How would Shakespeare’s audience have reacted to the ‘supernatural scenes’ in Macbeth and how would this compare to your reaction?
‘The Scottish play’, ‘THAT play’ or ‘The King’s play’. Even today, when we distance ourselves from the contemporaries of Shakespeare’s time, by claiming that we are aren’t superstitious and believe in free will, actors still see ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ as an ominous or unlucky play. However, as two different societies, both the Jacobean and the twenty-first century audience would have very different reactions and responses to the supernatural portrayal of evil.
“Macbeth”, as a play, contains very universal themes, which are explored to a certain degree through Macbeth’s own character i.e. ambition and desire. The main theme, however, is the struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Characters such as Banquo and Duncan represent the ‘good’ while characters, such as Lady Macbeth and the witches, represent ‘evil’. Macbeth, however, is shown to be a multifaceted and very complex character, in that he begins as a ‘noble’ and ‘worthy gentlemen’ however, by the end, has become a ‘merciless butcher’ and we, as the audience, can appreciate these gradual changes in his character much more clearly.
The biggest influence on Macbeth’s changing attitudes and the most powerful supernatural force in the play are, perhaps, the witches. They enter in Act 1, Scene 1 and as an audience, we are immediately rapt by the appearance of the witches; their skinny lips, wild attire and the curious riddle-like language used to speak to each other. The language Shakespeare used for the dialogue of the witches is also distinctly different from the normal iambic pentameter he used in blank verse. The witches speech is often spoken in a four beat rhythm, which is an almost spell like and incantatory style;
‘A drum, A drum, Macbeth doth come’ (Act 1, Scene 1, line 18)
Which helped create a sinister and foreboding atmosphere of mystery; the perfect backdrop to the scene’s of the witches. Their actual speech was also very different as they often used antithesis;
‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (Act 1, Scene 1, line 18)
and equivocation, which served to confuse and mystify the audience and later on with the second set of predictions, give Macbeth his fatally false sense of security.
Where the modern day audience would have been less inclined to believe that they were witches – as we know that this cruel persecution and stereotyping of alleged ‘witches’ was actually an ugly mixture of misogyny, superstition and a belief that religion was being upheld, the Jacobean audience would have seen this as almost undeniable proof that they were – thereby provoking a mixed feeling of fear and hate.
At that time, the common man or woman were uneducated and learnt everything from the church. Although there were deep divisions between Catholics and protestants, nearly everyone believed in Heaven or Hell literally and lived in fear of eternal damnation; a consequence of witchcraft. Pamphlets and books were printed crediting witches with diabolical powers; predicting the future, cursing people with muscle-wasting diseases, bringing on night in day or even sailing in sieves. Indeed Shakespeare used these examples in the conversation between the witches,
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.’ (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 7-9)
again to illustrate to the audience that these witches were wicked and vengeful and to bring relevance to what they already knew.
After the witches bestow their predictions on Macbeth and Ross hails him as Thane of Cawdor, immediately he begins thinking of ‘unnatural’ thoughts and questions good and evil. The use of powerful and emotionally charged visual imagery;
‘Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock against my ribs’ (Act 1, Scene3, lines 134-5)
also adds to the underlying sense of fear and apprehension already created because of the second prediction coming true.
Where this would be a man fighting with his own conscience for the present-day audience, the 17th century person would have perceived this to be an almost possession of Macbeth, especially when Banquo comments of his partners trance like state: ‘…our partner’s rapt’, and would have believed this to be the ‘doing’ of the witches.
The use of invocation spells by the characters would have also had a profound effect on the audiences. Macbeth himself uses one of the first invocations, after he hears of Malcolm’s kingship and begins to realise his ‘black and deep desires’. He provokes darkness and evil forces to make the ‘stars hide their fires’.
Lady Macbeth is also another ‘supernatural’ character, as she is the pushing force behind Macbeths’ decision to kill King Duncan, which is the event that eventually transpires to him killing Banquo and the Macduff family. Her invocation spell that she chants once she hears of the predictions is also full of vivid and frightening imagery,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood’ (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 39-41)
and later on when she confronts Macbeth as to why he has changed his mind over the murder, she similarly uses powerful and poignant imagery to heighten the destructive and fearful atmosphere
‘Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn’ (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 57-8)
Using the metaphor of a suckling infant, representing innocence and vulnerability to prove her disgust at Macbeth’s decision.
The Jacobean audience would view Lady Macbeth as a ‘fiend’ or even, a witch herself – when she cries out in despair
‘Out damned spot!’ (Act 5, scene 1, line 30)
This holds a key message for the audience, as the damned spot or ‘devil’s mark’ which she refers to was at that time believed to be where a witch had allowed the devil to suck her blood in return for evil powers, again veritable proof for the audience of her possession by demonic forces.
Nevertheless, for the present day audience this would have been just been an over ambitious woman, who has taken the wrong steps towards her goal and now regrets her ways.
The killing of King Duncan is also a ‘supernatural’ scene in which there are a number of unnatural and supernatural events that occur all surrounding or are as a result of his death.
