(This post contains a detailed video on the topic.)
In my post on the 3 ‘culprits’ behind Macbeth’s fall, I argue that the supernatural in Macbeth is largely a dramatic device for Shakespeare to magnify his protagonist’s hamartia (fatal flaw).
Macbeth needs confirmation of kingship and reassurance of power, so he seeks out the Three Witches, whose ‘concocted vision’ only drives him faster towards his tragic end.
But the supernatural in this play isn’t limited to the Witches (despite their prominence in the cultural consciousness) – Banquo’s ghost also plays a critical role in helping us understand Macbeth’s psyche.
In this post, then, I’d like to analyse how Shakespeare presents the supernatural in this ‘Scottish play’, and perhaps inspire you all with some ideas on this popular theme.
Historical context: The role of James I and his obsession with witches
In my other post on Macbeth’s ambition, I mention that James I was a key influence over Shakespeare’s conception and production of this play.
James I was himself fascinated and terrified by witchcraft, and had written a treatise titled Daemonologie, which is about black magic and the handling of witches.
While still James VI of Scotland, he had instigated a sweeping succession of witch hunts and trials in the 1590s, and just one year after ascending to the English throne in 1603, he passed what was at that point the harshest legislative act against witchcraft.
Nowadays, the phrase ‘witch hunt’ is only ever used figuratively, meaning a public, often humiliating, investigation of a famous figure.
Back in Renaissance England, however, the targets for these witchcraft trials were usually poor, cranky, old women, whom people would blame if they had contracted illnesses or ran into misfortunes – all without much scientific basis, of course.
As the patron of Shakespeare’s ‘King’s Men’, James I would most certainly have had a view on the dramatic portrayal of Hecate and the ‘Weird Sisters’ in this play, and the Bard would in turn have given much calculated thought into how he should stage such a controversial trope, and what emotions he would want to incite from his audience as a result.
But Shakespeare’s tightrope-walking manoeuvre went beyond his knack for royal flattery, and even with a clear awareness of James I’s touchiness about subjects like witchcraft and necromancy, the Bard did not shy away from engaging with these topics, nor did he simply condemn supernatural agents a la James I.
“[While writing Macbeth], Shakespeare was burrowing deep into the fantasies that swirled about in the king’s brain. [And] if James had been fascinated by a command performance of diabolical music, the King’s Men would give him that and more. [But] Shakespeare was a professional risk-taker. He wrote under pressure – judging from its unusual brevity, Macbeth was composed in a very short time – and he went where his imagination took him. If the cheerful sibyls of St John’s became the weird sisters dancing around a cauldron bubbling with hideous contents, then Shakespeare was obliged to pursue the course. The alternative was to write the kind of play that would put James to sleep and send the thrill-seeking crowds to rival theaters.”
And what about the ghost?
Speaking of thrill-seeking crowds, the Renaissance playgoers would have liked to see ghosts on stage as well.
The ghost was a well-known dramatic device in Shakespeare’s time, harking back to Senecan tragedies where the ghost figure would sometimes appear to call for revenge.
Given the popularity of Senecan plays in the Renaissance period, this association of ghosts with vengeance was likely affixed in the audience’s mind.
Interestingly, while Shakespeare does exploit this motif in Hamlet and Julius Caesar, in which King Hamlet and Caesar’s ghosts express their desires for revenge, Banquo’s ghost neither speaks nor expresses such a wish.
Instead, Banquo’s ghost does more to show us Macbeth’s personhood than it draws attention to its ghostly nature.
It’s also worth considering why Shakespeare had chosen to ‘resurrect’ Banquo but not Duncan, which would seem to make more dramatic sense and grant a greater degree of theatrical satisfaction (after all, it’d be poetic justice for a murdered King to return and confront his betrayer).
But perhaps it would have been unwise to stage the ghost of a King in front of a living King, and despite the ghosts in Hamlet and Julius Caesar both being once-kings, those are Elizabethan plays (i.e. produced before James I’s ascension).
