Shakespeare’s Treatment of the Supernatural Element in "Macbeth"

The witches in Macbeth are more symbolic than supernatural

The employment of the supernatural device to arouse the sense of mystery and horror on the stage was very common in the Elizabethan age. The existence of the ghosts, spirits, and fairies was fairly believed at that time both by the ignorant and the learned alike. Whether Shakespeare held that notion or not is a matter of dispute but his are the plays replete with such beliefs. Owing to several dramatic purposes and needs, the supernaturalism in Shakespearean plays is both subjective and symbolic. In Macbeth, the darkest of the Shakespearean plays, is considerably distinguished by its subjective and symbolic interpretations. Its employments serve to intensify the already accumulated dark atmosphere of the play in concern. The supernatural elements in this play comprises of the witches, the ghost of Banquo and other ominous portents noticed just before the murder of Duncan, the king of Scotland

In Holashed’s chronicles from which the materials were derived, there is a reference to a particular witch, a wizard. Shakespeare had probably taken up the clues from Holinshed but transmuted them on such a manner that the three witches or weird sisters cooking up in infernal broth; appear with a strange hallow which is their own. Gifted with supernatural power they can move invisibly through the sphere or control storm. They can foresee the future, cast spells and make apparitions rise. For their purposes they use the most obnoxious objects – toads, snakes, geese, gibbets etc. but in spite of their powers they are neither Goddess nor fate of Greek mythology – as some critics have observed. They awe all their powers to their masters. They are only instruments of darkness. They are beings with supernatural powers, but not supernatural being themselves. With all our popular imagination they are poor and ragged, skinny and hideous, and at once fearful, horror some and mysterious.

The contribution of witches to the atmosphere of the play can hardly be exaggerated. In the very beginning of the play, with their remark ‘Fair is foul, foul is fair’ they strike the keynote of the play. With their prophecies they excite suspense and supernatural dread. They symbolize the reversal of the moral order of the play. Evil is good to them and so it becomes for Macbeth.

The influence of the witches on the action of the tragedy is great; but it is more of a suggestive than of a compulsive kind. The actions of Macbeth are not forced upon him by any external power. They issue out of his character. The witches no doubt tempt him, but he is perfectly free to reject or resist their temptation. He was tempted by them because the temptation was already within him. The witches merely prophesize the future events, they never fell how the prophecy is to be fulfilled. For the simply announce that Macbeth would be the future king. They never tell him to fulfill the prophecy by murdering King Duncan. No honest man, merely hearing the prophecy of the crown would have immediately conceived the thought of murder. 

When Macbeth meets the witches for the second time, the position is a little changed. He is by now thoroughly committed to evil. So the witches merely do not prophecy they also dare to advice him but they have still no power to compel him to accept it, that is why they make careful preparation to deceive him. They want him to be bloody and bold. They directly advise him to be so but also delude him into a false sense of security. Macbeth has the power to reject the advice, but he does not do so. The brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her children have no commission of the meeting with the witches by Macbeth as he is now evil absolute.

 In Macbeth the ghost of Banquo acts as an instrument of justice and punishment. Macbeth who sees it immediately after the murder of Banquo is made nervous by it and so it provoked to betray him to the assembled quests. It is an objectification of externalization of the subjective state of Macbeth. It is a creation of his guilt, obsessed imagination and as Lady Macbeth reminds him very much like the dagger he sees just before the murder of Duncan.

All these show that supernatural in Macbeth is brought into closest harmony with the character of the protagonist in the drama. The supernatural is here presented both in outward and inward from and incorporates with the dark atmosphere prevailing throughout the drama.

Study  More
Shakesperean Drama
 Shakesperean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley

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