thIn Shakespeares “Macbeth” supernatural forces create a suspenseful atmosphere. The use of the supernatural in the witches, the visions, the ghost and the apparitions provides the backbone of the climax and “excuses” for Macbeths change of character. Because conscience plays such a central role in Macbeths tragic struggle, many critics use spiritual and supernatural theories to illuminate the dramas character development.
The play opens with the use of the supernatural when three witches encounter Macbeth on his way home from a battle and proceed to predict his fate. This gives the audience a glimpse of the path the play will follow. The witches plan to meet again, “When the battles (battle is) lost and won” (I. I. 1-4). This theme becomes recurring throughout the play. It can be noted that the witches meet after every battle is lost and won, and every battle, whether man against man, man against nature or man against himself it will always be lost by one side and won by another. Eventually Macbeth will lose the battle for his soul. Literary critic, Charles Lamb quotes, “When we read the incantations of the Witches in Macbeth, though some of the ingredients of their hellish composition savour of the grotesque, yet is the effect upon us other than the most serious and appalling that can be imagined? Do we not feel spell-bound as Macbeth was?” (Lamb). After the witches reveal the fate of Macbeth becoming king, he begins to develop an immoral plan to carry out the prophecy. The only way for Macbeth to have the throne will be to wait or to kill King Duncan. Macbeth already knew of his future as king due to the witches forecast of his future, so how he went about getting there did not concern Macbeth. Had the three sisters not confronted Macbeth with the news of his possible future would he have thought of a deviant plan to murder King Duncan, and better yet, would he have had a future as a king at all? Another critic of Shakespearean Literature believes “Their (the witches) two appearances divide the tragedy in two movements, the one of which unfolds the crime, and other as punishment.” (Snider 289) If you refer back to the text you will find just as the witches appear before Macbeth the first time, the plot to murder King Duncan begins and immediately after the second visitation, the events leading to Macbeths death take place. Had the three witches not encountered Macbeth that day, would Duncan still be alive? The three sisters held the power of motivating Macbeth to kill Duncan by planting the idea in his head that he could be king.
The “ghostly” dagger, which led Macbeth to Duncans chamber, also represents the supernatural forces that cause the fall of Macbeth. “His benumbed isolation before, during and right after Duncans murder is one of the most vivid memories, and we can see him in the same abstraction again among the mourners after Duncan is found.” (Manyard 62) Macbeths memories of the murder of King Duncan were too cloudy for him to remember because the disillusionment and distraction of the knife influenced him to go through with killing Duncan. Macbeth followed the bloody dagger to Duncans room and even thought twice about murdering the king. Manyard also states “Shakespeare emphasizes the visibility of the dagger, partly, I suppose, because it is an instrument of powers that will repeatedly – with blood, daggers, ghosts, and every insidious form of apparition- work on Macbeths sight and partly too because its appearance at this moment defines with characteristic ambiguity the complex kinds of sources of experience to which Macbeth as a tragic hero is sensitive.” (Manyard 70) Macbeth exhibits sensitivity towards what he does not understand or comprehend. These strange occurrences bring forth Macbeths uncertainty of the unnatural, causing his character to have two paths to travel down: the right one or the wrong one. The floating dagger along with emotions and adrenaline coaxed Macbeth to the murder. Had he not encountered dagger, he wouldnt have ever traveled up the stairs to Duncans chamber.
Banquos ghost is yet another paranormal experience Macbeth encounters, and also the one that sent Macbeth over the edge. Author Ludwig Jekels felt that “the poet dramatizes, with wonderful clarity, the fear of the son (Banquo) now the father, upon confronting, in his own son (Macbeth), the same hostility that he (Macbeth) had harbored on his own father (Duncan).” (Jekels 227) Banquos ghost returned to torture Macbeth indefinitely. Eventually, the ghost drives Macbeth to his own, unintended, self-destruction. In act 3, scene 4, lines 112-115 Macbeth says to Lady Macbeth, “Can such things be and overcome us like a summers cloud, without our special wonder? You make me strange even to the disposition that owe (my own nature).” (3.4.112-115) After all Macbeth has been through at this point, the witches and apparitions, he still cant grasp his connection to the supernatural. This proves that Macbeth fell under the influence of the supernatural without knowing. Accredited author J. L. F. Flathe quotes,
“But we are constrained to ask, what devil gives the devil such power over this poor devil Macbeth that he is so immediately led astray, while we see, in the case of Banquo, that any man who chooses can easily withstand the devil?” (Flathe 200) Any given persons human nature tempts them to take an easier path if shown the way. Some people exhibit more hardworking and honest traits than others. Macbeth was deceitful and dishonest, therefore following the path of the devil. Macbeth suffered the consequences of his actions by death. Though Banquo also suffered consequences of honesty, his heirs benefited in the long run by inheriting the crown.
Macbeths decisions were influenced by supernatural encounters, causing him to tragically meet a doomed fate. These paranormal experiences and influences caused Macbeth to choose certain paths, only to lead him to self-destruction. Had the witches, ghosts, and visions not occurred throughout the play, what other courses would have been walked to lead him to his ill-fated destiny? Without the guidance of these forces, Macbeths fate would have been altered and the plot would be non-existent.
Flathe, J. L. F. “Banquo is Innocent.” In Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 3. 199-201.
Jekels, Ludwig. “Psychoanalytical Structure of Macbeth.” In Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 3. 226-227.
Lamb, Charles. “The Tragedies of Shakespeare.” Electric Library @ AOL. Jan. 1992
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Maginn, William. “The Gloomiest of Plays.” In Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 3. 193.
Manyard, Mack Jr. “The Voice in the Sword.” Modern Critical Interpretations of
Macbeth . Ed. Harold Bloom. New York. Chelsea House Publishers. 1987.
Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.”
Snider, Denton. “Tragedy of the Imagination.” In Shakespearean Criticism Vol. 3. 208- 209.