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Dark Forces of the Occult Within Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting facet of Shakespeare's tragic plays is his superb handling of the mysterious and supernatural. In this hub, I examine the treatment of the supernatural in Macbeth, and interpret how these powers of darkness influence Macbeth's life throughout the play.
Macbeth was written in about 1604 for King James. James Stuart, had ascended the English throne and had become the nominal patron of Shakespeare's company a few years before Macbeth was written. It was rumored that King James was intensely interested in witchcraft, hence the reason for Shakespeare incorporating numerous supernatural references in Macbeth. Stuart's interest in witchcraft was shared among the masses. Beliefs in omens, demons, witches and black magic were very common during this period. With this in mind, Shakespeare introduced the witch scene in the opening act of Macbeth.
The first witch scene introduces the reader to the obvious darkness and evil in which the whole play is enveloped. The thunder and lighting, which is also prevalent throughout the play, is an indicator of ill-happenings as a result of evil forces. The witches plan their next meeting and agree to meet Macbeth upon the heath "When the battle's lost and won" (I.i.4). They then depart and mysteriously chant "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (I.i.11), which is a major theme of the play. They are saying good is bad and dark is light which is part of the confusion principle they use to cause the ruination of Macbeth. The witches confuse anyone who chooses to listen to their words. Perhaps after meeting them, Macbeth is being unconsciously motivated by evil to follow his deepest desires; whatever they may be.
Under the onslaught of thunder, the witches again meet and talk of their powers. Much can be interpreted about their real powers from what they say. The first witch commenting on the captain of a tiger (boat) admits:
"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 sev'nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost" (I.iii.18).
This utterance indicates that though the witches have no power over life and death (bark cannot be lost) they can make life a confusing and hellish experience (it shall be tempest-tost).
The witches greet Macbeth with the titles of Thane of Glamis, which he presently is, Thane of Cawdor, which though he doesn't know it at the time, he will soon be named, and king, which he will be hereafter. The predictions noticeably startle Macbeth; in fact, Banquo says, "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?" (I.iii.51). Macbeth's shakiness indicates that the witches have merely told Macbeth what he has unconsciously been considering for a long time. This scares him because he knows the witches are reading his deepest thoughts. His desire for power and his ambition are characteristics the witches feed upon. They use their power of mind corruption to motivate Macbeth to commit bloody murders and many other sins which lead to his final downfall. Corruption and the spreading of evil through falsehoods is the purpose of the dark powers in this play.
Discovering the Thane of Cawdor has been executed for treason, Macbeth learns that he will replace him. He is struck with a sense of deja vu and knows the witches spoke the truth. He says:
"This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.
If ill, why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? 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" (I.iii.130).
From this point on we see that Macbeth is indeed a believer of the witches' prophecies and that he plans to live out the rest of their predictions even if he must influence the outcome himself. This utterance also shows the beginning of his confusion (nothing is but what is not) which plagues Macbeth throughout the play.
Following his kingdom's victory over Norway, Duncan, the present King of Scotland, bestows the title of Prince of Cumberland on his son Malcolm. Upon hearing this, Macbeth realizes that to someday be king he will have to "o'erleap" (I.iv.49) Malcolm's new title. He realizes the only way to do this is to murder all people preceding him in the line to the throne. Macbeth says:
"Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see" (I.iv.51).
Macbeth is calling up dark elements to help him reach his desired goal. His words indicate that he can't tolerate seeing what his hands might do, therefore he is calling up darkness to hide his actions. It is now apparent that Macbeth is controlling his own destiny and that the supernatural is now only a guiding force in his life. Many view Macbeth as originally being a good person with unconsciously corrupt but controlled longings, who is manipulated by the supernatural to act out his "deep desires." Many critics, including myself, feel, that by fate, Macbeth is misled by the supernatural.
Macbeth writes to Lady Macbeth, his wife, about the witches' prophecies and the truths they have foretold. She is much like her husband. They idolize one another and Lady Macbeth is as ambitious for her husband as he is ambitious for himself. At times when he is reluctant, she is always there to question his masculinity and bravery, which never fails to push him on to his murderous deeds. As she reads the letter, Lady Macbeth echoes her husbands stars/deep desires speech by saying:
"Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
to cry hold, hold" (I.v.48)!
Macbeth and his wife, knowing that Duncan will be spending time at their castle, conspire to kill him so that Macbeth will be king. Macbeth has reservations about the murder because Duncan has been such a great and virtuous King. Macbeth feels Duncan's "Virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off" (I.vii.18). Perhaps somewhere, invisibly hovering above Macbeth, the dark spirits are happily watching their seed of evil within Macbeth grow. Macbeth overcomes his resentment and admits that he possesses "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself" (I.vii.27). Both Lady Macbeth and her husband decide that to hide their murderous reign from the entire kingdom "False face must hide what the false heart doth know" (I.vii.82).