The first unnatural instance we see in this scene is when Banquo, assuming there to be a murderer or intruder, draws out his sword to attack. This would have been seen as unnatural, because he draws out the sword on impulse, but it is odd for this to happen in a friend’s house. However, in dramatic irony he draws out the sword on the right person: Macbeth, the murderer.
In this scene again, we see the contrast in Banquo and Macbeth’s character. Banquo conscientiously fights evil thoughts; ‘Restrain in me’. He uses kind and open words in his report of Duncan and wishes to stay free of guilt ‘a bosom franchised’ but Macbeth speaks untruth i.e. ‘A friend’ and tries to tempt Banquo on to his side.
If you shall cleave to my consent, when ’tis
it shall make honour for you’ (Act 2, Scene 1, line 25-26)
but again, showing the audience what to do, he resists.
Once Macbeth is alone he hallucinates, thinking he sees a blood stained dagger.
For the Jacobean audience, this on it’s own would have been a palpable and symbolic object used to tempt Macbeth to do wrong and used by Shakespeare to show that ‘supernatural solicitings’ were taking place and again seen as a sign of Macbeth seized by demonic possession.
In the soliloquy that then takes place we see Macbeth’s thoughts filled with evil images, he personifies nature and death into people and sees nature dead and death, guarded by his ‘sentinel’ walking towards Duncan along with celebration of ‘ pale Hecate’s off ‘rings’. These images would have also added to the now growing sense of fear and trepidation.
After the murder, we learn from Macbeth of his inability to pray,
‘Wherefore could I not pronounce amen?’
and the voice, which cried out,
‘Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep’
These supernatural happenings would have again been taken by the 17th century audience to be the signs of his demonic possession and the consequential eternal damnation.
Once the murder has been discovered, again to intensify the destructive and fearful atmosphere the use of powerful religious imagery and
‘Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
the lord’s anointed temple’
metaphors are used to remind the audience of the damnation that awaits those who challenge the Christian beliefs.
The present day audience would not have put much consequence on these words or imagery, however for the Jacobean audience this would have been of the utmost importance. In 17th century, society was governed by one guiding principle: Religion. After a century of religion swapping between the Tudors, in 1603, King James VI had arrived on the throne in England and Scotland; the first time one monarch had united both countries under his rule. The son of Queen Mary of Scots he was a devout Catholic and as a result believed in the “divine right of kings” and the “natural order.” This was a belief that the king, having been chosen by God, could rule over the people with ‘divine’ rights and thus in the natural order, after God, the king was the most important followed by: Nobility (Earl’s, Thane’s), the institution of the church (Priest’s, Bishop’s) and lastly the ordinary person.
After this, to again tie in with the beliefs of King James and the church, he placed a scene in which Macduff and an old man; symbolising the common man, talk about the unnatural events that have occurred. They mention different omens such as the eclipse of the sun, owls killing falcons, horses eating each other that mirror Macbeth’s killing Duncan: The consequence of Macbeth destroying the natural order has affected everyone, including nature.
‘Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act’ (Act 2, Scene 4, line 5)
The disruption of the natural order is once more highlighted when Macduff refuses to go to the coronation of Macbeth: a thane disobeying a king.
The next supernatural occurrence is that of Banquo’s ghost appearing at the state banquet. The atmosphere at the beginning of this scene is already tense and anxious, as the murder has been committed. As Macbeth eventually goes to take up his seat, suddenly, the ghost of Banquo appears sitting on his chair. The image shocks Macbeth who immediately begins to protest his innocence;
‘Thou canst not say I did it; never shake
thy gory locks at me!’ (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 50-1)
in fear of what the ghost will do to him. However, once the ghost leaves and Macbeth regains his composure the ghost re-enters. Again, he bursts into violent language
‘Avaunt and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold’ (Act 3, Scene 4, line 93-4)
For the modern day audience this would have been a sign of his paranoia or another hallucination, however for the 17th century audience this would have been one of the most powerful supernatural events. The apparition of Banquo, which only Macbeth could see, would have been almost veritable proof that Macbeth has know come fully under the spell of satanic forces. The feasting and hospitality of this banquet scene also represented friendship and community; the disruption of the Banquet showed to represent the moral dissolution between Macbeth and Scotland.
As a modern day audience, we have grown up in a society in which religion holds an occasional influence or relevance in terms of our every day lives, whereas Macbeth’s audience grew up guided and governed by religion. In Macbeth, Shakespeare tried to send a powerful message to the audience about the wrong choices; Macbeth, and the right choices; Banquo, that can be made.
To follow the formula of a tragedy he gave Macbeth his fatal flaw: ambition, and with the mixture of the witches and supernatural forces created an emotionally charged tale that held relevance to nearly every part of the modern Jacobean audiences’ lives. These differences in time and culture are perhaps the reason for such stark contrasts in our responses to the various supernatural scenes, however, the cleverly crafted language and universal themes such as ‘good versus evil’, are perhaps the reasons why, even today, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is still regarded as one of the best and most compelling plays ever written.
Lit: Excellent and thorough critical evaluation of dramatic approaches and intentions = 24
Eng: Original analysis and interpretation of the moral, philosophical and social context. Thorough exploration of appeal to audience. Effectiveness of language analysed = 22