The Supernatural in Macbeth

The Supernatural in Macbeth

A tragedy by William Shakespeare

Analysis by Emmanuel Paige

Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare that deals with the supernatural, that of the three strange sisters (witches) and an antihero, Macbeth, and his wife, Lady Macbeth, who succumb to hubris due to their wholehearted belief in a prophecy spoken by the witches will come true and they will have complete impunity. All of the events that take place in Macbeth, the driving force behind his actions and behavior, can be attributed to his false sense of security from the prophecy of the witches that states “Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (Shakespeare 4.1.81-83). Shakespeare uses the Supernatural in Macbeth to present a cautionary tale about consulting with witches and dabbling in forbidden magic.

Macbeth learns of this prophecy and believes he is invincible and repeats the prophecy as reassurance: “Fear not, Macbeth. No man that’s born of woman / Shall e’er have power upon thee” (Shakespeare 5.3.6-7). This belief in hubris is Macbeths ultimate demise. This leads to hubris, a lust for power, and the ultimate murder of King Duncan and Banquo, an ally, whose ghost returns from the grave to haunt Macbeth and his wife. They commit at least five murders (Macdonwald, Duncan, the king’s guards, Banquo, and Lady Macduff) during the play to maintain their power and the throne of Scotland until their evil deeds catch up to them. Ultimately, they are undone by the hero, Macduff, who beheads Macbeth and presents it to Malcolm who regains his place as heir to the bloodline and rightful seat on throne as King of Scotland however, had it not been for the witches and the supernatural elements this story could not have a prophecy. The witches are essential to the plot and they are major players throughout the storyline. The supernatural was a major element in Macbeth and other plays by William Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, and Elizabethan culture was eager to be entertained by plays that had ghostly themes and could be interpreted as cautionary tales.

Shakespeare’s use of witches and witchcraft in Macbeth contributed to the popularity of the myth that endures today. The characteristics of the theme of the supernatural, in particular the witches of Macbeth, is still persistent in contemporary culture and the prevalence of the horror genre in literature, cinema, TV shows, the Internet, and Halloween are a testament to the longevity of the myth of the witch. The archetype of the witch was perfected in the scene with the “strange sisters” when “as Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth (1611), ‘For a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble’” (Witches, Rhodes). This is the opening scene of the play that popularized the archetype of three witches around a cauldron, and these were quite popular as entertainment in the 17th century for Elizabethan audiences, and still are thrilling to modern audiences today. Shakespeare helped to keep the character of the wicked witch alive and well by popularizing it in his play centuries ago. Today the myth of the witch is unquestionably here to stay.

The “strange sisters,” or witches, of Macbeth are characters that embody a theme of the supernatural and superstition and are deeply entrenched in folklore and history. The witches were borrowed from Greek and Hebrew mythology and were utilized to great effect in Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The impact of this play over the centuries was far reaching and has saturated literature and cinema, most referencing the primitive legend and folklore of witches, to the point that modern art and culture is imbued with the image of a witch on a broom flying in front of a gibbous moon. For skeptics and naysayers, the archetype of the witch was still entertaining. “As for those who disavowed belief in witchcraft, the subject could still provide a degree of fascination and even spectacle” (Rhodes). For those who wanted to entertain the idea of witches, “The cauldron of witchcraft no longer boiled over: it simmered in film after film, the cinema slowly and repeatedly indicting and even attempting to rectify the colonial past” (Rhodes). Modern movies and literature abound with tales of witchcraft and sorcery, for instance, the well-received Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

A modern audience would view the play differently than those of Elizabethan times. During the 17th century there were three classes within the audience of Shakespeare’s play, performed by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men playing company, usually at the Globe Theater which was associated with Shakespeare. “The aristocracy would be found in the galleries with the standing room on the ground around the stage containing most of the working class plebs” (Bowles). The lower class were ignored and mistreated and were forced to stand in a dirty pit full of garbage from the other higher classes. They were the rowdy and riotous members of the audience that would throw garbage at the audience. They were known to be drunk and unruly and looked down upon by the upper class. The middle class were only slightly higher than the lower, however, they were treated with mild respect and allowed to sit in an area known as the galleries. The upper class were treated with the best respect and were allowed to sit next to and even on the stage in an area known as the heavens. It is interesting to note that during Shakespeare’s times the theater contained the same party atmosphere as contemporary society today. The only difference is that of time and fashion, the attitudes and behavior are still much the same. “Though many things were different, the factors determining the attendance of Elizabethan audiences were very similar to those today, including financial resources, time, and personal interests” (Bowles). Today, an audience might view, or read, this play from the comfort of their living room, on a train, or plain, or at a theater, and forgo the social implications of Elizabethan theater. Ultimately, during both time periods, the audience wanted to see a great performance of the plays, regardless of class or social stature “for the same reason we do 400 years later—to be entertained by a playwright they had come to love” (Bowles). One thing each class had in common back then was a belief in the supernatural, specifically witches; whereas, today a similar audience watching a movie like the Blare Witch Project may be slightly aloof or bored and not convinced that witches or the supernatural are even a real possibility. Religion seems to be in decline in the modern world where Internet and cellphones are king, and the belief in witches is almost laughable because science would argue there is no evidence for the Supernatural.