To an extent, this should also highlight the impact that the shift from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule had on Shakespeare’s creative direction post-1603.
Notwithstanding the visual spectacle and political considerations that would have motivated Shakespeare to include supernatural elements in Macbeth, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the Bard as, above all, a humanist playwright.
This means that the core of his works are firmly centered on the individual, and his interest is always on how the self responds to external and internal forces.
As such, the witches, ghosts and apparitions are in the play insofar as they challenge and complicate our view of the human characters, which is why any discussion about the supernatural in the play is also de facto a discussion about Macbeth.
3 key ideas of the supernatural in Macbeth
So in this post, I’ve summarised 3 major ways through which we can make sense of the supernatural in this play:
- The supernatural as a mirror of our ‘natural’ selves
- The supernatural as a reminder of mortal limits
- The supernatural as a caution against the need for absolute certitude
The key moments I’ll reference include:
- Act 1 Scene 1: The Witches converse among themselves and agree to meet Macbeth on the heath
- Act 1 Scene 3: The Witches deliver the prophecy of thanedom and kingship to Macbeth and Banquo
- Act 3 Scene 4: Banquo’s ghost appears at the hall of Macbeth’s feast
- Act 4 Scene 1: Macbeth is shown the three apparitions about Macduff, Birnam Wood/Dunsinane Hill and the eight kings with Banquo at the end
Key idea 1: The supernatural as a mirror of our ‘natural’ selves
One of the most famous lines in this play comes at the end of Act 1 Scene 1, when the Witches chant in unison –
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
In addition to being a paradox, the line “fair is foul, and foul is fair” is an example of antimetabole, which shows up as a syntactical ‘mirror’.
The Witches are saying that good is evil and vice versa, but the inverted syntax also suggests what’s good on the surface could in fact be rotten within, and likewise, what’s bad on the outside can often lead to some sort of good.
It’s easy to apply noble Macbeth and his eventual murder of Duncan to the ‘fair is foul’ reading, but who’s ‘foul’ that’s also ‘fair’?
Could it be the Witches?
Yet, what ‘good’ could they possibly bring, being such abhorrent creatures?
To Macbeth, these mischief-making sisters are definitely more foul than fair, but to the audience (or reader), the Witches are probably a dramatic ‘boon’, because it is through their interactions with Macbeth that we are given a deeper insight into his deepest and darkest instincts.
In that sense, what enables us to “Hover through the fog and filthy air” of the play is the presence of the Witches, their ‘trickery’, but most importantly, their function as a mirror for Macbeth’s private self.
We first get a glimpse of the Witches’ illuminating role in Act 1 Scene 3, when the First Witch complains to her posse about the sailor’s wife, who refused to share her chestnuts with the Witch and called the latter a hag.
While the three conspire to “thither [the] sail” of the sailor’s ship, the First Witch goes further with her vindictive schemes –
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:
Weary se’nnights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.
She’ll terrorise the sailor’s ship with storms and rob him of sleep for eighty-one weeks (“weary sen’nnights nine times nine”), she vows.
This, of course, forebodes what will eventually happen to Macbeth, who will be so besieged by the mental ‘storms’ of his guilt that he too will suffer endless sleepless nights, as he says that he has “murder[ed] sleep, the innocent sleep” after killing Duncan in Act 2 Scene 2.
Macbeth is also aware of the role witchcraft plays in disturbing the peace of sleep, which we know from his ‘dagger hallucination’ speech in Act 2 Scene 1 –
…Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings…
As a related side note, this reference to a “tempest-tost” ship may be an allusion to the 1590 North Berwick Witch Trials in Scotland.
After James VI’s marriage to Anne of Denmark (before he became James I of England), the newly married couple were sailing home when their ship ran into violent storms and were diverted off-course for several weeks. The Scottish King was convinced that their misfortune was a result of witchcraft, and this led to a series of witch hunts in Denmark, which in turn inspired James VI to establish his own witchcraft tribunal courts in Scotland.
