Evil and the supernatural in Macbeth

Witches and witchcraft were thought to be real in Shakespeare's time
Witches and witchcraft were thought to be real in Shakespeare's time

In Shakespeare's time, the powers of evil were thought to be absolutely real; to most people Hell was an actual place and the Devil a constant threat to their souls. In particular there was a fascination with witches and witchcraft. Hundreds of innocent people (mostly women) were executed as suspected witches. The interest came from the very top, led by King James I himself who published a book on the subject called Demonology. When Shakespeare came to write his play, he knew that his audience would find the theme of evil and the supernatural very interesting indeed.

How is this shown in the play?

In Macbeth, William Shakespeare uses evil and the supernatural as a background to all the events which take place. Some of the key aspects are:

  • wicked thoughts and actions
  • the activities of the Witches
  • the disruption of nature

How does Shakespeare show this?EvidenceAnalysis
Wicked thoughts and actionsThe Witches' predictions encourage Macbeth to think wicked thoughts and carry out evil deeds. As well as murder, Macbeth is also guilty of lying, deception, cowardice, seeking out further contact with evil forces, behaving brutally with both physical and verbal violence and showing a lack of love and concern for others.Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings. / My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is, / But what is not. (Act 1 Scene 3) Before the first murder of the play takes place there is a slow build up as Macbeth wrestles with his conscience. The wicked thoughts he has are almost worse than the actual deeds ('Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings'). He becomes more concerned with what might happen rather than reality ('nothing is, but what is not') and uses evil methods to achieve his desires. Once Duncan's murder has taken place, a line has been crossed and further acts of wickedness keep on coming.
The activities of the WitchesThe Witches' appearance at the start of the play in the middle of a thunderstorm (apparently of their own creation) sets the tone for what is to follow. As well as predicting the future, controlling the weather and casting evil spells, they also discuss the wicked acts they carry out against ordinary men and women. In a couple of scenes they interact with Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft.Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master o'th'Tiger: / But in a sieve I'll thither sail, / And like a rat without a tail, / I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do........ I'll drain him dry as hay: / Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid; / He shall live a man forbid. / Weary sennights nine times nine, / Shall he dwindle, peak and pine. (Act 1 Scene 3) One of the Witches describes how a sailor's wife has insulted her and how she plans to take her revenge ('I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do'). She plans to follow his ship (The Tiger) and drain the life out of him by not allowing him to sleep. She is going to keep this up for 567 days ('sennights nine times nine' or 7 × 9 × 9). As both Macbeth and, particularly, his wife discover, sleep deprivation is an awful punishment.
The disruption of natureThe opening of the play takes place in the middle of a thunderstorm. A further storm rages on the night of Duncan's murder and many highly unnatural occurrences are reported in Act 2 Scene 4. In the final scenes of the play, it seems that the trees have come to life as Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane and Macbeth is defeated by Macduff who was not naturally born.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 th'woeful time. The obscure bird / Clamoured the livelong night. Some say, the Earth / Was feverous and did shake. (Act 2 Scene 3) Moments before Macduff announces the discovery of Duncan's dead body, Lennox talks about events that were occurring while the murder was taking place. These include strong winds, strange ghostly cries in the night, an owl screeching (thought to be a bad omen) and even an earthquake. The natural world has been disturbed and disrupted following the unnatural killing of a king.

Analysing the evidence

Question

How does the opening scene of the play set up the theme of evil and the supernatural?

  • The characters are three witches who are mysterious and otherworldly. They speak or chant with a particular rhythm of their own.
  • The scene is set in a wild and unruly place and the Witches are meeting outside in the middle of a thunderstorm.
  • Their language emphasises disruption and that everything is confused and chaotic (eg 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair').

The characters, setting and language that Shakespeare uses all combine to create a memorable opening scene which concentrates on evil and the supernatural.