The Effect Of The Supernatural Upon Events

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth Essay, Research Paper

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At the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, people were interested in the idea of the supernatural and the unknown. It would have been a hot conversational topic of the day in the late 16th century, with most folks being very suspicious of things of this nature. This seems to be one of the reasons why Shakespeare chose to write a play about this particular theme. Another reason would be that the playwright knew his work would be performed in front of King James; the King was of Scottish heritage and it would be pleasing to him to recognise actual place names used in the play. Scotland as a country is complimented throughout the play: ?This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.? (A. 1, S. 6) Also, the King had just narrowly escaped death from the Gunpowder Plot headed by Catholic Guy Fawkes, and as King James was a firm believer in the Divine Right Of Kings and The Great Chain of Being (where the King was supposedly directly below God Himself) it seems Shakespeare wanted to flatter the King by reinforcing these themes, even though it would obviously have been a very sensitive issue of the time, the Plot not having been foiled one year ago before Shakespeare wrote the play. In addition to this, the King, as well as his subjects, was firmly interested in the supernatural himself, even writing a book titled ?Daemonologie? on it. Shakespeare seems to have gone to great lengths in the play to impress the King through all these devices. It seems to have worked too ? rumour has it that the King liked the play so much after it was performed that he even went to the trouble of sending a thank you letter to Shakespeare for writing such a good play.

The main themes in Macbeth all link up to what affect the Witches and the supernatural have on the people in the play. Right from the very start, before the Witches have spoken, the pathetic fallacy of the stormy weather reflecting the evil and good forces about to collide show straight away that the play is dramatic and grabs the attention of the audience. Shakespeare makes the Witches? intentions clear to us as soon as the Witches speak, that they?re about to meet with Macbeth. We also see at the same time how evil they are; we hear about what the Witches have been doing to others and what revenge they?d like to take out on people who have angered them. For example, a sailor?s wife offend one witch and the witch responds by drawing out a plan of attack on her husband: ?Her husband?s to Aleppo gone?I?ll thither sail? I?ll do, I?ll do, and I?ll do.? (A. 1, S. 3, L. 10)

From this, we know what the Witches? mean to do. They are interested in the corruption of good people and it seems Macbeth is a prime candidate for their attention; at the beginning of the play Macbeth is seen as ?brave?, ?valour?s minion,? and a ?valiant cousin? (A. 1, S. ?) until his utter corruption at the end of the play when he?s seen as a ?bloody butcher.? The Witches mean to lead Macbeth astray and by prophesising what they do to him and Banquo they know they can goad his ego and ambition into actually carrying out acts to fill out the future they saw, acts which Macbeth wouldn?t have had the guts to otherwise.

One thing that affects Macbeth greatly early on in the play is that one of the prophecies he hears from the Witches comes true, when he is greeted as the Thane Of Cawdor.

?I know I am Thane of Glamis, but how of Cawdor?? (A. 1, S. 3, Ls. 71/72)

Shortly after meeting the Witches he receives news of the betrayal of the King by the original Cawdor Thane and sees that he now has the title the Witches said he?s one day own.

The other prediction of course has a big effect upon Macbeth ? it strokes his already large ambitious nature to hear that he is going to become King. Although I don?t think Macbeth would have done the things he does unless the Witches had met him, it does seem to be that the desire for things like kingship were already in Macbeth; it was the final straw to meet the Witches and their visions of him as King finally tip him over the edge into actually trying to attain the title.

However, it doesn?t seem to be ONLY the Witches? influence that makes Macbeth do the deeds he does. For example, just because Banquo?s children are predicted to become Kings (?Thou shalt get Kings, though thou be none,? in A. 1, S. 3, Ls. 68/69) Banquo just doesn?t go and murder the King! Banquo is a little more suspicious of the Witches:

?To win us our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truth.? (A. 1, S. 3, Ls. 123/124)

This stops him from truly trying to fill out the prophecies. Perhaps because Banquo is nobler, less trusting and less ambitious than the Macbeths this also stops him from doing anything like what Macbeth does. He also is very weary of anything like the Witches, saying they are trying to treat the two soldiers as friends for their own means. Banquo is suspicious of them and feels that anything like what the Witches predict needs to be treated with caution. Banquo tries, in fact, to warn Macbeth of this, but he doesn?t listen and events progress in a downward spiral for Macbeth more and more as the play advances. If Macbeth had listened to his old friend Banquo things wouldn?t have turned out the way they did by far. Although he is wrong about the Witches? intentions Macbeth tries to reassure Banquo, and this shows how confident Macbeth is of himself and how things he?s sure will go fine for him:

?If (the Witches and their visions are) ill, why hath it given me earnest of success??

