Interpreting Supernatural Images in Shakespeare’s MACBETH

While reading Macbeth, one cannot but marvel at the eeriness that defines the play, or the constant presence of a sense of fear, depiction of war, death, darkness, and evil that pervade it. In the play, the celebration of evil goes beyond the natural plane and enters the world unfathomable to human reason and rationality. There is a constant battle between the “World of thesis” and the “World of Antithesis”, a battle which takes place in the mind of Macbeth wholly, but which is externally manifested through a series of bizarre incidents, unusually supernatural, yet those that fit perfectly, making complete sense through the sequence of the play.

The idea of Macbeth, it cannot be denied, came to Shakespeare through his extensive study of Holinshed’s Chronicles.

In Vol. II: The historie of Scotland, 170-1 (Holinshed 1587), Holinshed mentions Macbeth and Banquo’s encounter with the witches – 

Shortlie after happened a strange and vncouth woonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realme of Scotland, as ye shall after heare. It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores, where the king then laie, they went sporting by the waie togither without other companie, saue onelie themselues, passing through the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund, there met them three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whome when they atteniuilie beheld, woondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said: The prophesie of three women supposing to be the weird sisters or feiries. All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The second of them said: “Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder. But the third said; All haile Makbeth that heereafter “shalt be king of Scotland.”

“Then Banquho: What manner of women (saith he) are you, that seeme so little “favourable vnto me, whereas to my fellow heere, besides high offices, ye assigne also “the kingdome, appointing foorth nothing for me at all: Yes (saith the first of them) we “promise greater benefits vnto thee than vnto him, for he shal reigne in deed, but with an “vnluckie end: neither shall he leaue anie issue behind him to succeed in his place, where “contrarilie thou in deed shalt not reigne at all, but of thee those shall be borne which “shall gouerne the Scottish kingdome by long order of continual descent. Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediatlie out of their sight.” 

Shakespeare’s Macbeth almost echoes these words. But before one dives into the thematic depths of the play’s strong otherworldly tone, it is important to note why so many references to the supernatural came to be in the play in the first place. James I of England (James VI of Scotland), the first of the long line of Stuart rulers who would rule England and Scotland well beyond the Restoration of Monarchy in 1660, it is documented, took a keen interest in Demonology, even authoring a book by the same name. When Mary Queen of Scots was executed by the Tudor Queen of England Elizabeth 1, the traumatized, still very young James would associate the event with dark, evil spirits, believing that the execution had been foretold by some witches who had apparently seen “a bloody head dancing in the air.” 
Years down the line when he himself nearly died at sea on his way to claim his betrothed, Anne of Denmark, he blamed it on the witches, ordering a witch-hunt upon his return to Scotland. 
The Opening Scene of Macbeth is significant. The Witches enter amid “Thunder and Lightning”, images associated with disequilibrium and chaos, ones that evoke apprehension and horror.  Before they leave, all cry – 
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,”
Throughout the entirety of the play, the conflict between “fair” and “foul”, the friction between the two, is made evident time and again. It is Macbeth’s Tragedy, not because Macbeth would heed to the prophecies of the Witches and take it upon himself to make sure that they came true, not waiting on chance to deliver them unto him, but because he would go on to suffer his acts – “Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst” (2.ii.75). He would never be able to be fully foul with his conscience still alive, and certainly never fully fair, with the heinous crimes he would go on to commit.
The seemingly inconsequential rants of the hysterical witches, their appearance at a time when the world around them appeared turbulent and tumultuous, would, once one interprets them correctly and associates them with the mental state of Macbeth, start to suddenly make a lot of sense.
Macbeth’s “They met me in the day of success…” letter to his Lady and the Messenger’s “tidings” – 
“The king comes here tonight”
spark a soliloquy which is deemed by many to be the point where Lady Macbeth empties herself, her womanhood, her compassion, her identity to the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”. It is believed to be the point where she gets “possessed”. Her invocation of evil is holy and ritualistic – 

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry “Hold, hold!”

(1.v. 40-54)

Lady Macbeth’s transformation, her desire to metamorphose into what many call “the fourth witch”, has a purpose. She does not evoke the “Spirits” and the “Thick night” to attain her own selfish goals. She has no goals. She is a vessel, an instrument carrying the “gall” reserved for Macbeth’s nourishment. 

Macbeth hesitates, proclaims “We will proceed no further in this business”, knowing Duncan to be his kin and king. Lady Macbeth, unsexed, with her blood made thick, her milk turned to “gall” starts emptying what she has turned to be, into Macbeth.  

The effect of this transmutation, if one can call it that, the confusion, the still very slight lack of conviction causes Macbeth to cry – 

“Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

(2.i. 33-39)

The image of the dagger is important. In the 1971 film adaptation of the play by Roman Polanski, the dagger is depicted to be “sensible…to sight”. While this scene can be interpreted as psychological, which undeniably, in many ways, it is – “a dagger of the mind, a false creation Proceeding from the heat oppressed brain”, the vision is also supernatural, something unperceivable and yet visually tangible. The constant juxtaposition between the two worlds, the one perceptible and the one impalpable, is perhaps Shakespeare’s method of portraying Macbeth’s mental dilemma. A person has to belong somewhere. Macbeth belongs nowhere. The witches call him a “wayward son” (3.v.11). He is rejected by the “World of Antithesis”. He goes on to commit regicide. He is doomed for eternity. He is disowned by the “World of Thesis”. 