In truth and history, between February 1692 and May 1693, there was the infamous Salem Witch Trials that resulted from hysteria and belief in witches brought about by superstition and Christian persecution of pagans and worshipers of the occult. “The Salem witch trials of 1692 have become a prominent feature of the American cultural consciousness” (Ray). This was a dark day in history for the Thirteen American Colonies and stands as a testament to how myth, superstition, and a belief in the supernatural can overpower good judgement and logic. There were many witches put to death for their alleged practices of sacrilege and necromancy. The colonists were puritanical and directly influenced by the Elizabethan culture, so they would have been deeply affected by the hysteria brought about by the accusation and trial of witches in their presence. They were not that far separated from England yet to stave off the trappings and influences of Elizabethan social norms and customs. It stands to reason that Macbeth may have been influential in contributing to a heightened sense of dread during the witch hunts in Salem since Shakespeare had been dead for over seventy years during the trials and the popularity of the play was undeniable.

Today, in fiction and entertainment, this trio of “strange sisters” or witches have been commercialized and even satirized in cinema, cartoons, and theater. “presented as ‘faery’ creatures, dancing, singing, miraculously appearing and vanishing by means of a ‘machine’” (Tomarken). The witches have been somewhat glamorized for massive consumption, and presented as supernatural creatures that appear in movies, such The Wizard of Oz with The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wicked Witch of the East, and The Good Witch of the South. An article titled “The Wicked Witch Is Dead” written by Jonathan Holden pays tribute to the late actor Margaret Hamilton who played the Wicked Witch in ‘Oz’ (Holden). Likewise, in more modern cinema, Hocus Pocus starring Bette Midler, and TV series such as Charmed, staring Alyssa Milano, and Clash of the Titans starring Harry Hamlin. Additionally, these three witches can be found in Halloween ornaments, decorations, and tableaus during the Autumn in retail stores, front yards in neighborhoods, and in plays and haunted house presentations to celebrate the ancient tradition of All Hallows Eve or the Christian festival of All Saints Day. A typical question that any school age child might ask is: “Are there really witches?” (Kolbe).

Elizabethan audiences were frightened by the real possibility of ghosts. Modern audiences of movies and literature would find it less convincing and may not believe in ghosts as a possibility. Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, during the 17th century was a serious event and was based on beliefs that evil spirits came back from the dead, real demons crept around, and witches and evil lurked through the shadows, and children begged for food in religious customs and wore costumes to blend in with the evil spirits. They believed evil was real and tangible. Modern audiences familiar with movies like Charmed and Hocus Pocus—which share the same three witches archetype as Macbeth standing around a cauldron or pot mixing up potions and casting spells—might not even believe the supernatural is real, or that there are evil spirits, but they may participate in Halloween simply for fun and free candy without a concern for whether witches and evil are real. The difference between 17th Century Elizabethan audiences and modern audiences is that they were convinced the Supernatural was real, and evil was a tangible thing, and the Devil existed, so they had much more at stake (their eternal souls) than the modern person who might believe more in science and evolution and have no inclination to believe that god, witches, or the supernatural are real.

Had it not been for the supernatural element and the prophecy in the play, Macbeth probably would not have had the audacity to believe he was invincible and take great risks of murdering his adversaries and anyone who stood in his way. This hubris affects the attitude of Macbeth and leads him astray down a road of destruction because of his own desire to be the almighty and powerful ruler, the King of Scotland. It is this overbearing pride and insolence that leads to his demise and that of Lady Macbeth, for they both go mad with the appearance of Banquo’s ghost and the reality that they are slowly slipping into madness and death. When Lady Macbeth dies, Macbeth knows that his time is short, and he goes to war with his adversaries vigorously. He is aware that his time as King is done and the prophecy is somehow failing him.

Macbeth learns that Macduff is an exception to the prophecy because he was “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d” (Shakespeare 5.8. 2493-2494). This is the clencher of the plot where Macbeth realizes that he has been deceived by the witches and says, “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cow’d my better part of man! / And be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense; / That keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope . . .” (Shakespeare 5.8.2495-2500). At that moment, they fight to the death, and Macbeth is killed, and his head is removed by Macduff. This scene is almost anticlimactic. There is a sense of relief that the madness is finished, and the true noble bloodline of the Kingdom of Scotland will be restored with Malcolm.

The witches are the most crucial element to the plot and theme of Macbeth which deals with magic, spells, and fortune telling as a mechanism to instill hubris in the hero who tragically is cursed for dabbling in forbidden magic. Shakespeare uses the Supernatural to present a cautionary tale about consulting with necromancers which was forbidden in the Holy Bible. Exodus 22:18 in the King James Version says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” It would have been a well a known verse to most of the Elizabethan audience in attendance at the play due to a wide-ranging belief in Christianity during the 17th Century in Europe. Modern audiences know the archetype of the three witches well today and are still thrilled by the eerie and sinister atmosphere conjured up in art, on the screen, or in literature made most famous by Shakespeare in his play, Macbeth, which relies strongly on the supernatural to carry out the plot.

Works Cited

Holden, Jonathan. “The Wicked Witch Is Dead.” New England Review (1990-), vol. 16, no. 4, 1994, pp. 155–156. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Kolbe, Nadine A. “‘Witches’ Can Be Fun.” Elementary English, vol. 34, no. 6, 1957, pp. 373–374. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Martin, A. Lynn. “The Baptism of Wine.” Gastronomica, vol. 3, no. 4, 2003, pp. 21–30. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Oct. 2020.

Ray, Benjamin. “Salem Witch Trials.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 17, no. 4, 2003, pp. 32–36. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

Bowles, Samuel. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Audience. Accessed 17 Oct. 2020.

Tomarken, Edward. “THE WITCHES IN ‘MACBETH’: SAMUEL JOHNSON’S NOTION OF SELECTIVE EMPATHY.” CEA Critic, vol. 47, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 78–89. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

“Witches.” The Birth of the American Horror Film, by Gary D. Rhodes, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018, pp. 147–162. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

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