While it’s possible to think that Shakespeare was alluding to this event as a backstage ‘wink’ to his patron, this reference is also symbolic of the chaos that malicious forces could pose on human relationships, which is precisely what we see as the play unfolds.
Most people focus on Macbeth’s response to the Witches when they first meet on the heath in Act 1 Scene 3, but it’s equally important to examine how Banquo reacts, because this (counterintuitively) gives us more clues into Macbeth’s character.
The first thing to notice about Macbeth is his natural affinity to the Witches. In fact, before he’s even seen them, he echoes their lexis in his statement –
So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
On the contrary, Banquo stands at a stark remove from the Witches, as his first instinct is to challenge the Witches’ very state of being, and not to engage them in a conversation. He comments that they “look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth”, and asks them –
Macbeth, however, assumes even before the Witches have spoken to him that they possess human faculties, which we can infer from his commands for them to “speak” and his addressing them as “imperfect speakers”.
While Banquo draws an analogy between “bubbles on earth” and the Witches’ appearance, implying that these figures are no more than figments of one’s mind that one should dismiss, Macbeth’s simile – “what seem’d corporal melted/As breath into the wind” – presupposes that these supernatural beings are more human than creatures, and as such, we see him subconsciously establishing a link between himself and the Witches.
So, while Banquo sees a clear distinction between the supernatural and the human (and the need for the latter to fend itself against the former), Macbeth pursues – even embraces – a conflation of the two spheres – he wants the knowledge of the Witches, hence his constant asking of ‘why’ and ‘how’ in his interactions with them throughout the play.
Indeed, this difference between Banquo and Macbeth is perhaps best borne out by the questions they each ask upon the Witches’ disappearance, with Banquo enquiring “Whither are they vanish’d?”, and Macbeth responding with “Would they had stay’d!” Banquo’s emphasis is on them gone; Macbeth’s wish is to have them remain.
It’s probably ironic, then, that Banquo should ultimately return to haunt Macbeth in the supernatural form of a ghost in Act 3 Scene 4.
Key idea 2: The supernatural as a reminder of man’s mortal limits
One of the greatest ironies in this play is Macbeth’s powerlessness upon gaining power.
Early on in the play, we already see Macbeth at the mercy of forces he can’t control or command.
For example, in Act 1 Scene 3, the Witches vanish despite his order for them to divulge more about their prophecy (“Speak, I charge you”), and in Act 4 Scene 1, he is told that the visions “will not be commanded”, and that he should “Listen, but speak not to’t”.
… Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.
Tell me, thou unknown power,–
He knows thy thought:
Hear his speech, but say thou nought.
…What is this
That rises like the issue of a king,
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?
Listen, but speak not to’t.
In the words of another Shakespearean play – Othello, Macbeth is ‘led by the nose as asses are’ (allusion) through the hocus-pocus shenanigans of Hecate and her sisters, who first bait him with the possibility of kingship, then mock “this great king” while he grovels in the anguish of guilt and unknowing.
A more striking instance where we see Macbeth’s inability to control the supernatural is when he sees Banquo’s ghost in Act 3 Scene 4 –
Prithee, see there! Behold! Look! Lo!
How say you?
Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.
If charnel-houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.
Interestingly, he also tells Banquo’s ghost to “speak”, which, like the Witches and apparitions, flout his order.
The personification of “charnel-houses and our graves” as agents who can decide to “send/Those that we bury back” exposes the uselessness of his murders, and undermines Macbeth’s only source of power – his murderous tyranny.
Whatever he orchestrates on a mortal level, the spiritual realm seems to conjure up a ‘response’ that comes back to haunt him, and having exhausted his arsenal of mortal weaponry – daggers and assassins – there is nothing else Macbeth can do to chase away the bloody spectre of Banquo’s “gory locks”.