Of course, Banquo doesn?t have Lady Macbeth as a wife. She could even be seen as a fourth witch, the way she behaves in the play. She is constantly calling out to spirits to help her with the evil deeds she wants to be able to commit and she herself tries (and succeeds) to convince Macbeth that the Witches? visions of the future are to come true:

?Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me? (with) the direst cruelty.? (A. 1, S. 5, L. 40)

Without the Witches, it?s true that Macbeth would never have carried out the bloody deeds, but it?s also his own wife that pushes him into killing the King. She makes comments about him being weak and faint hearted (?thy nature, it is too full o? th? milk of human kindness? at A. 1, S. 4, L. 15) when he thinks twice over killing the King, which her husband sees as a great dishonour to God Himself:

?He?s here in double trust? I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against he deed… who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.? (A. 1, S. 7, Ls. 12/16)

Lady Macbeth doesn?t seem to be able to foresee the consequences of their actions; she feels that they should be uncaring over what things they must do to get Macbeth to be King, saying that ?a little water? will cleanse their hands (i.e. their conscience) over the acts of murder they commit. In the end, of course, it?s proved that it?s Lady Macbeth who can?t cope with what she?s done and she slips into insanity, a raving guilt-obsessed woman who spills out the secrets she?s keeping to the doctor who visits her. Even when Lady Macbeth commits suicide it doesn?t really have an impact upon the play; Macbeth seems accepting of her death due to the way they?ve become alienated towards each other (he doesn?t even inform her over the murder of Banquo which shows how he now is not really consulting her anymore):

?How now my lord, why do you keep alone?? (A. 3, S. 2, L. 8)

The way Macbeth reacts to her death shows how normal mortality seems to him now, he?s not really shocked by death at all, he has bigger things to worry about, such as covering his tracks from the other murders or worrying over keeping his crown.

Throughout the play, strange occurrences with nature seem to happen and supernatural forces seem to be at work. I?ve already mentioned the pathetic fallacy at the start of the play, but this theme occurs again and again in Macbeth. For example, while the King is being killed during the night it?s one of the worst Lennox can remember, saying ?the night has been unruly? the earth was feverous and did shake.? (A. 2, S. 3) This reflects the way the trouble in Scotland (the murder of a King) is being mirrored in the weather. It?s not just the weather that seems to be troubled; on the night of King Duncan?s murder he has trouble sleeping, saying that the night seems stranger because no stars are out (another indication of the way Duncan is soon to die):

?There?s husbandry in heaven, their candles are all out? a heavy summons lies upon me, and yet I would not sleep.? (A. 2, S. 1, Ls. 5/6)

The way this would seem to the Shakespearean audience is one they could connect with; they were believers in the supernatural (hence al the witch hunts at this time in history) and although they feared it, it was something they could understand if they were watching a play being performed on stage. It would seem ordinary to the people of this time to think that the weather was influenced by events on earth.

As the play progresses we see Banquo getting more and more agitated and suspicious about Macbeth and the Witches? prophesies which affects the drama. Although Macbeth is his friend, and he doesn?t want to feel this way about one such as Macbeth, Banquo still can?t hide his fears and nagging doubts about the King. He tries to talk to Macbeth just before the King?s murder to discuss the Witches, but they don?t have time and they never get a chance to again. Banquo does a small soliloquy as Macbeth is getting crowned, talking about his fears for Macbeth and how he got the kingship:

?I fear thou play?dst most foully for?t.? (A. 3, S. 1, L. 3)

This shows how Macbeth isn?t fooling his old friend at all, and Macbeth knows this, even though he lies to Banquo repeatedly to continue the innocence routine. Macbeth sees Banquo and his son Fleance as obstacles that need to be gotten rid of; Banquo because of his suspicions and Fleance because he?s Banquo?s son and Banquo?s children were predicted to take the throne from Macbeth. As a solution to the problem, Macbeth hires murderers to get rid of father and son. This shows the depravity of Macbeth; not only was he willing to kill a King to get the crown, but he?s willing to kill one of his oldest friends to keep it. It shows how far Macbeth has fallen from the once great soldier that he was to the murdering fiend he now is. As a soldier killing the enemy, Macbeth is admired but as a killer in his homeland he?s despised.

After Banquo?s murder, we see how Macbeth?s guilt-ridden conscience catches up with him and temporarily makes him see Banquo?s ghost at a banquet he?s holding at his castle. This is an example of when the audience doesn?t know precisely what?s going on ? is the ghost a figment of Macbeth?s mind resulting from his paranoia or is the supernatural to blame? Macbeth reacts to the situation by demanding who at the table has done such trickery and then almost assures people believe his guilt when he starts shouting that they ?canst not say (he) did it?. Remember this is at the time when Banquo is believed to be not present due to some other business, not dead as Macbeth knows him to be. When the ghost of Banquo leaves the table Macbeth decides to cover up what he?s just seen by telling his guests that he ?has some strange infirmity, which is nothing to those who know me.? (A. 3, S. 4, L. 86)

He plays along with the idea his wife first suggested, that he?s ill and it?s a fit that?ll pass, a short madness he?s always had. The way this affects the play is that it dampens the party mood of the banquet, it ruins the evening and destroys the celebratory atmosphere, as Lady Macbeth announces:

?You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting.? (A. 3, S.4, L. 108)

It also makes everyone present wonder just what Macbeth was talking about when he was proclaiming his innocence over a deed he supposedly hasn?t committed. Therefore it makes everyone more sceptical of the King and is a focus point because this is the first time in the drama of the play he?s appeared under suspicion to other people at the banquet. Before, Macbeth only had Banquo to worry about, but after his performance in front of the nobles he knows more and more people are concerned about the things he?s done in the past and his denying having done anything only makes him look more and more guilty, only the guests do not know what he?s done exactly, they can only make assumptions. This affects the drama greatly as Macbeth gets in deeper and deeper into the web of lies and the trail of murder he?s taken begins to unhinge him.

