How Now, Hecate? The Supernatural in Shakespeare's Tragedies

By Deva Jasheway
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air,
And more inconstant than the wind…
(Romeo and Juliet, I, iv, 96-100)

William Shakespeare wrote these lines, but his use of the mythological tradition of otherworldly appearances in his plays is anything but insubstantial. Sometimes he crafted them as a permeating presence, other times passing rather quickly, but even so still an important representation in the work. Whether the supernatural aspect in is the appearance of a ghost or the description of an ancient god, it often bears a connection to the larger scheme of the play.

Hamlet and Macbeth are both examples in which the supernatural element enters the play at the opening of the action. The way a theatrical production begins has a great effect on the audience’s perception of the play, and both of these plays emphasize the supernatural from the start. The witches are the first characters we see in Macbeth, already prophesying and spouting paradoxical sayings. The stormy stage and odd characters establish early that this story occurs within an eerie and unnatural place. Hamlet brings the Ghost of the dead king to the plot’s fore in the first few scenes, beginning with a silent, awe-inspiring appearance in the first scene. Although the Ghost does not speak and is only onstage briefly, attention is directed toward that strange vision as soon as we meet Horatio. The eager introduction of the otherworldly being does two important things. One, it makes the audience pay attention. Two, it creates a somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere as we recognize these plays as stories in which the world is not quite natural. As Hamlet puts it, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I, iv, 67). Or in Scotland, as the case may be.

Both of these presences carry through multiple scenes, and the sights are at one point confirmed by multiple witnesses, but later seen only by the play’s title character. Hamlet is actually the last to see the Ghost of all characters who report the sight. The first to see it are the guards Marcellus and Barnardo, who bring in Horatio, Hamlet’s school friend, to confirm the appearance. When it appears in Queen Gertrude’s room in Act III, it is visible only to Hamlet. As Macbeth opens, the audience sees the weyard sisters before any of the play’s characters. When Macbeth crosses paths with them, Banquo is there as a witness to their presence and their prophecy. When Macbeth approaches the lair of the witches he is alone, and they are the only others present when they show him the visions that describe his defeat. When Banquo’s ghost appears closely following his murder, Macbeth alone can see the apparition. This could very well be a factor in the portrayal of the madness of Hamlet and Macbeth, or it may attest to the unpredictability of the supernatural – or both.

Such visions incite the curiosity of any observers, who want to know whether the sights are real, and to understand their nature. In Hamlet and Macbeth, the origin of any of these supernatural elements is always questioned, and never determined. The weyard sisters never actually reveal what they are: we know they are strange, and are witches, but beyond that we are told nothing. They make no effort to answer “What are you?” (I, iii, 45), and when Macbeth demands that they explain what they have declared, they vanish. Hamlet believes that the Ghost is either truly the ghost of his father or a devil, and expresses that doubt even with his resolve.

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak with to thee (I, iv, 21-25).

However, although distrusting the supernatural visions themselves, the characters are put in a position to believe the words of ghosts and witches. Hamlet forestalls that belief until he has tricked Claudius into a show of remorse, but after the trick he will “take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III, ii, 264). In his mother’s chamber, he addresses the Ghost as his father, but he still displays an air of reservation. Although he never determines the true nature of the spirit, he sees the truth of its words. Macbeth first speculates in wonder, “to be king/ stands not within the prospect of belief,/ no more than to be Cawdor” (I, iii, 71-73). When he learns that he has in fact been named Thane of Cawdor, he reasons that the rest of their foresighted speech must be true as well. That belief leads him to conspire with Lady Macbeth, to kill King Duncan, and later to kill Banquo. This seems a fundamental difference between Hamlet and Macbeth. As soon as a part of the witches’ address to him comes to pass, Macbeth takes all of it as truth, so early trusting in that which should still be shrouded in uncertainty. Hamlet takes much more time to believe the Ghost’s revealing words. More than anything else this indicates Hamlet’s tendency to doubt, and Macbeth’s ambition.

