Macbeth by Shakespeare

December 19, 2010
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After asking myself a question about the supernatural being a frequent theme in Elizabethan/Jacobean times and how Shakespeare makes use of the supernatural in Macbeth, I came up with the following ideas:

Macbeth is a play that was written by Shakespeare during the time of Elizabethan epoch. During this period of time, God and the idea of the supernatural influenced many people. Shakespeare interpreted his idea of the supernatural using witches and magic, the unnatural and evil and he expressed his beliefs in the play Macbeth very clearly. Macbeth is a play that is occupied by the idea of witchcraft and divine order and these two themes manipulate the characters personalities and actions.

The three witches are referred to often throughout the play and are a key feature of the supernatural. The first major use of the supernatural is in the opening scene. In this scene we see three witches meeting ‘upon the heath.’ Here they discuss where they plan to meet Macbeth. At the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth the idea of witches was something that was taken very seriously by his audience. Witches were believed to be real beings, living in secrecy among the Christian citizens. Witches were the creation of the devil, and so this scene would have been very likely to scare, and excite Shakespeare’s audience. Shakespeare uses the supernatural in many other subtler ways in this scene. The witches are on an empty moor, for example, and there is a thunder and lightning storm taking place. This makes a huge difference as it brings out the evil themes in the play, along with the horror and evil in the witches and adds to the tension and the full horror of this scene.

Repeatedly throughout the play, many of the unlucky and unfortunate aspects are presented in threes. In Macbeth, the number three is associated with magic, intuition and advantage. It also invokes a time identifier as it represents the past, present and the future. The idea of three being an unlucky number links in with the witches that Shakespeare uses in order to force Macbeth into performing evil actions. The three witches each present Macbeth and Banquo with three greetings and three apparitions and they present Macbeth with a further three apparitions on his second visit to them. These specific advantages of Macbeth being led to the future push him towards his dark side of manipulability and ambition. Macbeth goes on to being responsible for the death of three people, each of whom he was very fond of, (apart from Macduff’s family), therefore anything to do with the number three was evidently negative and the audience can first assume this from the witches when they recite a spell, which begins with the words ‘thrice the brindled cat hath mewed’ and ‘thrice and once the hedge-pig whin’d.’ However, the number three is not just used in the context of the witches. Shakespeare reminds us throughout his play that the combination of the number three and drinking plays a role in the events of the act that unfold. For example, it is said in the play, ‘...drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.’ This quote enforces the widespread belief of the majority of people living during Elizabethan and Jacobean times that the number three was an outcome of anything negative or anything that went against God.

The apparitions in Act 4 Scene 1 have a special meaning. The three prophecies stated are parallel to the three of the first of the play. The first apparition, the helmeted head, represents Macbeth himself and echoes the fears of his mind concerning Macduff. The second, the bloody child, represents Macduff, ‘no man born of women would ever conquer him,’(Macduff’s birth was unnatural). The third apparition, a crowned child bearing a tree, represents Malcolm and this apparition told Macbeth that he would never be harmed until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill. The prophecies at the beginning of the play led him to his success, and those at the end led him to his death. This also links with the idea of the supernatural being used for something positive which turns out to have a negative impact.

Throughout the play there are constant references to darkness and evil and these references can be said to symbolize the supernatural. Macbeth describes the witches as being ‘black, and midnight hags.’ The use of the word ‘midnight’ immediately associates them with darkness and the word ‘hag’ describes them as being old, ugly, evil-looking women. This overall description indicates the fact that the witches are evil for what they have done and for what they will do. It can even be said that Macbeth is blaming them for his actions of murder as he is accusing them of being evil. Another main reference to darkness is when Banquo says too Macbeth, ‘the instruments of darkness tell us truths.’ This quote refers to the witches as being darkness, and they are the tools used to predict the future whether it is to be good or bad. From this quote we can see that the witches were referred too negatively. ‘Fair is foul and fouls is fair,’ is a quote spoken by the witches. It can be interpreted in different ways however; it means two related things in general. Firstly, it can be said to mean that things that are good will become bad and things that are bad will become good. Secondly, it means things that look pretty (‘fair’) will become ugly (‘foul’) and things that are ugly will become beautiful, basically meaning that things that appear initially appear positive but then become the opposite. In this quote, the witches are referring to themselves; they look ugly, but the predictions they offer are beautiful to Macbeth. They are then referring to the entire world of the play. Duncan's first lines are, ‘the normal humans are operating in a world where appearances honestly and accurately represent reality.’ Likewise, Macbeth is tagged as praiseworthy by the soldier's report, and he deserves it. However, as soon as Macbeth meets the witches, everything changes. He hears great predictions, but they lead him to evil actions. Seeing as the witches are the main feature of the supernatural in the play, evil is directly related to them.