Macbeth’s impotence is especially apparent after the second entrance of Banquo’s ghost –
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!
Ironically, the description he attributes to Banquo’s ghost could also apply to his own murderous persona, albeit figuratively.
Having betrayed the King, he is “marrowless” in his deceit; having ordered the murder of Duncan, Banquo, Fleance (and later, Macduff’s family), he is “cold-blooded” in his brutality; and having fallen into the grasp of an illegitimate and doomed station, he is shown to have “no speculation”, where “speculation” here means not just the ability to see, but the faculty of intelligence and the prudence of foresight.
It seems, then, that he sees his worst self reflected in Banquo’s ghost, and by crying out for “earth [to] hide thee”, he’s really asking to escape from the terror of himself.
As Lady Macbeth chastises her husband for losing it, Macbeth attempts to reassert his manhood by claiming that “What man dare, I dare”.
The only issue, though, is that he’s being confronted with a force that most men wouldn’t dare, and so the implication of his claim isn’t so much the firmness of his courage, but rather, its crippling limitations –
What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!
Macbeth invokes hyperbole and superlatives to remind all of his valiance, but buried within these references to “rugged Russian bears,/ The arm’d rhinoceros” and “the Hyrcan tiger” is the crucial, but telling, plea – “take any shape but that”.
Turn into the fiercest beast, or become human again and challenge me to the harshest duel, Macbeth cries, just please don’t show up as a ghost, because that’s beyond the scope of his understanding and the domain of his power.
The euphemism of “horrible shadow” echoes the interpretation of Macbeth seeing himself reflected in Banquo’s ghostly visage, as “shadow” could mean either “spirit and phantom”, or “reflection and semblance”.
At the same time, though, the ghost is also an “unreal mockery”, as Banquo’s ‘return’ may remind us of the Witches’ other prophecy – that Banquo’s sons will eventually become king, and this is a worry which hovers over Macbeth’s mind like a spectre throughout the play.
What this scene also exposes is the limits of free will, since the more Macbeth seemingly takes into his hands the course of his fate by murdering those around him, the more he realises just how helpless he is, because his actions are ultimately not the evidence of individual agency, but the product of inexplicable, yet much more powerful, forces that are beyond human comprehension.
One interesting counterpoint to examine is Trevor Nunn’s 1979 RSC production of the play, in which Banquo’s ghost isn’t shown on stage, and so the audience is forced to consider Macbeth’s reaction not as a response to paranormality, but as a psychological projection of his own fears, of the “strange things I have in head” (3.4).
But ghost or no ghost, we know from the Witches’ cranky curse of “thither[ing the] sail” of the sailor’s ship in Act 1 Scene 3 that Macbeth is, in a way, just another “tempest-tost” ship in the grand scheme of fate, subject to forces that he can’t ever fathom or control.
Here, it is perhaps useful to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th century Austrian-British philosopher, on his idea of determinism –
You sometimes see in a wind a piece of paper blowing about anyhow. Suppose the piece of paper could make the decision: ‘Now I want to go this way.’ I say: ‘Queer, this paper always decides where it is to go, and all the time it is the wind that blows it. I know it is the wind that blows it.’ That same force which moves it also in a different way moves its decisions.
In a way, then, Macbeth is just like that piece of paper, and the wind are those supernatural forces that bandy him about.
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Key idea 3: The supernatural as a caution against the need for certitude
“Seek to know no more”: For all the villainy that the Witches seem to represent, they’ve given Macbeth what’s probably the best advice he needs – curb your curiosity, and stop with your “whys” and “hows” already.
While it’s possible to see the supernatural as a trigger for Macbeth’s doomed descent, it’s equally fair to say that Macbeth’s own insatiable need to know is what’s dug him his grave.
We see this when he first encounters the Witches on the heath, where he confronts them with a barrage of questions:
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis;
But how of Cawdor?
Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence? or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting?
