The Influence of the Supernatural in Macbeth

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The Influence Of The Supernatural In Macbeth

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Macbeth, from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, is one of the most well-known characters in English literature. The cause for his change from a loyal soldier to a mad tyrant is often discussed among scholars. The influence of the supernatural in Macbeth is the most commonly cited reason for his drastic changes. The supernatural, including the witches, the various spirits, and Macbeth’s hallucinations, is the decisive factor in Macbeth’s story unfolding as it does. Without these supernatural influences, Macbeth would never have become the ruling tyrant that he did.

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The witches in Macbeth are perhaps the most influential of all of the supernatural forces driving Macbeth’s story. They are the first to know that Macbeth will become king. They use this knowledge to spur Macbeth into action, greeting him saying, “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!/ All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!/ All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Shakespeare 27). When Macbeth finds out soon after this greeting that he is indeed the new Thane of Cawdor, he begins to think that he should do something to hasten his ascension to the throne. Without the knowledge that he even has a chance to become king, Macbeth would not have listened to his wife’s urgings to kill King Duncan and cover it up. The revelation that Banquo’s descendants would become king, which also came from the witches, was most likely the only thing that would drive Macbeth to have his best friend and his son murdered. The witch’s leader, Hecate, confirms that they are spurring Macbeth toward ruin in act III when she says “ Shall raise such artificial sprites/ As by the strength of their illusion/ Shall draw him to his own confusion,” and ending the conversation by remarking that “security/ Is mortal’s chiefest enemy.” (Shakespeare 78). In the first quote, the word “confusion” means ruin, while in the second quote, “security” means overconfidence. The witches knew all along what would happen if they told Macbeth what his future held, and may even experience some form of twisted pleasure in seeing it come to fruition. They even conjure apparitions that give Macbeth what seems like very conflicting, confusing, and even impossible-seeming information that leads him to condone the murder of an entire family. Without the influence of these witches on his life, Macbeth would most likely simply continued to be happy with his status as a formidable soldier and nobleman, but because they told him of his future, he destroyed his life and countless others with it.

There are two primary instances in Macbeth of spirits helping to further the events that lead to Macbeth’s downfall, the spirit of Banquo showing himself at Macbeth’s coronation feast, and the predictions of the three spirits, or apparitions, summoned by the witches. After learning of the successful murder of his one-time best friend Banquo, Macbeth has a banquet to celebrate his coronation. The ghost of Banquo appears before Macbeth can take his seat. Because he is the only one who can see the specter, Macbeth looks, to everyone else, to be suffering from delusions. This belief leads the guests, all of whom are important men in Scotland (where the story is set), to lose some of their faith in their new leader, eventually overthrowing him. This incident is what spurs Macbeth to seek out the witches, which leads to the second instance of spirits influencing Macbeth’s life. The apparitions that the witches summon all tell Macbeth something about his future and each represents something from it. The first is an armored head, which tells him to “Beware Macduff!” and represents the fact that Macbeth will be killed and beheaded in battle by Macduff (Shakespeare 84). The second, which is a bloody child, tells Macbeth that “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth,” leading Macbeth to believe that none can hurt him (Shakespeare 85). The bloody child represents the children of Macduff that Macbeth will have murdered. The third and final apparition, a crowned child with a tree in his hand, tells Macbeth that he will not be vanquished until the forest comes to him. The child represents Malcolm, who is King Duncan’s son and therefore a child crowned, who later joins the battle against Macbeth in which they sneak up to the castle using branches as camouflage. The words of these apparitions are the last straw in Macbeth’s journey to ruin and destruction. Without the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth would not have sought out the witches, and without the witch’s apparitions, he would not have killed Macduff’s family, which is what sparked Macduff to kill Macbeth. Had he never seen these spirits, Macbeth would have simply remained the king and would certainly have lived much longer than he did?

Throughout his story, Macbeth experiences many hallucinations that cause him to do things that he usually would not, and that leads him further into madness. One such hallucination is a floating dagger which Macbeth sees before he kills King Duncan with a dagger. The dagger leads Macbeth to believe that he was meant to kill the king, and so he puts aside his doubts and commits the act. He may not have been able to go through with killing the king if he had not seen the dagger. Another hallucination Macbeth experienced is not visual, but an auditory one. He hears voices after he kills the king that says things like, “Murder,” and “God bless us,” and “Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep.” (Shakespeare 47). These auditory hallucinations serve to begin Macbeth’s descent into madness. His hallucinations culminate when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at his coronation banquet, showing everyone his madness, leading them to doubt Macbeth and leading him to the witches for more prophecies, all of which end with his death. Without the supernatural hallucinations, Macbeth would not have walked the path that he did.

Before supernatural forces began to work in his life, Macbeth was a well-respected soldier and nobleman. He was content with his life and had no reason to try to become anything more. After supernatural forces usurped his life, he became a ruthless killer willing to do anything to stay in power. Ultimately, he died a terrible and tragic death with everyone who respected him now cursing his name saying “The devil himself could not pronounce a title/ More hateful to mine ear.” (Shakespeare 117). Had Macbeth never come in contact with supernatural forces, it is reasonable to assume that he would not have become the terrible man he died as. This shows that the supernatural forces in The Tragedy of Macbeth are the main reason that Macbeth became the crazed tyrant that he did and that they, therefore, had a huge amount of influence on him and his life.       

Works cited

  1. Shakespeare, W. (2017). The Tragedy of Macbeth. Simon & Schuster.
  2. Bradley, A. C. (1991). Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Penguin UK.
  3. Kranz, D. (2017). Supernatural Soliciting in Shakespeare. In A. Hadfield (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists (pp. 163-176). Cambridge University Press.
  4. Asp, C. (2015). The Supernatural in Shakespeare's Macbeth. GRIN Verlag.
  5. Wilson, J. (2012). The Essential Shakespeare Handbook. DK Publishing.
  6. Holland, P. (2013). Shakespeare Survey: Volume 66, Working with Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Greenblatt, S. (2018). Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. W. W. Norton & Company.
  8. McEachern, C. (2019). Shakespeare, The Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
  9. Honigmann, E. A. J. (2016). Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies Revisited: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response. Palgrave Macmillan.
  10. Nuttall, A. D. (2015). Macbeth: A Guide to the Play. Macmillan International Higher Education.

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