We see all of these parallels in the dramatic functions of supernatural beings in Hamlet and Macbeth, yet supernatural characters represent different thematic elements of each play. Hamlet’s Ghost is an embodiment of uncertainty, a very strong force in the dramatic action. As previously stated, the nature of the Ghost is continuously questioned. Hamlet speaks, “The spirit that I have seen/ may be the devil, and the devil hath power/ t’assume a pleasing shape,” i.e., the shape of his father (III, i, 575-577). Later, he described the Ghost as it leaves the scene, “My father, in his habit as he lived,” but it appears a more superficial description than a real trust in the form (III, iv, 126).

Uncertainty pervades Hamlet, questions infusing the text from the first line, “Who’s there?” (I, i, 1). It faces the characters at every turn. Hamlet comes under scrutiny for his actions as others try to determine the cause of his madness. Polonius speculates to Ophelia, “Mad for thy love?” (II, i, 86); Claudius states “What… hath put him/ so much from th’understanding of himself, I cannot deem of” (II, ii, 7-10); Gertrude believes that the cause is “his father’s death and our o’er-hasty marriage” (II, ii, 57). In Claudius’s prayer scene, both he and Hamlet have important questions to ask: Claudius wonders how he can repent for his deed, while Hamlet hesitates in that moment to make the killing blow, asking, “Am I then revenged?” (III, iii, 84).

In many other ways uncertainty rears its head in this play. Claudius becomes so unsure of what to do about Hamlet, once he suspects that Hamlet knows what he has done, that he ships him off to England. Equal consideration could be given to accident and suicide as the cause of Ophelia’s death, since no one witnessed her drowning. Hamlet offers one of the most famous literary uncertainties known: “To be, or not to be” (III, i, 58). Here he is questioning the very purpose of existence, and what happens after death, the existential question that no philosopher has yet been able to answer with surety. Shakespeare brings all of this questioning into focus with the Ghost’s presence. The characters at first search for confirmation that the spirit is not a trick of the eyes, and then must wonder at its origins and its intentions. Uncertainty is so prevalent that we may begin to understand Hamlet’s troubled state: it would be difficult to reconcile one’s existence in a world in which everything must be questioned.

The weyard sisters are illustrations of the duality and paradox that melds reality and fantasy in Macbeth. Within their first lines comes a confusion of nature, as they tell us “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I, i, 10) – a mixed-up sentiment Macbeth echoes at his first entrance: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I, iii, 36). Their physical appearance reflects that confusion as well. When Banquo addresses them, he remarks, “You should be women,/ and yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ that you are so” (I, iii, 42-44). Very plainly there on the stage for the audience to see, the witches do not share the same kind of existence as Macbeth or Banquo. They seem instead to exist between the corporeal world and another, less tangible plane, a mingling of being and non-being exemplified by the dagger Macbeth envisions in his hand. “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still” (II, i, 35). The remainder of that speech makes it clear to us that the dagger is not a literal presence, but the sight of it is real enough to Macbeth that it is in question. The same sort of question occurs in the encounter with the weyard sisters: “Are ye fantastical or that indeed/ which ye outwardly show?” (I, iii, 51-52). Their nature is so mysterious as to allow us to believe that they are both.

That duality of being is an important facet of the drama of Macbeth, and it manifests in the concealment of intentions. Lady Macbeth advises, “Look like the innocent flower,/ but be the serpent under’t” (I, v, 63-64). After Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s home, Macbeth goes to “mock the time with fairest show,” and declares, “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I, vii, 81-82). In this we see the necessity for things not to appear as they are. This is a prevalent need for Macbeth. His faltering leads him to plead,

Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires;
The eye wink at the hand (I, iv, 50-52).

He wishes not only for his thoughts to be hidden from others’ knowledge, but from his own – for his hand to carry out the murder while his eye looks the other way. The concept of concealment may seem to escape the weyard sisters, as they never hesitate to proclaim their wicked deeds aloud, but they support the theme by hiding their true natures. They are “secret, black and midnight hags” (IV, i, 64). That one word, “secret,” is a potent presence in Macbeth.

In other ways, too, we see the blurring of the real world with those of a more fantastical variety. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking affliction brings the dream world into that of the waking; ironically, it is the appearance of that indefinite world through which the character reveals the reality of her actions. The conflation of fantasy and reality is even more apparent in the advancement of Birnam Wood. A messenger reports to Macbeth,

As I did stand my watch upon the hill
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move (V, v, 31-33).