In fact, Macbeth has had tricks played on him by his mind before. The first time was when he was debating the consequences of killing King Duncan and he sees a dagger floating in front of him and he?s not sure whether it?s hallucinary or real:

?Is this a dagger I see before me? ? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not yet I still see thee.? (A. 2, S. 1, Ls. 33/35)

We can safely assume that this is the influence of Macbeth?s guilty conscience at work and this shows that Macbeth is slowly being tormented by his deeds. We see straight away, within the same scene as killing King Duncan, that he regrets it:

?Wake Duncan with though knocking, I would thou couldst.? (A. 2, S. 2, L. 74)

It?s not just Macbeth who seems to be the worse for wear when it comes to consciences ? Lady Macbeth, the one who pushed Macbeth into doing things in the first place, is ultimately driven insane by guilt over Duncan?s murder, the act she asked the supernatural spirits to help her with. Lady Macbeth undergoes a rapid transformation from the start of the play, and the main event which seems to finally shatter her is the news of Lady Macduff?s castle being attacked and everyone inside murdered. When we see Lady Macbeth after this she?s raving about the murders, envisioning her hands still coated in the blood of the dead King:

?Out damned spot, out I say! ?here?s the smell of blood still? what, will these hands ne?er be clean?? (A. 5, S. 1)

At the beginning of the play, it was Lady Macbeth who goaded her husband for being weak and thinking of their actions? consequences, and told him he was foolish to think of such things. She told him that she wished to be cruel and heartless, and that he should act like a man and do what needed to be done. However, in the scene just before her death with the doctor, she seems racked by guilt and can?t stop trying to wash her hands of the blood on them, saying that her hands will never be clean (i.e. her conscience). This outburst of guilt is similar to the way Macbeth acts at the banquet, which she is angry with him for. Macbeth too tells things to people present he shouldn?t (when he denies having done anything), just like his wife who the doctor and gentlewoman hear talk of killing old men and so on. Although Lady Macbeth?s ramblings aren?t really affected directly by the supernatural like Macbeth?s were (the ideas of ghosts and so on), her fractured reason is one of the results of what?s happened before in the play, which, as I discussed earlier, is linked to the supernatural in a big way, the way in which the Witches affect the events of the play.

When Macbeth is King and having doubts about his future, he goes to visit the Witches for a second time and demands answers. He is given apparitions by the three Witches concerning his situation and these figures each make a statement Macbeth listens to. The first apparition tells Macbeth to ?beware Macduff? (A. 4, S. 1, L. 71), the second ?none of woman born shall harm Macbeth? (A. 4, S. 1, L. 80), and the last one that ?Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.? These predictions again fool Macbeth into thinking things will go his way. The way the predictions are told to Macbeth make it seem as if he?s totally invincible, by saying that he will not be harmed unless a forest can move and no man that?s been born by a woman can kill him. The Witches and their apparitions aren?t exactly deceitful in the things they tell Macbeth, they?re just cloaked in riddles that Macbeth doesn?t think can come true and so he feels he?s safe. This is the last time we see the Witches themselves in Macbeth, although they influence a lot of things still. The predictions they?ve made affect Macbeth until the end and their power reaches out to the characters even when they?re not on stage or present or talking to other characters.

However, at the end of the play as Macbeth is nearing his death he realises how much the Witches have tricked him into carrying out their evil deeds and that truthfully the kingship wasn?t worth losing everything for. He learns of the way the woods move, cloaking Macduff?s English-enforced army towards his castle, and also of the way Macduff wasn?t born of a woman; he was born by Caesarean section: ?Macduff was from his mother?s womb untimely ripped.? (A. 5, S. 8, Ls. 15/16)

As Macbeth discovers this, he realises that he isn?t as invincible as he thought and that the Witches have duped him. Macbeth has lost his wife, his best friend, his kingship, his respect, his holiness, and his conscience haunts him every waking moment of the day. He?s done everything for nothing. He realises that what he thought was worth anything for (the kingship) he can?t hold onto and it was pointless to begin to try to attain by foul means. He figures out that all what the Witches were interested in was corrupting a once valiant soldier into something they could play with.

Overall, it?s a combination of things that lead Macbeth to his downfall, not just witchcraft, although this does start it all off and without it the play couldn?t have developed very well. It would have been boring and less dramatic if the supernatural hadn?t made itself known in the play, not to mention far less complex.

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