Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth
Witchcraft and the supernatural has been a prevalent theme throughout theatre history, having many plays involving issues of witches, wizards, magic, ghosts, and other mysticisms. The world’s most famous playwright, William Shakespeare, who wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was definitely no stranger to otherworldly premises. The ghost of the old king in Hamlet and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth are central to the plays’ plots, they are a major force in determining the two heroes’ actions, form the plays’ opening scenes, and they are an important element in establishing the plays’ atmosphere.
For both plays, the instances of the supernatural are introduced early in the plays. In Macbeth, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three “weird sisters” in Act I, scene iii. Though challenged by Banquo at first, the Witches proceed to hail Macbeth, the “Thane of Glamis,” “Thane of Cawdor,” and “king hereafter” (I.iii.46–48). These words that “sound so fair” are pondered by Macbeth, who becomes obsessed with the notion of his kingship. As we all know, this obsession sparked by the Witches’ prophecy consumes Macbeth, and his actions following his meeting with them are all made with the intent of making those prophecies come true. Had it not been for the almost ghost-like Witches to appear, Macbeth might never have pursued the throne, at least in the manner of taking it upon himself. Unlike Hamlet’s Ghost, who merely wants his death avenged, the Witches harbor seemingly unconditional ill intent for Macbeth; therefore, though sharing similarities, the two supernatural beings serve rather different roles in their respective plays.
The very first lines of Hamlet seem to be designed to prepare the audience for the ideas that will develop as the play progresses.
BARNARDO Who’s there?
FRANCISCO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself. (I.i.1-2)
This opening exchange is set upon the gloomy, gothic battlements of the castle as the watchmen stumble through the dark, afraid of meeting the ghost that the audience will discover has already appeared twice before. As an opening image, this immediately introduces an element of the supernatural in order to unnerve the audience and convey the sense of uncertainty that runs throughout the play. As well as this, the dialogue hints at the way in which the dark battlements can be read as a metaphor for the way in which Hamlet is struggling with his own sense of identity, which his father’s ghost later forces him to ‘unfold’ in order to restore a natural order to the usurped throne (Griffiths, 2).
When the ghost of King Hamlet eventually speaks to the Prince, Shakespeare seems to ensure that the feelings of uncertainty are not removed as an audience may expect. Instead, the ambiguity of the ghost’s intent and role within the play are only increased, which is again something that is reflected on stage through Hamlet’s own reactions. Despite the apparition taking his father’s form, Hamlet is cautious of the spirit’s intentions and finds himself unable to act upon his promise to avenge his father due to conflicts with his moral and religious characteristics. Arguably, Shakespeare is exploring the idea of the conflicts between morality and a greater sense of duty, something that is reflected in Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy where he contemplates the difference between life and death as an analogy for taking action or being passive. Campbell and Quinn (288) argue that:
“The soliloquies are the passages that most clearly reveal Hamlet’s struggle on the one hand to obey the Ghost’s sacred injunction and on the other to follow the dictate of his own nature… They relate what is passing through his mind to moral imperatives and religious principles. In the ‘To be or not to be’ speech Hamlet considers the implications of his undertaking the career of an avenger to which he has just dedicated himself.”