Shakespeare in focus: The supernatural
Home learning focus
To learn about the supernatural within Shakespeare’s plays and how to put this into context.
This lesson will feature examples from Macbeth.
This lesson includes:
- two videos
- two activities
Created in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Watch this short clip for an introduction to the role of the supernatural in three of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth.
The vast majority of Shakespeare’s audience would have believed in the supernatural, or the presence of witchcraft and magic. But Shakespeare did not include witches in Macbeth to simply reflect that belief, they also have a crucial dramatic function. Their prophecies encourage Macbeth to commit the gravest act of all, the killing of the king.
King James I was also fascinated by witches - he even wrote a book called Daemonologie about witchcraft and magic. Shakespeare was close to the king. He belonged to an acting company called The King’s Men and King James was their patron, so Shakespeare will have written Macbeth with the king’s interest in the supernatural in mind.
Below is a section from Act 1 Scene 3 of Macbeth, where Macbeth and Banquo first meet the witches.
Read through the text and make a note of all the ways the witches are described.
Thunder. Enter the three Witches.
A drum! A drum!
Macbeth doth come.
The Weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again to make up nine.
Peace. The charm’s wound up.
So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
…What are these,
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question?
Try reading the witches' speech out loud, firstly whispering and then with a full voice. Do you notice anything different about their rhythm?
Try answering these questions on a sheet of paper:
- Why might Shakespeare want the witches’ lines to stand out and be different?
How would you describe the atmosphere around this meeting?
If you can record your voice using your phone or computer, you might want to try this:
- Record yourself speaking the witches' lines; then play it back while speaking along with it. What effect does it create hearing more than one voice at a time?
- The text mentions drums and thunder - try creating a soundscape to run underneath your speech. Are there any other noises that might create a backdrop to this scene?
Watch out for the different rhythms Shakespeare uses to make characters stand out. Most of his verse is written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables in each line, but the witches use a different pattern.
Music played an important role in Shakespeare’s theatre and musicians would sit on the gallery above the stage, visible to the audience. The effect of thunder would be created by rolling a cannon ball across the wooden floorboards in an area above the stage.
Attitudes towards magic and witchcraft change in different contexts and cultures.
Any staging of the play must make a decision about how the witches are brought to life as they are crucial to the action of the play, whether or not the audience believes in the supernatural.
Watch the following clip to learn about the staging choices made in an RSC production of Macbeth.
Note down some of the key choices made in this production. What impact might these choices have had on a modern audience?
Think about how you might design the witches if you were creating your own production and create a mood board for these three characters.
A mood board is a collection of images to inspire a design. You might choose to do this on a large piece of paper with images you’ve cut out or printed, or you could do it on a computer or device.
In this lesson you have explored contemporary views of the supernatural during Shakespeare’s lifetime and begun to think about how Shakespeare uses these in his writing.
There are other useful pages that will help you to explore themes in Shakespeare.
- BBC Teach: Shakespeare Themes
- Macbeth - Themes
- Explore character biographies and images from the 2011 RSC production here
Please note: Bitesize revision guides are split by exam board - to check if there is a specific version of a guide for your board, choose your subject and then exam board here.