Shakespeare wrote Macbeth at a period of time, when the supernatural was a popular theme in the minds of the people. The common belief was that powers of good and evil remained in a constant conflict to take control of the souls of people. And in that battle witches were on the side of the evil. This even led to the burning of witches. The monarch of those times King James I had its input into this perception, as proved by his book “Daemonologie”. Shakespeare makes use of elements like the three witches, ghosts, gory scenes and unnatural events to heighten the dramatic effect of the supernatural in Macbeth.
Dramatic Role of the Supernatural:
The play Macbeth starts with a dramatic portrayal of elements of the supernatural in the form of the three witches announcing their continued presence in the play. “…we three meet again in thunder, lighting or in rain?…There to meet with Macbeth.” (Act I, Scene I) And that enhances the perception of the role of supernatural throughout the play. So it is, as the plot of the play is dependant on the prophecies of the three witches. We get to see more witch appearances in act I, scene III: “All hail to thee, Thane of Cowdor, All hail, Macbeth! That shalt be king hereafter”.
Characters of the play are influenced by the power of the witches. It is easier for them to believe in the prophecy rather than in the free will. It is customary to refer to the two main characters as the symbols of evil and violence, but more profound analysis makes evident that these personalities are too complicated to regard them from a single point of view. They represent a mixture of various emotions, intentions and features.
It is evident that Macbeth stays apart from other evil characters, portrayed by Shakespeare in various plays, and Lady Macbeth cannot be characterized as ruthless and heartless woman. She was influenced by the supernatural powers. She reveals some moral features of her character “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” (Act I Scene II). She also manages to rescue her husband from the horrors created by his own conscience. Macbeth meets a ghost of Banquo, Lady Macbeth finds a possibility to explain it to him in a reasonable way. She restrains Macbeth, appealing to his manhood. “Fie, for shame!” (Act III Scene V)
Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two strong personalities with the cruel and evil intensions. Until they heard the witch prophecy their true personalities seemed to be hidden. The witches open up and bring up the true character’s features. As a result a number of murders take place. Macbeth showed true self when right after he heard that he will become a king. “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: The greatest is behind.” (Act I, Scene III). Lady Macbeth asked evil forces to help her “Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, Stop up the access and passage to remorse”, (Act I, Scene V) in order to keep to her intention.
The initial prophecies encourage the ambition in Macbeth to cause him to loose his soul to evil. The rest of the play is based on the foul deeds of Macbeth in the pursuit of his ambitions and the subsequent prophesies that encourages him and gives him unfounded confidence. The character of Macbeth till he comes in contact with the witches does not display evil tendencies and the corruption of the soul is subsequent. Once the witches have found their satisfactory victim they sink their fangs in deep and they no longer need to seek their victim, for Macbeth keeps coming to them for reassurance from their prophecies that follow. Macbeth is so lost in his belief in their prophecies that he does not realise until too late that the prophecies are leading him to actions that would culminate in his doom and he remains a puppet in the hands of the three witches. However, in the end he chooses to refuse supernatural powers and live as a regular person: “Why should I play the Roman fool and die on mine own sword?” (Act V. Scene VIII), and he ends up his life like a warrior.
Evil begets more evil, in that their plan goes from murdering the king, to implicating the servants, and the fact that the king has heirs to his throne means that greater misdeed must be contemplated, although that’s not discussed in this scene. There will be need for further evil to be done by the pair to secure Macbeth’s throne.
The question must be asked, would Macbeth, without Lady Macbeth’s encouragement, have murdered his friend and king? The answer is yes, because Macbeth, even without his wife’s support is convinced, because of the witches’ predictions, that he will be the king. At this point, that cannot be accomplished without conspiracy and murder.
Lady Macbeth’s mind, too, has been cultivated with the idea of her husband becoming king, and seems to accept it as something that must come to pass since it was predicted by the witches.
Lady Macbeth is the natural ally of the supernatural with her ambition for Macbeth and herself. She is initially the picture of a person inclined to the evil side in achieving whatever is required. She goads Macbeth into the initial evil deed in the murder of King Duncan to become King and thereby fulfil the prophecy. From then on the character of Lady Macbeth weakens and the stronger character of her pupil Macbeth takes over and goes on committing one foul deed after another, as Lady Macbeth gradually fades away with her remorse in those famous words. “Here’s the smell of the blood still – all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand“. (Act V, Scene I). This is the indication of the gradual weakening of the evil forces that are in constant conflict for the souls of human beings and portends the defeat of evil in the course of events to follow in the play.
Shakespeare uses Banquo as a foil to the character of Macbeth. Macbeth succumbing to evil, initiated by the prophecies of the witches as representatives of the evil side of the supernatural and Banquo presenting the possibility that conscious effort prevents succumbing of the soul to the evil super natural forces, though one may die as a result of being hindrance to the progress of evil. He may be faulted in that though he suspects Macbeth hand in the murder of King Duncan, he does nothing. Still he becomes a victim of Macbeth wanting to remove any impediments and remains a ghost haunting Macbeth.
The supernatural element of the conflict between good and evil is not just related to the characters of the main players, but is present in every aspect of the play. Shakespeare uses the supernatural to convert a common story of a strong-willed woman’s vaulting ambition, goading her husband on, to the gripping play of Macbeth. Shakespeare heightens the atmosphere of the play by the use of the supernatural through not only the background of the three witches and their preparation of foul brews, incantations and prophesies, but also makes use of the ghost of Banquo and unnatural events like the horses attempting to devour each other at the time of the murder of King Duncan. There is also the contrasting use of alternative light and darkness to heighten the evil side of the supernatural.
The depiction of evil is the most horrifying part of Macbeth and comes from the deep vision of Shakespeare on the subject. Shakespeare makes use of the stifling, confounding and murky air that envelope the characters to create an atmosphere of mystery and darkness and scepticism. The play abounds with rumours and more so with horrible and gruesome murders. Shakespeare utilises all these images to cast upon the audience irrational fear that brings about a feeling of witnessing a nightmare.
The language that Shakespeare uses in Macbeth, in combination with the imagery makes the nights in the play abound with sorcery, lust and murder. This creates the impression in any reader of Macbeth, the feeling of alarm and the fear to remain alone as the night is filled with all forms of evil including murder. This echoes in these words in Macbeth.
….. each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds
As if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out
Like syllable of dolour.
(Scene IV, Act IV).
The clever and strong portrayal of the supernatural in Macbeth is what made the play so alluring and remains so, for the lure of the supernatural still remains in this modern world, as can be seen from the popularity of films like “Sleepy Hollow”.