Comment on the role of supernatural elements in Macbeth.
The supernatural plays a role in Macbeth primarily through the witches and their prophecies. The play opens with a scene in which the witches speak to each other about meeting Macbeth on the heath after a battle. Thus, the play begins with the supernatural and with an ominous indication that something horrible is bound to happen. The witches' famous line "Double, double, toil and trouble" indicates that problems are ahead for our title character.
When Macbeth meets the witches on the heath in act 1, scene 3, they hail him with three titles: Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King (of Scotland). He is already Thane of Glamis and does not know until the end of this same scene that he will be named Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan. The prediction that he will be king already has Macbeth thinking about whether he should wait for it to happen or take action (he does the latter, of course). The witches then disappear into thin air, leaving Macbeth and Banquo confused about what they just witnessed. However, Macbeth takes the predictions to heart and starts planning with his wife, Lady Macbeth, to kill Duncan and take his place as king. The witches set into motion the plot of our play and tap into the tragic hero's flaw—his ambition—which leads him to his downfall.
After Macbeth has become king and has committed even more heinous acts, he demands more of the witches and questions them for more information in act 4. Three apparitions come to him and tell him to beware Macduff, that no man of woman born can harm him, and that he will be king until the forest marches up to his castle. Macbeth admits that he is already concerned with Macduff (and, after this, he sends men to kill Macduff's family), but he feels very confident that the other two apparitions mean that his position as king is secure. It turns out, of course, that Macduff was cut from his mother's body (not delivered naturally / not "of woman born") and that the English soldiers march to the castle using tree branches as disguises; in other words, the apparitions were all correct. This seems to indicate that the witches' predictions are accurate and not just there to mislead Macbeth or to tempt him.
The presence of the supernatural in Macbeth raises the question of whether Macbeth's actions are fated to happen or whether he controls his destiny. He could have decided to wait and see if the witches' predictions would come true, thus, inheriting the throne without committing murder, but he does not. The witches instigate the action of the play, but Macbeth seems to be the one to blame for his downfall.
Elements of the Supernatural in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
The supernatural abounds in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Witches, a ghost, and apparitions characterize some of the elements that move the play from beginning to end. These elements set the stage for disaster, signal abrupt changes and herald Macbeth’s descent into depravity.
In act one, three witches open the play with thunder and lightening. The first word of the play, “When,” is like wind and pitches us into an uncertain future in which hurly-burly and the fortunes of battle need to be overcome. Though the battle be won, the aftermath may still be harrowing: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” (1: 1: 13-14)
The enterprise is doomed from the beginning. In scene three, the First Witch describes an unfortunate sailor that she bedeviled. Like a dark omen, the story foreshadows Macbeth’s own decline.
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se'nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine: (1: 3:19-24)
Before he meets the witches, Macbeth is the noble hero of the battle. His peers hold him in high regard. He is due to receive honors from his king.
For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution, (1: 2: 18-20)
When the witches hail Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor and prophesize that he will be king hereafter, these prospects are not foremost in Macbeth’s mind. He wonders:
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman; and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief (1: 3: 75-77)
Then Macbeth learns that he has indeed become the Thane of Cawdor and begins to imagine being king as well. The witches unmask Macbeth’s tragic flaw: his lust for power.
The witches’ abrupt appearance in Macbeth’s world signals an abrupt change in Macbeth’s character. He transforms from a noble hero, who would not be dressed in the “borrowed robes” of Cawdor (1:3: 114-15), to an ambitious schemer: “Let not light see my black and deep desires:“ (1: 4: 58-60) Though reviled by the thought, Macbeth plots to murder Duncan, his king, his kin, under his own roof.
He's here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door (1:7:12-15)
Vestiges of duty, loyalty and decency fall away. Made bold by prophecies and driven by the illusion of his own glory, Macbeth kills the king. He then orders the murder of Banquo and his son in an attempt to countermand the prophecy that Banquo would beget kings. (3: 1: 80-159)
Macbeth’s inner turmoil boils to the surface. Visions of the ghost of Banquo appear to Macbeth alone. Macbeth is unable to hide his terror from his banquet guests, “Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mockery, hence!” (3: 5: 18-19)
Macbeth rushes headlong in search of the witches, who together with Hectate, continue to bedevil him. Hectate, goddess of magic, witchcraft and night prepares visions:
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion:
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
He hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear: (3: 5: 28-31)
The apparitions, advise Macbeth to beware of Macduff. Shadows and smoke urge him to ‘scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.’ The sprites further predict:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him. (4: 1: 91-92)
A final apparition infuriates Macbeth with images of Banquo’s heirs stretching into eternity. Macbeth knows that he should not trust the black hags: “Infected be the air whereon they ride, And damned all those that trust them “(4: 1: 57-58)But he surrenders to delusions of his deepest longing coming true.
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought
And done: (4: 1:167-70)
Though wracked with guilt and fear, Macbeth is blind with ambition. He succumbs to the depravity, and murders Macduff’s wife, children and, “…all unfortunate souls, that trace him in his line.” (4: 2: 173-74) Tragically, he is speaking about himself.Macbeth learns that, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” (5: 8: 16-20) He realizes too late that “…these juggling fiends (should) no more (be) believed that palter with us in a double sense,“(5: 8: 23-24)
Supernatural elements in Macbeth foreshadow doom. Their appearance marks abrupt changes in Macbeth’s character and conduct. Spirits prophesize and illustrate Macbeth’s fall from grace throughout the play. They heightened our sense of horror and ultimate pity for the ruin of Macbeth’s life.