil. ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ underlines the appearance-reality theme, what appears fair – a prophecy, a hostess, a pleasant castle – conceals what is foul : ambition, deception, corruption and murders. By a stroke of dramatic genius, Shakespeare has Macbeth repeat these words, thus linking him indelibly with the witches before he sees them. Their prophecy of the crown does not dictate evil means of achieving it – it is morally neutral. Macbeth himself never thinks of blaming the weird sisters for tempting him to the murder of Duncan, though he blames the ‘juggling fiends’ who have lulled him into a false sense of security. He knows that the first step along the primrose path was taken on his own responsibility. Wilson Knight points out:
“They are not fates or anything corresponding to that conception, for Macbeth exercises complete freedom of will from first to last”.
Prof Curry points out that,
“Their control over the primary elements of Nature, the rationes seminales would seem to indicate that the weird sisters were demons disguised as witches”.
So, the weird sisters have no direct share in the action of the drama. “But the influence of the witches, or rather, of the evil satanic forces they represent is a pervasive one and seems to affect in some subtle mysterious way both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and influences their thoughts and actions. In the great soliloquy, ‘come, you spirits, that tend on mortal thoughts’, she was in fact invoking the powers of Hell to take possession of her body, to suck her breasts as Demons sucked those of the witches ….” (Dover Wilson) She is indeed ‘possessed’ as Macbeth is possessed’. A mysterious power seems to lead Macbeth to Duncan’s chamber. He knows that he has given his eternal jewel’ to the ‘common enemy of man’. Prof. Curry observes about the witches: “Whether one considers them as human witches in league with the powers of darkness, or as actual demons in the form of witches, or as merely intimate symbols, the power which they wield or represent or symbolize is ultimately demonic”.
The witches represent forces of disorder, disintegration and anomalies. In their combination of grossness and sublimity, hideousness and mystery they suggest the very spirit of the play. They introduce us to a world where values are topsy-turvy – ‘good things of day droop and drowse and night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’. Wilson Knight very aptly points out that “throughout the tragedy runs the suggestion of life threatening, ill-omened, hideous”. The witches suggest the darkness, mystery, abnormality and hideousness of the Macbeth universe. ‘Weird sisters are nightmare actualized.’ So, the presence of the witches contribute to the play’s atmosphere of horror, mystery and abnormality. They symbolize the dark forces at work in the play.
Apart from the function of the witches, we should look at their place in the structure of the play. The light rhyming couplets of their incantations contrast with the heavy evil they are bent on conjuring in the mind of man. They sound the notes of superstition with their magic numbers, their ritual revolving around the number three.
The enigmatic or ambiguous nature of the witch’s prophecies reflects the enigmatic nature of man himself, subject to evil actions or thoughts unless ruled by what is natural. The cauldron incantation is singularly expressive with its list of animal and fleshly parts as invocation, all peculiarly appropriate when we think of the final description of Macbeth as a ‘butcher’. The phrase ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ while it defines Macbeth’s state and actions echoes as well the key word ‘double much used in the play to indicate extreme force or deception, and picked up by Macbeth in the same scene – “But yet I’ll make assurance double sure’.
Significantly, the show of eight kings is completed by a ninth apparition following that of the ‘blood-boltered’ Banquo, thus making up the magic number of nine. By a considered linking therefore, Shakespeare has connected the natural, the supernatural and the unnatural.