How does Shakespeare exploit the contemporary interest in witchcraft and the supernatural in Macbeth and what does this theme add to the play’s historical story line?
James the First succeeded the English throne in 1603; Macbeth was written between 1603-1606. Undoubtedly, the play was written to compliment James the First and to affirm his right to rule. It is important to realise that James had to deal with the issues of kingship and loyalty. He survived an assassination attempt; his father had been murdered and his, mother Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed as a traitor. Therefore, the play ‘Macbeth’ must of been of some consolation to James the First, as the role of monarch and their subjects must have been forever in his mind.
To seek to over throw a king was seen to violate God. Perhaps, James the First’s own doubts made him think the people who sought to overthrow his throne were evil. Indeed, James the first was fascinated by anything to do with the supernatural. He wrote a book on the subject which was called ‘Demonology’. Therefore, Shakespeare exploits James the First’s interest, and also his subjects belief, in witchcraft. The play uses James’ knowledge with the following scenes: witchcraft (Act1 Scene1, Act1 Scene3, Act4 Scene1), apparitions and ghost (Act2 Scene1 and Act3 Scene4) and the kings evil (Act4 Scene3).
The use of supernatural themes was used to reinforce the idea that to subvert Gods natural order, in other words James the First’s right to rule, was a practice punishable by death. The gunpowder plot, which took place in 1605, was a desperate attempt to overthrow King James and reassert the faith of Catholicism. This was seen by the conspirators as the true belief. However, during their Catholicism was then put into a bad light as “Father Garnett defended ‘equivocation’ which meant that lies under oath were morally justified” (York notes Macbeth p9). This is picked up in the play when Banquo talks of “truths” which betray us (1.3.123.P53).
Therefore Shakespeare pays homage to James the First’s ancestor Banquo who becomes the hero of the play. Unlike Macbeth he does not become evil in the play. The historical story line has Banquo killed as well as Macbeth. However, historically Banquo was an accomplice to the murder of Duncan. Obviously, James the First does not want to be reminded of this fact. Thus, Shakespeare’s main theme dwells on how Macbeth’s ambition leads to his fall under the evil influence of the three witches.
Evil is dramatically portrayed in the early scenes of the witches and the effect they have on Macbeth. The “thunder and lighting” P39, of which the first weird sister speak, brings images of evil to the play as if there is a disturbance in the heavens, that were thought to indicate rebellion between the spiritual kingdoms of good and evil. This also might be referring to the battle of Fife or the corruption of Macbeth further on in the play. When the witches chant “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” Shakespeare is trying to show the witches are calling upon evil to overturn ideas of good. They are saying that there is no difference between the concepts of good and evil.
In scene 3 the witches return and Macbeth says, “stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more”. This is when the seed of evil was planted in Macbeth; Banquo did not succumb to their evil because he was more interested in what the witches were, unlike Macbeth who was interested in what they said. This evil in Macbeth spread and by scene 4 he is already thinking about being king and admits to his “black and deep desires” p61. This speech shows how his desire to be king is frustrated by Duncan, who is “a step” on which he “must fall down or else o’erleap” p59. In other words, he realises that in some way he has to remove the obstacle of his desires, which is Duncan.
The use of the supernatural through the portrayal of the witches would of aroused the people in the Jacobean period who still believed in the threat of witches and witchcraft which were the object of their “morbid fevered fascinations” (handout). So, this would have had a massive impact on the public and would have made it much more popular as people would like to hear about such things as witchcraft and hundreds of pamphlets describing the lurid details of witchcraft trials were printed in this period of history. They enjoyed enormous sales so all Shakespeare was doing was exploiting the popular beliefs, whether he believed in the witchcraft or not. What ever the case, he had latched on to a popular belief and exploited for all it was worth. Also, as I have all ready mentioned King James the First at the time had a rather strong interest in the play as he had supposedly encountered witches. This encounter was included in his book. Therefore, king James would have empathised with the moral and spiritual themes of this play.
The way in which darkness, corruption and evil are reflected in the language of the play is quite vivid when the witches say “all hail” to Macbeth. This greeting is associated with the Judas Iscariot’s greeting to Christ. Hence it had a sinister treacherous undertone. Even though the witches do not actually tell Macbeth he should murder Duncan their information tempts Macbeth to do so. The information that the witches give Macbeth is morally neutral. However, Macbeth interprets it otherwise. This means the witches end up symbolising evil, but Macbeth is still free to resist them.
The symbolism of the play is connected with imagery. The blood in the play operates on at least three levels: it is what is literally shed when wars and murders occur, it is also a part of the imagery in the play that creates a sense of menace and evil and destruction, and it is a symbol for the evil that is associated with Macbeth. Furthermore, when Lady Macbeth reads the letter from Macbeth it contains the words “hail king” which gave Lady Macbeth both joy and unbelieving wonder. This is the start of corruption of Lady Macbeth who then pushes Macbeth to commit the murder of Duncan. Maybe, if she had not done this Macbeth might not have committed the murder. When Lady Macbeth calls the evil spirits to change her onto an evil person who can commit crimes of such horrible doings a raven croaks the death of Duncan which is very witch like.
