What is the significance of the supernatural in "Macbeth"?

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The element of the supernatural works in two ways.  First, Shakespeare was writing for King James, who was himself very interested in the supernatural.  James even composed a book on the supernatural himself.  So, in part he was pleasing his most important patron. 

The second issue of significance is that it serves to confuse Macbeth.  He chooses to believe that the stars have aligned for him to be king.  The supernatural seems to step in and substitute for fate.  Macbeth assumes robes he was never supposed to wear.  The equivocation of the work is whether or not the supernatural merely revealed what was to come, or did it trick Macbeth into thinking he was fated to be king?  Is he worked on by malevolent forces or did the Weird Sisters merely reveal what they thought would happen?

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In the witches' second scene, moments before Macbeth's first entrance, they say "Peace! The charm's wound up", implying that they have cast some sort of spell.

So before we even meet Macbeth, there's a suggestion that he might partly be under the witches' control, or that there might be a spell cast on him. And we never know whether that's true or not.

The witches then make predictions about Macbeth become thane of Cawdor, thane of Glamis, and King. Macbeth then kills the king, and everything happens as they predicted. But would it have happened if he'd just left well alone? Is Macbeth's own suggestion, below, true:

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.

Is King Macbeth the result of a spell, or of Macbeth's actions? Where does the supernatural influence start and finish? Would it have happened without the murder of Duncan? It's unlikely - but it's impossible to tell. The same problem applies to their later prophecies in the apparition scene.

Then, to add to this conundrum, you have the status of the "air-drawn dagger" which leads Macbeth to Duncan, and the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Are these made by the witches, or imagined by Macbeth:

....or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

The play is full of supernatural solicitings. But their significance? That's open to interpretation.

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King James I, of England, wrote a piece called "Daemonologie" in which he tried to convince readers that witches and witchcraft were real concerns.  He idenitifed ways in which witches could be indentified and told about the evil things they could do.  Shakespeare wrote "Macbeth" largely as a tribute to the new king who took over the throne after Queen Elizabeth I died.  She had been a patroness of the arts, including the theater, and Shakespeare wanted that patronage to continue.  What better way than to write a play about a Scottish king bedeviled by evil witches?  King James was Scottish.  Shakespeare even wrote that the procession of kings that make up the last vision the witches show Macbeth in Act 4 resemble King James to illustrate the idea that he was part of a grand plan by God to become king of England.  So, Shakespeare, to pay tribute to the new king, wrote a play that showed the evil supernatural forces.  While the play is based on many real people from Scottish history, Shakespeare turned the truth around almost 180 degrees.  The real Macbeth wasn't a bad guy and the real Duncan wasn't all that great.

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Supernaturalism in the play is found in the witches, the "weird sisters," who prophesy Macbeth's and Banquo's futures. When the witches tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, his ambition is aroused. Shortly thereafter, he does become Thane of Cawdor, convincing him that the witches indeed have supernatural powers. He then takes action to make the rest of their prophecy come true, sooner rather than later. He murders Duncan and takes the throne.

The witches' prophecy for Macbeth provides the impetus for him to gain complete power in Scotland, but ironically, their prophecy for Banquo robs Macbeth of joy in having it. The witches had prophesied that Banquo would never be king but that his heirs, his line, would. Once Macbeth has given up his soul for the crown by murdering Duncan, he resents bitterly that his sacrifice will make Banquo's heirs kings. It is "a barren scepter" Macbeth holds. Although his son escapes, Banquo is subsequently murdered, another vile act.

The witches appear to Macbeth again in Act IV when he  summons them for more information. Their additional prophesies turn out to be technically true, but Macbeth realizes too late that the witches have betrayed him with words of "double sense." He then meets his destruction.

The nature of the witches and their power is subject to modern interpretation. For Shakespeare's audiences, however, they were literal manifestations of the supernatural.


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