Shakespeare’s Use Of The Supernatural In Macbeth

Shakespeare makes free and frequent use of the supernatural in his plays. This device does not appeal to us in the modern age of science when all forms of superstitions are gradually passing away. But Shakespeare is not to blame on this account because he wrote for audience which fully believed in the reality and existence of the invisible supernatural beings operating upon the thoughts and actions of human beings. Shakespeare employs the supernatural in his tragedies with high artistic purposes-for creating atmosphere of mystery, awe and horror and for heightening the intensity of the tragic effect. In Macbeth, he comes to handle the supernatural with the best of his skill and dexterity. Mr. Clarke observes that “Macbeth reveals the darkest and most pessimistic phase of Shakespeare’s life. He now believes that human beings are surrounded by foul and terrible influences and temptations, aimed at their betrayal and undoing. His fear of the supernatural is no longer physical: it is moral. In Macbeth, therefore the supernatural powers-viz., the Weird Sisters. exercise greater powers than ever and succeed in their purposes.

Shakespeare has employed various forms of the supernatural in Macbeth. We find it in witches, ghosts, apparitions, hallucinations and many other forces which work invisibly on the thoughts and actions of the hero. the importance of these supernatural forces in a tragedy like Macbeth can hardly be exaggerated. Prof. A Nicoll remarks. “By this means an otherwise sordid story of murder and revenge has been carried to higher levels and assumes at once a peculiar significance of its own. They greatly help in heightening the effect and universalizing the appeal of the tragedy. They render the tragedy simply tremendous and awe inspiring. They bring home the significance and helplessness of human beings in the presence of these mighty forces and confront us with the deepest mystery and pathos of human life. Their presence implies the existence of a superhuman force which delights in the agony suffering of human beings and plays with them as a cat plays with mice.

Let us now study in detail the various forms of the supernatural employed by Shakespeare in Macbeth.


The first and most dreadful form of the supernatural in Macbeth is represented by the three witches. The Weird Sisters correspond in their form and appearance to the description of the witches given by Scott in his book Discovery of Witchcraft as “old woman, lame, blear eyed, pale, hideous. wrinkled, lean and reformed. They generally had beards. They were melancholy-looking and horrid. They are, in brief, just hideous, ragged and withered women who have received supernatural powers from Satan and other evil spirits. “They are grotesque”, says Dowden, “they are also sublime-they tingle in every fibre with evil energy, as the tempest does with electric current, their malignity is inexhaustible, they are wells of sin springing up into everlasting death, they have their raptures and ecstasies in crime, they snatch with delight at the relics of impiety and foul disease, they are awful inspires of murder, insanity and suicide. They are powers auxiliary to vice which exist outside ourselves.”

Their importance in Macbeth can hardly be exaggerated. Brandes says, “with the witches” meeting, Shakespeare strikes the key-note of the drama at the very outset, as surely as with a tunningfork and wherever the witches reappear the same note recurs. The witches on the death, the scene before the murder of Duncan, the sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth-so potent is the effect of these and other episodes that they are burnt for ever on the spectator’s memory.” Coleridge says. “The Weird Sisters are as true a creation of Shakespeare’s as his Ariel and Caliban. They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act immediately on the audience.”

The question which has been baffling Shakespeare’s critics for centuries is who are these Weird Sisters? Various interpretations have been given from time to time by critics. Prof. Bradley has discussed the problems in full details.

They are sometimes described as goddesses or even as fates whom Macbeth is powerless to resist. But Prof. Bradley says that they are not goddesses or fates or in any way, whatever supernatural. They are old women, poor, ragged, shinny; and hideous and full of vulgar spite. There is not a syllable in Macbeth to imply that they are anything but women in spite of their beards. They have, however, received from evil spirits certain supernatural powers. The witches owe all their power to the spirits who have to be invoked from time to time. They are “instruments of darkness”. They cannot be fates because fates admit of no ‘masters’. Even their mistress Hecate herself is a spirit and not fate.

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The witches are not fates also because they have no power over the thoughts and actions of Macbeth. They could only suggest or advise but could not dictate. Shakespeare has not given the slightest hint that the actions of Macbeth were forced on him by an external power, whether by the witches or their masters or Hecate herself. They merely announced events, they hailed him as Thane of Glamis, Thane at Cowdor and King hereafter. No connection of these announcement with any action of his has even been hinted by the author. The idea of fulfilling the prophecy by murder was entirely his own. On the second visit, the witches even gave advice and asked him to be bloody. bold and any secure, yet they are far from having any power to compel him to accept their advice. Macbeth never betrays even once that his action is or has been thrust on him by an external power. He curses the witches for deceiving him but he never blames them for the guilt committed by him. Hence, the witches in Macbeth cannot be interpreted by goddesses of fate.