Lady Macbeth, upon receiving word that King Duncan of Scotland will be arriving that night, begins sharpening her talons. She isn't sure that there is enough mental manhood and confidence to go around between herself and her husband, Macbeth, so she calls upon evil spirits to "unsex me here." This is her vivid way of asking to be stripped of her feminine weakness and filled with masculine resolve. She imagines herself as a vessel, which may be emptied out and refilled "from the crown to the toe." However, it could be argued that the witches played a part of the process of Lady Macbeth becoming more mentally masculine as it could be said spirits took over her personality once she calls ‘come you spirits.’

It can be said that the supernatural is mainly used in relation to. ‘Is this a dagger I see before me,’ is a phrase Macbeth says when he has a vision of a dagger just before he goes to murder the King and this surreal vision is an example of the supernatural. This dagger encourages or ‘pushes’ Macbeth to commit the crime as he says ‘come let me clutch thee.’ Although it is meant to encourage Macbeth to perform the murder, it is also showing the audience what Macbeth is about to do. These hallucinations can either be one of two things. They can be purely Macbeths imagination, as he says, ‘or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation,’ or they could be the witches conjuring the image as Macbeth says, ‘thou marshall’st me the way that I was going.’ This quote could resemble the fact that the witches are guiding him to murdering Duncan, which previously, Macbeth would have never thought to of done.

Once Macbeth has murdered Banquo we see a change in the role of the supernatural, in fact, the supernatural is used to show guilt along with f ear. When going to sit at the dinner table, Macbeth sees that ‘the tables full,’ but what he eventually realizes is that the ghost of Banquo is sitting in his seat. Lady Macbeth says ‘this is the very painting of your fear,’ and by painting she means visible representation. Banquo’s ghost proves the supernatural is used for fear and guilt in this scene as Macbeth says ‘murders have been performed too terrible for the ear.’ However, only Macbeth can see the ghost and this leads onto the debate about whether the ghost is merely Macbeth’s guilty conscience, or whether the ghost appears to Macbeth and hides itself from everyone else in the room. Macbeth is obviously terrified by the ghost. This is shown when he speaks to it, and says ‘What man dare, I dare: Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger; take any shape but that….’ He shows his fear of the apparition here, saying that he would rather face a Russian Bear, a rhinoceros or a Hyrcan tiger than the apparition itself. The ghost has a large dramatic effect on this scene, and is also vital. If the ghost is Macbeth’s conscience then it shows how Macbeth is beginning to go mad and this could also signal the beginning of the end for Macbeth, as after this he decides to visit the witches. However, if the ghost was real then it could be said to be a representation of the immorality of what Macbeth has done, which is having assassins kill his best friend.

Guilt and fear is also shown through the supernatural whilst Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and tells of all the murders. It can be said that the witches have possessed her to do this as at the beginning of the play they curse a sailor too ‘sleep shall neither night nor day,’ so it may be they have also brought this curse upon Lady Macbeth herself. During the process of sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth ‘rubs her hands’ and it is said to be an ‘accustomed action with her.’ The rubbing of her hands can be said to represent her fear of being found accused guilty of murder due to the ‘visual representation’ of blood on the hands. Macbeth also says ‘Macbeth hath killed sleep,’ and this is explaining that his fear of what he has performed will haunt him and will limit him to what he feels he can do. This is an example of the supernatural being used in relation to evil as it is the cause of Lady Macbeths and Macbeths sleeping conditions.

Although Lady Macbeth seems to have a stronger mental character at the start of the play, towards the end, she starts suffering from remorse and confusion. She feels, “Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”. Lady Macbeth describes the supernatural as her “destruction”, and she refers to her royalty and wealth as “doubtful joy.’ This quote from Lady Macbeth shows how even the most desperate of people regret relying on the supernatural. At the beginning of Act 5 Scene 1 Macbeth is informed of Lady Macbeth’s death. Macbeth shows no emotion or extra stress, this suggests that he doesn’t really care. Although this scene is not directly linked with the supernatural, it shows how selfish Macbeth has become due to it. From Lady Macbeth’s description of the supernatural, being the word ‘destruction,’ we get the idea that the supernatural is used in the play to break things down. For example, Scotland breaks down due to Macbeth being devious and using his apparitions to help him.
At the start of the play Macbeth is portrayed as a tactful and intelligent soldier (‘For brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name’), but in his final battle he uses none of these skills and he says, ‘the spirits that know all mortal consequences,’ which means the apparitions given by the witches, will know how earthly things will turn out. The reason for Macbeth’s ease is that he relies on the witches and the supernatural into helping him fulfill his ambitions. It could be said that he feels the supernatural will make things right for him and everyone else and the spirits will know the right thing to do, but he has not realized that it’s these evil spirits which led him too his new, negative attitude.

Supernaturalism in Macbeth is vital to the storyline of the play. The witches are one of the most dominant aspects of the supernatural in the play and they influence Macbeth’s actions, and are eventually his downfall. The supernatural events, which happen in the play, lead us to question whether these events are actually caused by evil powers or Macbeth’s paranoia and driving ambition, which leads him to believe these things, are taking place. The trend of the supernatural in Macbeth portrays evil powers, though also provokes thought from the audience about whether these events take place or are a product of Macbeth’s imagination.

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