Macbeth - The Supernatural

The Witches

  • The witches are arguably the most important supernatural entity in the play, and are highly symbolic in nature.  Three witches may be symbolic of the three-fold goddess Hecate who appears in some versions of the play.  She embodies the female aspects of maiden, mother and crone. They may also be compared to the Fates - three women in Greek mythology who created and foretold the Fates of men.  In the same way, these witches present Macbeth with his Fate.

  • The witches look like women, yet they have beards, preventing Banquo from saying that they are definitely female.  This shows the strangeness of the witches - their outer ugliness is reflected in their inner ugliness.  It also relates to the idea of corrupted women - and the dangers of women who try to act like men.  Throughout the play the idea of acting like a man connotes ruthlessness, cruelty and a thirst for violence.  Most clearly, this relates to Lady Macbeth, who some critics see as a 'fourth witch', and who wishes to be 'unsexed' in order to exert her violent ambitions.   Thus, women acting like men not only breaks the natural order of the world, but also creates cruel and unnatural abominations,  Moreover, gender roles in the play when blurred often pose a threat - masculine women being the most obvious, yet Macbeth is also threatened by the idea of not being a proper man, leading him to commit terrible crimes in order to prove his masculinity.  In short, we might say that Shakespeare uses the Witches, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth to expose the problems of a violent and cruel idea of what it is to be 'masculine'.  As you will see in our notes on Masculinity, this is a problematic idea overthrown by Macduff and Malcolm.

  • The witches are often associated with a turn in the weather which becomes stormy - they are then directly linked with disturbances in the natural world.  This reflects the witches as unnatural as well as supernatural beings, disturbing everything that is naturally ordered.  The weather becomes hostile and chaotic when they appear, yet also other things defying natural order also happen.  For example, Macbeth disturbs the natural order by killing Duncan, a mousing owl kills a falcon, and Duncan’s horses are said to eat each other.  This reflects a disturbance in the Great Chain of Being, a system whereby every creature was thought to have its rightful place in the world.  The murder of Duncan - prompted by the witches - tears this Chain apart.

  • The witches' role in the play is to tell Macbeth a prophecy in three parts about the fact that he will become Thane of Cawdor and then the King.  This prophecy can either be seen as the inevitable future, or as the thing which spurs Macbeth on to commit regicide.  Furthermore, the prophecies of the witches are often equivocal:  they say something but mean something slightly different.  The things they say are often unclear and whilst technically truthful are designed to be misinterpreted. 

  • One of the crucial questions of Macbeth is the extent to which the witches are their words influence his actions in the play.

  • The witches influence over Macbeth can be seen even before he meets them - he enters the play saying ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’.  This suggests either that he has already been wrapped up in the witches spell, or that they are somehow representations of his state of mind.  Certainly there must be some link between them.

  • In Macbeth, the witches often talk in rhyming couplets and trochaics.  Trochaics are naturally disconcerting for audience, the opposite of the heartbeat sound.  E.g. WHEN shall WE three MEET a-GAIN.  Together with rhyme, which gives a sinister, chanting quality to the witches' speech, it signifies the witches as supernatural beings who are constantly casting spells as they speak.  Might they have already cast a spell by the end of the first scene?

  • To some extent, the witches at some points in the play may be seen as signifiers of Macbeth’s changing mind as much as the beings who create this change.  The supernatural shows Macbeth’s fear and paranoia, as well as helping to create it.  Consider the fact that after their first appearance, only Macbeth can even see the witches, suggesting they are predominantly alive within his own mind.

  • The witches are shown in the first few scenes to be actively malevolent beings, who worship devils and destroy humans (particularly men) for fun.    We see this in the first Act, where they describe wrecking the ship of a 'pilot' purely for their own pleasure.

  • They are also shown explicitly to worship devils - 'Paddock calls'.