According to a second interpretation, the witches and their prophecies are considered merely as the symbolical representations of the thoughts and desires which slumbered in Macbeth’s breast for long and which then rose into consciousness and confronted him. This is a psychological or spiritual interpretation of the witches. Bradley says that “it is rather a philosophy than an immediate and dramatic apprehension of them. This view, says Bradley. “is both incomplete and inadequate.” This interpretation does apply to the most important prophecy that of the crown, and that the later warning delit which Macbeth receives to beware of Macduff “harps his fear aright”. But Macbeth evidently had no suspicion of that treachery of Cowdor through which he himself became Thane. Similarly, he had no idea of the moving of the Birnam-wood or of the man not born of woman. This interpretation is therefore inadequate. “If the universal connection is once realized.” says Bradley, “we need not fear and shall scarcely be able, to exaggerate the effect of witches scene in heightening and deepening the sense of fear, horror and mystery which pervades the atmosphere of the tragedy.”

Therefore, the truth is that “these witches are in part corporeal, in part supernatural, in part the personified temptations of Macbeth himself. There is the sense that we are in touch with infinite, indefinable and intangible forces of the universe, and yet there remains a doubt, Moultan says, “We do not believe in witchcraft. Shakespeare’s age did. Accordingly, we often see attempts to explain away the supernatural character of this element in the play, the suggestion that the witches are hallucinations of Macbeth, or symbols of the power at temptation. If however, we follow the evidence of the scenes, it is abundantly clear that, those witches are objective figures seen at their work of witchcraft in places where there is no Macbeth present to permit of hallucination they are represented as possessing supernatural powers, and vanish like bubbles into air. It is a scientific error-error in the science of interpretation-there the interpreter insists on being wiser than the literature he is to interpret.”


Shakespeare has also introduced ghosts as a second type of the supernatural in Macbeth. They serve the same artistic purpose in the tragedy as the Witches. They heighten the tragic effect and render the atmosphere of the play mysterious, awful and impenetrably dark. Brandes says, “Still more admirable. both psychologically and scenically, is the scene in which Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in his seat at the banquet table. The grandeur, depth and extraordinary dramatic and theatrical effect of this passage is almost unequalled in the history of the drama. The same may be said of well-nigh the whole outline of this tragedy. from a dramatic and theatrical point of view, it is beyond all praise.”

The ghosts, apparition and hallucinations imply the existence of an invisible world above and beyond the physical world within the apprehension of our physical sense. They are “a reminder of the existence and immanence of more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our everyday philosophy, a warning that at all times, hut most in its lapses, humanity has to reckon with not flesh and blood alone, but principalities and powers of the unseen world. Shakespeare makes use of two kinds of ghosts in his plays-the objective and the subjective. In Macbeth it is the subjective ghost which appears on the stage. The subjective ghost is supposed to be visible only to the character concerned on the stage and not to other characters present on the stage in the same scene. The audience is, however, supposed to see it visibly on the stage Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene is visible to Macbeth alone and not to Lady Macbeth and other lords and courtiers sitting round the dining table. This subjective ghost is sometimes interpreted as the creation of the character’s own heated imagination and horror-stricken spirit. This is the psychological or rather philosophical interpretation of the ghost in Macbeth. The “air-drawn” dagger seen by Macbeth in his bloody-chamber before the murder of Duncan may also be considered as a kind of subjective ghost.

A controversy is sometimes raised as to whether it is the quo’s ghost which appears twice on the stage or whether two different ghosts-one of Banquo and the other of Duncan appear in the banquet hall. The controversy is carried further on the issue as to whose ghost appears first if the two-ghost theory is accepted. Those who support the two ghost theory argue that flawless artist as Shakespeare was, he could not have introduced the same ghost twice in the same scene. Macbeth also refers to these ghosts in plural number as such things and such sights. Those who hold the view that the second ghost is Duncan’s, get clue from Macbeth’s words ‘thy bones are marrow less.” They explain that the bones of Banquo who had died only a few minutes earlier could not be ‘marrow less. The second ghost must, therefore, be Duncan’s ghost. Nevertheless, this theory does not seem to hold water. Shakespeare could not have been so negligent as to give no definite stage directions regarding the appearance of two different ghosts in the contemporary history of Macbeth also no reference has been made to the ghost of Duncan.



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