Write a critical note on the supernatural elements in Macbeth and trace their influence on the course of action of the play. Or, Bring out the supernatural elements in Macbeth and justify or refute their inclusion in the play.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is the evergreen playwright in the history of English literature. The tragedy of ambition entitled Macbeth is his classic. In Macbeth, as in Hamlet, there is a distinct element of the supernatural that lends it a flavor of its own. Here it consists of the Witches, the Ghost of Banquo, the unnatural portents, and the divine powers of the English King.
Much more than the other elements, the Witches introduce an element of supernatural mystery and fear into Macbeth. Their vague, undefined nature is brought out by the English essayist and poet, Charles Lamb: “They are foul anomalies, of whom we know not whence they are sprung, nor whether they have beginning or ending. As they are without human passions, so they seem to be without human relations. They come with thunder and lightning and vanish to airy music.” Though the Witches in Macbeth do not have a direct share in its action they are a very important part of the play. They greatly contribute to the weird nature of its atmosphere and inspire the wild, elemental poetry of the play. In their combination of sublimity and coarseness, of mystic suggestion and realistic detail, they indeed represent the very spirit of Macbeth. The play from its very beginning continues under their evil shadows until the shadows are finally lifted in the last scene with Macduff’s entry with the usurper’s cursed head”. The tragedy would lose all its magnificence without its strange atmosphere; and the atmosphere would amount to nothing without the presence of the Witches.
More Notes: Macbeth
The Ghost of Banquo:
The most distinct suggestion of the supernatural in Macbeth comes from Banquo’s ghost. There has been much controversy over whether Banquo’s ghost is a reality or a case of hallucination. But the question becomes immaterial when we try to assess the dramatic value of the ghost. What is important in this case is to find out whether Shakespeare has succeeded in producing in us an illusion about its reality. There is no doubt that we can see with Macbeth the uncanny apparition, the blood blotched ghost. Banquo’s ghost plays an important role in the action of the tragedy. The horror of its sight compels Macbeth to make many a compromising disclosure. It contributes a little also to the play’s atmosphere of mystery and terror.
The unnatural portents:
A number of portents and prodigies occur on the night of Duncan’s murder. In Act II, Lenox describes that unruly night in some detail:
“Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’ air; strange screams of death,
And. prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confused events,”
In the very next scene Rosse and the Old Man discuss similar events that have taken place during the fateful night. These portents suggest a topsy-turvy situation in Nature and emphasize the unnaturalness of Macbeth’s heinous deed in murdering Duncan who is at once his king, kinsman and guest. The accounts of these supernatural happenings also help to add to the atmosphere of horror in the play. They also remind us of the circumstances in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which are related as predictive of the death of its hero.
The divine powers of the English King:
In Act IV, Sc. iii, the good King of England is referred to as one endowed with divine powers. King Edward the Confessor was thought to be inspired with a gift of prophecy and also to possess the gift of healing infirmities and some incurable diseases. Though one motive of the references may have been to flatter James I, another valid justification, on dramatic grounds, is that the good supernatural described here is a contrast to the evil supernatural of the Witches.
The air-drawn dagger is strictly a part of the supernatural. The visionary dagger that Macbeth perceives just before committing Duncan’s murder has been interpreted more as a projection of Macbeth’s heated mind than as a concrete reality to be felt and known. Similarly, Macbeth’s failure to utter the word ‘Amen’ is also accepted only as a psychological problem and not as something invested with a supernatural significance.
The supernatural elements contribute to a sense of fate operating in man’s life in Macbeth. At the same time, it is made clear that their effect would be different if man did not succumb to the evil within him. The supernatural elements, however, give to the play a rich texture that raises the tragedy to a cosmic dimension. Man’s actions are not isolated but closely connected to various forces operating in the universe.