Just preceding Duncan's murder, Macbeth sees the floating dagger which "Marshall'st me (Macbeth) the way that I was going, and such an instrument I was to use" (II.i.42). Critics have often argued over how this scene should be presented, and I agree with those who say the dagger should indeed be visible to the audience. If the dagger is invisible to the audience, Macbeth is seen as mentally deranged or ill. If the dagger is visible to the audience, Macbeth is viewed as being led on by the deceitfulness of the witches and by the evil of other dark elements. This instills a slight sense of pity and emotion for Macbeth from the audience, because he seems indirectly the villain of the play. Upon Lady Macbeth's ringing of the bell Macbeth knows it is time for Duncan's murder and says "Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven, or to hell" (II.i.63).
The murder is surrounded by the omen of the shrieking owl which perhaps can be seen as the fatal messenger of Hecate, the embodiment of evil, whom Macbeth refers to when saying "Witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate's offerings; and withered murder, alarmed by his sentinel, the wolf" (II.i.51). It adds an eerie supernatural dimension if one believes that the birds and beasts inhabiting the darkness of night are controlled by evil. Perhaps the night creatures are lurking in "fog and filthy air" awaiting "pale Hecate's summons." If so, Hecate's power is seen as nonhuman and perhaps operating by magic so powerful and evil that it is beyond man's intellectual grasp.
From this point on, Macbeth and his wife are stricken with insomnia and extreme paranoia. Macbeth's "Who's there? What, ho?" (II.ii.8) after the murder indicates this. Meanwhile, the dark elements guiding Macbeth are dancing and celebrating their victory of deceit; and the evil plant within Macbeth continues to grow.
When Macduff and Lennox (noblemen of Scotland and protectors of Duncan) come back to Macbeth's castle they, of course, find Duncan dead. The Macbeths obviously deny knowledge of what has happened and it looks as if the guards, who are smeared with blood and in possession of daggers, have done the deed. Almost everyone is fooled by Macbeth, much like Macbeth is being fooled by the witches. But Banquo is not fooled. He says, "Thou hast it now--King, Cawdor, Glamis, all, as the weird women promised; and I fear thou play'dst most foully for't" (III.i.1). Macbeth, knowing that Banquo was present during the witches' prophecies, plans to have him and his son Fleance killed. Macbeth is afraid of Banquo's wisdom and valor and realizes that while Banquo is alive "My genius is rebuked" (III.i.56).
After Macbeth orders Banquo's and Fleance's death, we again see him altering in personality. It is as if he is losing his emotions and the characteristics that make him normal. He feels he is strong and he has gained a new sense of dangerous independence. He suddenly begins to turn against his "Dearest partner of/Greatness" (I.v.10). He no longer wants to share information with his wife. In fact, he says, "Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck" (III.ii.45).
Later, at the banquet in Macbeth's castle, Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo which is invisible to all but Macbeth. Again I feel that the ghost should be visible to the audience so that it looks as if Macbeth is truly being plagued by the supernatural instead of being mad. Lady Macbeth, knowing that Macbeth could accidentally tell of the murder, dismisses the guests.
Shortly following Macbeth's change and the banquet scene, Hecate, the embodiment of evil, appears. She is very upset with her subjects, the other three witches, because when speaking to Macbeth originally she didn't get to "Bear my part or show the glory of our art?" (III.V.8). She plans on meeting the witches again so they can deceive Macbeth further. Hecate, with her great wisdom and powerful occult magic plans to:
"By magical sleights,
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes' bove wisdom, grace, and fear:
And you all know security
Is mortals' chiefest enemy" (III.v.26).
In referring to the words "mortals" it is now plain to see that Hecate and the other three witches are supernatural forces or demigods working under the powers of darkness. Hecate is evil incarnate, an embodiment comparable to the synonymous evil names of Belzebub, Apollyon, Lucifer, Old Scratch, Succubus, and what we commonly today call satan or the devil; the antichrist. Like satan giving false security to Eve in the garden of Eden by bidding her to eat the forbidden fruit, so is Hecate planning to show Macbeth "sprites" knowing he will misinterpret their actual meaning.