  • Like the 'filthy air' which they conjure, the witches might be seen to pervade the atmosphere and landscape of Macbeth, filling the whole of the natural world with evil

       Important Quotations

  • "When shall we three meet again

        In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"

  • "Fair is foul, and foul is fair:"

  • "you should be women,

       And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

       That you are so."

  • "you imperfect speakers"

  • "I pull in resolution, and begin

       To doubt the equivocation of the fiend

       That lies like truth"

  • "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

       The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

       Win us with honest trifles, to betray's

       In deepest consequence."

  • “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater”

  • “not so happy, yet much happier” “

 

  • "thou shall get King’s, though thou be none”

 

Ghosts and Apparitions

 

  • Apparitions include the dagger which appears before Macbeth murders Duncan, when he is trying to decide whether or not to kill the King. The dagger appears in the air before ‘the handle towards my hand’, ready for Macbeth to reach out and grasp it.  The dagger, Macbeth considers, may either be a real dagger ‘sensible to feeling as to sight’ (perhaps sent by the witches to encourage Macbeth), or it may be ‘a dagger of the mind’, something created by Macbeth’s own mind which shows his desire to kill Duncan.  Thus we might see the dagger either as supernatural influence, inevitable fate or Macbeth’s own hallucination.  As the scene progresses, the dagger comes to have blood on it, showing that Macbeth symbolically and mentally kills Duncan even before he actually does so.  He calls the dagger ‘fatal vision’ - fatal not only to Duncan but to Macbeth himself ultimately, though he does not yet know it.  This is a good example of dramatic irony in the play. 

  • Lady Macbeth’s vision of blood on her hands.  This refers to the blood of Duncan which she cannot wash out, as it is bleeding from the whole country (the extended body politic) rather than simply from his corporal body.  See sections on 'Blood' and 'Kingship' in Macbeth for more details. Biblically this refers to Pontius Pilate, a man who put Jesus to death and then tried to wash his hands of it. Spiritually, he, like Mabeth and Lady Macbeth, could never get rid of his guilt.  It also shows how Lady Macbeth plays a role in killing the Christian King Duncan, and can never wash her sin away.  We might also see this as an example of dramatic irony, as earlier in the play, Lady Macbeth had instructed Macbeth to wash Duncan's blood off his hands.

  • We might also consider the letter which Lady Macbeth reads, which is presumably the letter from the beginning of the play where Macbeth tells her about the witches' promises.  By re-reading this letter in her sleep, Lady Macbeth shows her regret for her earlier actions - she wishes she could go back to the beginning perhaps and change things. 

  • The Ghost of Banquo appears during the feast after Macbeth’s ironic command ‘Fail not our feast.’  He may be an avenging spirit, who in this unnatural climate has risen from the grave.  Alternately, he may show Macbeth’s guilt and paranoia about the future where Banquo’s children will be Kings.  When the Ghost appears, he takes Macbeth’s seat at the feast, showing how he will eventually usurp the throne from Macbeth.  The fact that no other characters can see the ghost of Banquo implies that it may either be a hallucination of Macbeth’s, evidencing Macbeth's guilty conscience, or if real the ghost shows Banquo’s anger towards Macbeth for his murder.  Just as many things in the natural world no longer do as they are supposed to, the dead no longer even stay buried!

  • Other apparitions include the apparitions/visions which the witches show Macbeth towards the end of the play.  The first apparition is a severed head, signifying Macbeth’s future fate, which will end in his head being cut off.  The second apparition is a bloody child, this shows both Macbeth’s inability to produce a line of kings, the children he has murdered and Macduff himself who was born as a C-section and so is the man ‘not of woman born'.  The third apparition is a child holding a tree, representing Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, as well as a biblical symbol of Malcolm’s future growth to be King after Macbeth's usurpation.  The final apparition is the line of Kings being reflected endlessly from Banquo in a mirror, showing that Banquo will have an unbroken line of succession which Macbeth cannot stop.  

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