Shakespeare's Macbeth begins with three witches chanting "fair is foul and foul is fair" (I.i.10), a line which evokes a world upside down, the reversal of the natural order. Look for other indications of nature gone awry within the play. Where does natural imagery occur? Note references, e.g. to weather, vegetation, animals and birds, sterility and fertility, disease and health. What is the connection between this imagery and events in the play?
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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the witches' predictions, as well as the murder of Duncan, present not only the idea of a reversal of the natural order in the world, but also in response to the plans to violently remove of Duncan from the throne. The reader should remember that according to Elizabethan beliefs, God ordained who should sit on the throne, and Macbeth's actions have not only upset the balance of nature, but the natural order of things with regard to God's wishes. In this we can see that Macbeth has sinned against God and nature. Nature reflects a disruption in the Great Chain of Being.
Unnatural occurrences in nature are mentioned several times. When Lady Macbeth hears of Duncan' arrival, she calls upon the spirits of darkness to help her in her plan. She offers natural imagery with the following:
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. (I.v.38-40).
The raven is traditionally a bird associated with death (see Poe's "The Raven.") The bird's color is also that of mourning. The bird's croaking sound refers also to death:
Early 14c., crouken, imitative or related to Old English cracian (see crack (v.)). [croak]
1550-60; earlier croke, probably imitative; compare Old English cræcetian (of a raven) to croak
There is also natural imagery just before Duncan' murder:
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern'st good-night. He is about it: (II.ii.4-5)
The owl is often associated with foreboding, especially that of death.
The imagery that Shakespeare provides after Duncan's death describes nature completely at odds with itself, as the characters cite frightening examples of a imbalance in the universe.
In Act Two, scene two, Ross reports that during the night, the world has altered. (Duncan's murder is not yet announced.) He first mentions that there is an eclipse (lines 7-10).
The Old Man reports the death of a hawk by a mousing owl: a complete role reversal in the natural world—
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon towering in her pride of place
Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd. (13-15)
Shakespeare uses the Old Man's description of nature's response. Once the King is killed, we understand that this was an example of foreshadowing. The reader sees that it referring to "Tuesday," when the Macbeth's were still in the planning stages of their plot to kill Duncan, nature was already in turmoil.
In lines 16-20, Ross turns to the next example of a world gone mad: he reports that the King's horses have become wild and uncontrollable. They have broken out of their stalls, as if making war with humanity. The Old Man gives even more startling news about creatures that are not by nature carnivorous:
’Tis said they eat each other. (22)
In many instances after Duncan's murder, Shakespeare includes images regarding nature that show an imbalance in the universe. He does this to reflect what his audiences believed about a disordered universe, most especially with the killing of a king (which was a mortal sin), as well as nature's inability to exist in a spirit of harmony because a man not of God's choosing (Macbeth) is sitting on the Scottish throne, and that he has killed Duncan, an unnatural occurrence.