The Supernatural - Macbeth

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: eh_knight
  • Created on: 04-02-16 10:13


  • Representation of the supernatural - ‘Maleficium’ = a malevolent or harmful magical act intended to cause harm or death to something.
  • King James was paranoid about witches - a real threat to a Jacobin audience: witches had to make a pact with the devil, thus renouncing God.
  • Embody unreasoning and instinctive evil - outside of the limits of human comprehension. 
  • The witches straddle both the natural and supernatural worlds.
  • They cast the mood for the whole play with sinister incantations that stand out eerily from the blank verse spoken by other characters as they speak in rhyming couplets.
  • Whenever they appear, the stage directions link them to cause and uneasy in the natural world, and the audience expect that the supernatural will play a big part in this play.
  • “I come, Graymalkin” (1.1.9) (cat) = powers of transformation and metamorphosis: liminal states.
  • “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.12) - all is not what it seems. Inversion & juxtaposition of natural order. Other inversions e.g/ “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier.”(1.3.63-64).  Language of contradiction, and moral confusion (as everything is not as it seems). 
  • Act 1 scene 3 questions if the witches are really evil or not (are they malicious or mysterious?)
1 of 6

THE WITCHES (continued)

  • 1.3.1-2 - “Where hast thou been, sister? Killing swine.”Accepted as normal at the time, that is what people thought witches would be doing: they were used in this era to explain the unexplainable.
  • “I’ll give thee a wind” (1.3.10) & “Tempest tossed” (1.3.23)- can control the elements. “The very powers they blow” (1.3.14) - power to cause shipwreck.
  • Macbeth - “So foul and fair a day” (1.3.36) - immediately links him to the witches: echoing their earlier speech with this oxymoron.
  • Banquo - “what are these?” (1.3.37) - cannot define the witches. “So withered and wild” (1.3.38) - he describes their appearances using supernatural elements. Macbeth treats them as if they are human entities, call them “Imperfect speakers.” (1.3.68) 
  • Banquo - “You should be women, and yet your bears forbid me to interpret that you are so.” (1.3.43-44) - Gender confusion. Sexless creatures that cannot be trusted due to their appearance and evil nature. Not human? “Are ye fantastical?” (1.3.51) - Questioning their status: real/unreal? Questions go unanswered - if Shakespeare pinned them down then they would be less fantastical. Unknown is frightening. Are they Banquo's and Macbeth’s hallucinations after they've “eaten on the insane root”?(1.3.82) If they are merely fragments of the imagination then they are not responsible for Macbeth’s evil.
2 of 6

THE WITCHES (continued)

  • “Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.” (1.3.48) - Are these the witches’ predictions, or do they speak Macbeth’s internal desires? Or are they a catalyst for events that would have inevitably happened? The dark forces often represent the ‘dark’ side of human nature - irrational and destructive desires & conflicting forces within the human soul.
  • Macbeth - “With such prophetic greeting?” (1.3.76) He believes it is a prophecy, thus thinks it will come true.
  • Witches vanish - ambiguity, ambivalence, transformative status.
  • Banquo - “what, can the devil speak true?” (1.3.105) - devil’s incarnation within the witches - dark & evil forces. Banquo calls witches “Instruments of darkness” (1.3.123) - he is the voice of reason.
  • Ross states that the first prediction has come true, but Angus has a rational, non-supernatural, explanation for it: “treasons capital, professed and proved.” (1.3.114)
  • Their beards, bizarre potions and rhymed speech make them seem slightly ridiculous, like caricatures of the supernatural. E.g/ “Eye of newt and toe of frog.” (4.1.14) Incarnations to form a powerful potion.
3 of 6

THE WITCHES (continued)

  • “Blaspheming Jew.” (4.1.26) - Other races and religions scared Jacobin audience at the time. The witches said they were using all of these things, but there is no evidence that they actually were. 
  • Shakespearian audience would assume that the witches are the body of evil so when they say that the charm that the drink will have upon Macbeth will be “firm and good” (4.1.37) they assume that it will cause harm. However, the spell is intended only to conjure a vision.
  • “Something wicked this way comes.” (4.1.45) Witches refer to Macbeth as evil. 
  • Macbeth uses the words “secret, black and midnight” (4.1.47) to describe them. Very gothic themes including liminality, darkness and deception. He is not afraid of the witches, is undisturbed by them.
  • Witches - “Seek to know no more.” (4.1.102) - Macbeth seeks to control the supernatural but the witches want to keep their mystery.
  • With their eery singing and dancing, the “Filthy hags” (4.1.114) bring ambiguity to the play. 
4 of 6


  • Recur throughout the play to remind audience of growing body count.
  • “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” (2.1.33) Dagger represents the bloody course upon which Macbeth is about to embark.
  • Macbeth tries to remain emotionless at Banquo’s ghost but his conscience is under strain - emotional struggle: where his mental state starts it’s descent.
  • Lady Macbeth says to her husband that the ghost of Banquo is “The very painting of your fear.” (3.4.61) - She is rational and is not seeing what he is seeing, comparing it to an old wives tale or fake ghost story. Shakespeare leaves it up to the audience to decide if the ghost is real or an image from his fragmented, guilty mind.
  • Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and believes that her hands are stained with blood that cannot be washed off - she mentally unravels quicker than Macbeth. 
  • It is ambiguous whether the visions are purely hallucinatory; but in both cases, they are signs of the Macbeth's’ guilt.
5 of 6


  1. Armed head = represents battle, war and foreshadows final battle. 
  2. Bloody child = Children that threaten the throne e.g/ Fleance and Macduff’s children. “None of woman born.” (4.1.79) Macduff was not born of woman - C section.
  3. Child crowned with tree in his hand = Tree - part of Dunsinane hill, they cut down the trees and used them for camouflage so from Macbeth’s perspective it would look like the Birnam wood is moving. Child crowned - threat to Macbeth’s reign, Donaldbain and Malcolm.
  • Hallucination of 8 kings and Banquo’s ghost, showing not telling, ambiguous. Suggests that Fleance will be future king? Macbeth and audience must interpret it for themselves; he puts meaning to the ghosts that may not be in the text. “Banquo smiles upon me.” (4.1.122) Feels like he is being mocked from beyond the grave.
6 of 6


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »See all Macbeth resources »