The nights in Macbeth too reflect the uneasiness, the feeling of suffocation that evil brews. Supposed to be tranquil and sterile, they are unusually fraught with supernatural activity, ones that would make any living being uncomfortable. About the night Duncan was murdered, Lennox remarks – 

“The night has been unruly. Where we lay,

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

New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird

Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth

Was feverous and did shake.”

        (2.iii. 54-61)

The unusual occurrences of the night are external projections of the disruption in nature’s equilibrium caused by Macbeth’s cold-blooded murder of ‘God’s representative on Earth’, King Duncan.  
The images Lennox uses to describe the events remind one of Milton’s depiction of hell in Paradise Lost. Just like the Lucifer looked around hell after being hurled headlong 
“… flaming from the ethereal sky 
With hideous ruin and combustion down 
To bottomless perdition…
… only to discover sights of woe,”
(Paradise Lost, Book 1, 45-47, 64)
Macbeth’s actions had begun to transform Scotland into an Inferno. Duncan, no matter how old and inefficient he had grown to be as a ruler, served as the pivot which held both the thesis and the antithesis together, the male and female parts of nature in harmony, being the “androgynous parent”2. that he was. With him gone, as Janet Adelman points out – “… male and female break apart, the female becoming merely helpless or merely poisonous and the male merely bloodthirsty: the harmonious relation of the genders” among other things “imagined in Duncan fails.” This breaking apart is perhaps what causes the Earth to “shake” and be “feverous”.
Death is extensively dealt with, in Macbeth. But what interests the readers more is the way death is personified in the play, how death comes back to haunt Macbeth, the King of Scotland. 
In John Mullan’s article “Ghosts in Shakespeare”, he writes that Ghosts were not uncommon to the Elizabethan audience. They knew that in the classical world, dead souls did return from Hades. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, staged around sixteen years before Macbeth, featured the Ghost of Andrea, a Spanish nobleman, “who opens the play with a long soliloquy”. 
Shakespeare himself featured ghosts in at least two of his other tragedies. In Hamlet, Horatio, sceptical at first, reaches for supernatural precedents from the Classics when he sees a ghost. In Julius Caesar, Brutus is confronted by a ‘monstrous apparition’. Brutus, overwhelmed, exclaims – 
“O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.”
(Julius Caesar, 5.iii.94–96)
Brutus is forever haunted by his deed. So is Macbeth. 
Macbeth is condemned to be the only one who can see Banquo’s apparition. 
“Prithee see there! / Behold! look!” 
he cries, to no avail. Psychologically, one might attribute his hysterical outbursts to what is clinically known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and indeed it appears to be so – 
“Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee.
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with.”
Macbeth is on the verge of losing his mind. He has murdered his King and his friend. He has murdered sleep, and is now deprived of it. Lady Macbeth restores sanity, pours in the last attribute she had to herself – ‘sleep’, and walks right into the “Sleepwalking scene” as an empty vessel required no more. She had sacrificed her soul to the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” earlier in the play. She had been “unsex”-ed. 
She would now return to them whom she had sold her soul to. 
The witches appear again in Act IV Scene 1.  The first thing that strikes the reader is the repetition of the word “Three”. The number “Three” has always had special connotations, within and beyond Macbeth. The Greek Sisters of Fate (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos) were Three. The Early Christian/ Roman Catholic view of the otherworld has always been Three (Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell). The Christian God is represented by the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit). The Witches in Macbeth are Three. They are unholy heathens. Could they be, through their repetitive evocation of this number which in medieval Europe would be synonymous to the Holy Trinity, mocking it? In all probability, yes.
Talking about the ingredients in the Witches’ Cauldron, Diane Purkiss writes, “A lot of the horrible stuff that the witches put in the cauldron is material considered foreign or strange. It comes from alien peoples – Jews, Tartars, Turks – or from animals which are not usually eaten – dog, bat. But the outlandish ingredients are included in a practice that looks reassuringly familiar to an audience from Shakespeare’s time, when few people had ovens and most cooked in a cauldron slung over an open fire.”
The juxtaposition of the homely, staple image of a cauldron with the acute and disturbingly gruesome ingredients that went in it give the readers a sense of the unnatural nature of the environment where the witches treaded – on Earth, among the living, yet beyond them both. 
The visions that the “wayward” Macbeth is made to see is ambiguous. The Witches assure him no man born of a woman could kill him, and yet tells him to beware of Macduff. 
This ambiguity is deliberate. Macbeth has not been grateful to the witches, has never acknowledged them. Through the length of the play, Macbeth dangles like a pendulum, oscillating between the two extremes of the moral spectrum. Macbeth’s Scotland manifests it. It is not the Scotland of the World, for there are witches in it. The nights are bloody here, filled with “screams of death”, where porters seem to guard the gates of “Hell”. It is not the Scotland of the Otherworld, for there are men in it, men like Macduff who would stop at nothing to avenge his butchered family, and thereby restore the order and balance which Macbeth has disturbed. It is a Scotland stuck between two incompatible, dialectically opposite forces, with no way out. 
Macbeth is not a Horror Story. The Supernatural in Macbeth has disguised in it the Psychological. The play traces the growth of Macbeth’s consciousness through his rise and fall. The human mind cannot be comprehended in human terms. Its interpretation would therefore require superhuman concepts. For the portrayal of a character as dark, as “Holily evil” as Macbeth, taking resort to Supernaturalism would then become the only option.

About Souranil Paul

Graduating from St. Xavier's College, Calcutta with Honours in English, Souranil is presently a student of Linguistics at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. Besides Academics, he likes to spend his time exploring the past, debating and keeping a keen eye on Kashmir.

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