This emphasises the unnatural act of overthrowing a king who has the divine right to rule. It was also believed that witches allowed the devil to suck their blood in exchange for a ‘familiar’ like a raven which is associated with death and evil. Any one having ‘devil’s marks’, a red mark on their body from which Satan had sucked there blood (‘damned spot’), were accused of being witches. Hence, Lady Macbeth’s obsession with washing her hands indicated her fear that someone would find out about her part in Duncan’s death. Furthermore, when the porter talks about “hellgate” and “beelzebub”, one of the devils, we are given a feeling that corruption and evil is present in the castle. Indeed, the witches (weird sisters) become the symbol of evil as they are shown as they are shown as the darkness and corrupters of the play, especially when they are called “old hags” as if to say they are the “elemental and beastial forces’s” helping evil do there work.
Thus, when Macbeth sees the dagger in front of him he can see the corruption of his mind at work when he asks, “is this a dagger”. The dagger seems to point him in the direction of his goal and desire of killing Duncan and becoming king and as the bell rings, he determines to proceed forward and kill Duncan. After which Macbeth commits his second murder, when he again calls upon evil to help him “tear to pieces that great bond”. Here, he might be referring to his friendship between himself and Banquo. Macbeth might also be referring to the rest of his goodness and soul. The language is charged with the evil imagery, as we visualise his soul and friendship being torn bodily into pieces.
The way in which the conflicts and contrasts of good and evil are present helps exploit the public and James the First’s fantasy with ghosts. When Macbeth says, “still it cried ‘sleep on more !’ To all the house”, he suggest that because he has killed Duncan in his sleep Macbeth himself will not be able to sleep. Duncan’s ghost will disturb him. This exploits the public fantasy about the supernatural and the belief that evil will be punished by good. Therefore, Duncans ghost will haunt Macbeth to repay him for murdering him, which was done in a coward’s way; Duncan was murdered in his sleep.
The dramatic effect of the use of Banquo’s ghost in Act 3 scene 4 is used to shock Macbeth. The ghost could be an illusion of Macbeths disordered mind. However, we might read it as the creation of a demon, “that which might appal the devil” p127. However, when Macbeth says, “rebellious dead”, we are lead to believe that Macbeth thinks it is Banquo’s ghost.
The dramatic significance of the witches revelations and assurances to Macbeth in Act 4 are that they lead Macbeth with the determination to kill Macduffs wife and children as a reprisal for the witches prophecy that he should fear Macduff. Therefore, he falls even further into his evil desires as he has no compunction about killing women and children.
The assurances that he cannot be harmed by one who is born of a woman and that he is secure until Birnan Wood comes Dunsinane is in fact misinterpreted by Macbeth. The witches seem to be deliberately misleading Macbeth as in fact Macduff was not born by a Caesarean operation, which Macbeth finds out when Macduff tells him that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” p201. At this point Macbeth realises how false the witches prophecies are and calls them “these juggling fiends” p201. This dramatic effect gives us an insight into what was going to happen; we know that Macduff will kill Macbeth. This keeps the Jacobean audience in suspense.
In Act 4 Scene 3 the kings evil is discussed by Macduff and Malcolm. They discuss how the kingship virtues are passed on to succeeding monarchs, they mention the saintly work of King Edward the Confessor, this provides a dramatic contrast to Macbeths evil. Indeed we see true emotion from Macduff when Ross arrives to tell him that his family has been murdered. Thus, we realise through this contrast that Macbeth is incapable of real human feeling, he has become as much a beast as the three hags.
There are many themes to Macbeth. These themes include goodness, evil, loyalty, ambition, love, deception, justice, corruption and the supernatural. The latter is the underlining and fundamental theme of the play and the driving force of Macbeth’s life, which makes him a tragic hero. His moral weakness, which Shakespeare exploits in order to show how someone can fall and lose his life over there weakness resulting in intense sufferings. The idea of evil, moral weakness, resulting in divine retribution would have fascinated the Jacobean audiences.
It would of also pleased James the First as the idea of the witches prophecies come full circle showing how they had a “double sense” p201 ties in to the idea of equivocation which had a contemporary relevance to the Gunpowder Plot. Ironically Macbeth betrayed Duncan so the witches betrayed Macbeth. Therefore, the supernatural theme of the play is extremely important to the plays contemporary style and certainly a major contributor to the play’s enduring popularity. The two major reasons of the play’s success are that in Shakespeare’s time witchcraft was a substantial issue to both King James the First and his subjects.