Through the witches' magical incantations and Hecate's powerful backing, Macbeth finds out more about his future by the viewing of the three apparitions. The first apparition, an armed head, warns Macbeth of Macduff, theThane of Fife. Macbeth doesn't seem amazed or surprised at this sight. It seems only to confirm his murderous intentions of killing Macduff. The second apparition, the bloody child, warns Macbeth that "None of woman born shall harm Macbeth" (IV.I.80). Perhaps this apparition symbolizes Macduff, who was from his mothers womb, by cesarean, untimely plucked. Macbeth does not know this and only interprets this bloody child as the continuing murders he must commit to secure his throne. The third apparition, a crowned child with a tree in hand, probably represents Malcolm who will be the next king and who is also responsible for bringing Birnam wood to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth doesn't interpret the vision, only the verbal speech. It gives him the false assurance that "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him" (IV.I.93). Macbeth, obviously knowing that trees can't physically attack or come against him, takes this as meaning he will never be vanquished. Then Macbeth asks the final fatal question, "Shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?" (IV.I.101). What appears is the nightmarish procession of kings presided over by Banquo. This last apparition scares Macbeth and confirms that, yes, Banquo's issue in the form of Fleance, Banquo's surviving son, the young lad who earlier escaped murder, will someday reign. Macbeth shrugs the last vision off and fills himself with confidence and a feeling of invincibility, after all, none of women born can harm him.
Macbeth, knowing he is to beware The Thane of Fife, orders Macduff's servants, children and wife to be killed. Upon entrance of the murderers into Macduff's castle, we again encounter the foul/fair theme. In her confused and terrified state of mind Lady Macduff says, "I am in this earthly world, where to do harm Is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly" (IV.ii.75). Chaos breaks loose and all living within the castle are slaughtered.
Upon hearing the tragic news of the murders within his castle, Macduff, along with Malcolm, Old Siward, and 10,000 men, prepare to go forth to put an end to Macbeth's murderous reign. Malcolm knows that something must be done. He realizes that Macbeth has lost many supporters and those that are now serving him are only doing so out of fear or desperation. Now is the time for battle. Malcolm, in talking to Macduff says, "Macbeth Is ripe for shaking, and the pow'rs above put on their instruments" (IV.iii.237). Macbeth's deeds have made him friends of none, save his wife, and an enemy to all.
Even Lady Macbeth, the one who seemed so strong a spirit in pushing Macbeth on, now seems to be weakening. Her troubled mind and paranoia are driving her mad. She has never forgotten seeing Duncan's blood on her hands. It is obvious from the gentlewoman and doctor's conversation that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking and talking of some foul deed. She even sleepwalks in the presence of the doctor. She is trying to wash Duncan's blood off her hands, but she is not successful. At the time of the murder Lady Macbeth said "A little water clears us of this deed" (II.ii.66), but now she finds that "Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" (V.i.47). It is apparent that both she and her husband are on the downfall. They are suffering from extreme paranoia, insomnia and stress caused from guilt.
Like Malcolm and Macduff, Angus and the rest of the noblemen from Scotland know that Macbeth is being weakened by his servants who now only serve out of a sense of duty or fear. In fact, Angus comments:
"Now does he (Macbeth) feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands
Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breech
Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief" (V.ii.17).
This reiterates that Macbeth's once loyal subjects now only obey out of fear, not out of love for their king.
Macbeth , still strongly believing in the witches' prophecies, fears not. He feels invincible and will not heed the intelligence reports from his scouts. He doesn't realize that as he gloats over his power that Malcolm, the noblemen, and many soldiers are planning to attack his castle by camouflaging their numbers by carrying branches from Birnam Wood in front of them. Meanwhile, the guilt and stress becomes too much for Lady Macbeth and she kills herself. Macbeth in an almost emotionless utterance concerning life says:
"Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing" (V.v.23).
Only now does Macbeth act a little sensible and realistic. His "poor player" probably refers to one who is to be pitied because his appearance on the stage of life is so brief. His "signifying nothing" could mean that now he sees his life in its totality as being ambiguous.
Shortly afterwards Macbeth gets news which sends him into a frenzy. A sentry, uncertain of how to word his sighting says, "As I did stand my watch upon the hill, I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought the wood began to move" (V.v.34). The witches' prophecies come back to Macbeth and he realizes how they led him to misinterpretations and deceived him. All his subjects have left him and he is left to fight alone. The witches plant (Macbeth) begins to wither and turn brown. Macbeth's castle is stormed, but Macbeth still has faith and believes he can't be vanquished, even by Macduff. Macduff then says:
"Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
Untimely ripped" (V.viii.13).
Only now does Macbeth fully understand how the three witches and Hecate have fooled him. Only now does Macbeth contemplate dying under a cloud of deceit. He says:
"And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope" (V.viii.19).
Only now does Macbeth understand that "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." They fight and Macbeth is killed and beheaded. The plant (Macbeth) has died and somewhere standing between dimensions of time Hecate is cackling at her evil accomplishment. She along with the weird sisters have sent yet another mortal to an untimely death. By deceit, another person has been thrown into eternal hellfire.