Again, if we contrast Macbeth’s questions against Banquo’s, we’ll realise that Macbeth asks epistemological questions (and as such, tacitly accepts the Witches’ existence), whereas his companion is much more concerned with the ontological status of these Witches (i.e. he is skeptical about the very notion of the Witches’ existence).
It’s also significant that the knowledge Macbeth seeks confounds human logic – “from whence/You owe this strange intelligence?” – and this motif of transgressive curiosity as a dangerous, punishable desire would not be alien to Renaissance audiences (think Adam and Eve in The Book of Genesis, or Doctor Faustus).
After the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth goes looking for the Witches, and asks what his “heart/Throbs to know” –
Shall Banquo’s issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?
The answer he receives is the “horrible sight” of the eight kings with Banquo following behind, holding a glass, which confuses his eyes and unsettles his mind:
Show his eyes, and grieve his heart;
Come like shadows, so depart!
A show of Eight Kings, the last with a glass in his hand; GHOST OF BANQUO following
Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo: down!
Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls. And thy hair,
Thou other gold-bound brow, is like the first.
A third is like the former. Filthy hags!
Why do you show me this? A fourth! Start, eyes!
What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?
Another yet! A seventh! I’ll see no more:
And yet the eighth appears, who bears a glass
Which shows me many more; and some I see
That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry:
Horrible sight! Now, I see, ’tis true;
For the blood-bolter’d Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his.
What, is this so?
Note that the iambic pentameter Macbeth characteristically speaks in is disrupted at several points in this speech.
The rhetorical question “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” and its following exclamations “Another yet! A seventh! I’ll see no more:” are both hypercatalectic (and so, a syntactical ‘stretching out of the line’), as each ends with one extra syllable to emphasise the neverending nature of this kingly procession, from which Macbeth is excluded.
In agony, he cries that he wants to “see no more”, but he continues to “see/That two-fold balls and treble scepters carry”, that “horrible sight! Now, I see, tis true”.
The terrifying pageantry of the moment may haunt him, but not enough to extinguish his burning need for certitude.
And so his desire to know how his fate will unfold compels him to keep fixing his eyes on this supernatural spectacle, which of course, only muddles his own vision and judgment of what is “fair” and what is “foul”.
By the end of witnessing these ‘prophetic’ sights, Macbeth is still left none the wiser – “What, is this so?”, he asks, and it is this growing state of bewilderment which drives him to make one irrational decision after another, ultimately concluding in his tragic demise.
Notice, then, that while Macbeth’s decisions to act on each supernatural encounter form the main catalyst points of the plot, they are largely motivated by his uncertainty of what these occurrences mean for him, and in turn, his need to ‘certify’ them through action –
- Hears the Witches’ prophecy for the first time, but can’t quite make sense of it → tells Lady Macbeth about it and together they plot Duncan’s murder
- Recalls the Witches’ prophecy about Banquo’s sons being king, but isn’t sure if that means Banquo’s sons will come seizing his crown → orders Banquo and Fleance’s killing
- Sees Banquo’s ghost, can’t fathom how such “strangeness” has come about → freaks out and goes to the Witches for more ‘answers’
- Sees the apparitions, doesn’t really get satisfactory answers → orders the attack on Macduff’s castle and the seizing of Fife, sets off the revenge of Macduff and Malcolm with the English troops
So perhaps Shakespeare is suggesting that the wisest way to deal with spooky encounters and kooky visitations is to simply ignore them.
After all, trying to make sense of “supernatural solicitings”, it seems, can often bring more ill than good.
For a detailed analysis on some of Shakespeare’s other plays, check out my posts below:
- Ambition in Macbeth: 4 key ideas (with quotes, analysis & video)
- What does Romeo & Juliet show us about love?
- Why is Hamlet such a fascinating character?
- What does King Lear show us about blindness?
- What does The Merchant of Venice tell us about racism and prejudice?
- What does Shakespeare show us about self-conscious men? Reading Othello and Cymbeline to find out