The image is strange and wonderful, but although Macbeth buys into the fantasy of this account, the audience knows better. In the previous scene, we witness Malcolm command that “every soldier hew him down a bough/ and bear’t before him” (V, iv, 4-5). The approach of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane is both logical and extraordinary.

Beyond that, the weyard sisters interrupt the natural order of things, to some extent. Macbeth reacts “against the use of nature” after the first meeting with them (I, iii, 136), and they cause him to “start and seem to fear/ things that do sound so fair” (I, iii, 49-50). The entire kingdom is thrown into chaos as Macbeth is driven to kill the king. The witches talk of the trouble they cause to people with glee, leading their unfortunate targets “unto a dismal and a fatal end” (III, v, 21). The final outcome, if predestined, will come to pass no matter what the witches do, as one of them indicates when she speaks of a man whose sea vessel she intends storm: “Though his barque cannot be lost,/ Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” (I, iii, 23-24). They are therefore as limited as Macbeth, who manages to kill Banquo but not his son Fleance. To rid the world of both would be impossible by the terms of the play, as Banquo’s descendants are fated to wear the crown.

Other supernatural images in Macbeth, namely Banquo’s ghost and the visions the weyard sisters show to Macbeth, could be viewed as striking representations of fear. The word “fear” appears often in Macbeth. Both Macbeth and his wife feel fear surrounding the murder of Duncan, he in its contemplation and she in the act itself. Malcolm and Donalbain, the sons of the king, flee in fear at their father’s death, as does Fleance at Banquo’s (granted that Banquo instructs him to run). When the spirit of Banquo appears to Macbeth, we see him respond hysterically, insisting that the ghost not lay blame on him – “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (III, iv, 49-50). Lady Macbeth exclaims to him, “This is the very painting of your fear (III, iv, 60). The apparition only occurs because Macbeth and his lady are still in the midst of their murderous scheme. He has already said, “If it were done when ‘tis done… we’d jump the life to come” (I, vii, 1-7). The evil of the deed itself is not enough to quell Macbeth’s desires. His problems begin because the act will have to extend to others, and because he will have to live with the murders. Therein lies his fear, and brings about this vision of Banquo’s ghost.

The apparitions, the first two rather fearful in appearance, create an intriguing paradox as, in revealing what Macbeth should fear, they in fact defer his fears. Beware Macduff, the armed head tells him; no man of woman born will harm you, says the bloody child; a crowned child with a branch – probably a representation of Malcolm – assures him that he will be defeated only when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth appears to accept the interpretation that he will remain undefeated, yet he retreats to Dunsinane and fortifies its defenses as an extra precaution. In retrospect, it would seem that Dunsinane was the one place he should have avoided to keep the visions’ words from coming to pass.

Elements of the supernatural appear in Shakespeare’s plays in more than the visual staging; they sometimes appear in fantasy-laden speeches of the characters. The beauty of the words alone is commendable, but supernatural images in Shakespeare’s speech are more than mere flowery language. These emergences of the supernatural usually extend for a few lines, unlike the ongoing images of Hamlet’s Ghost and Macbeth’s witches, but they can still have marvelous impact on an attentive audience and a solid connection with the rest of the play’s content.

Romeo and Juliet contains one notable speech of that variety. Mercutio talks of a fairy called Queen Mab, a tiny creature that stirs dreams and desires. Immediately we see a connection to the work at large: desire has a significant role in the story. However, the contents of the dreams Mab invokes go beyond simple wish fulfillment. The way Mercutio describes it, Mab is in the business of inflaming natures. She makes lovers dream of love and lawyers of lawsuits,

And sometimes comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a lies asleep;
Then dreams he of another benefice.
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscoes, Spanish blades… (I, v, 79-84).

This inducement of disposition-appropriate dreams calls to mind the argument that Romeo is only responding to his lover’s nature when he meets Juliet. Witnessing the swift transfer of his hopeless pining for Rosaline to his incredible longing for Juliet, it does not seem much of a stretch to believe that he is merely following his lust. Chasing women is an inborn quality in Romeo. Mercutio deems, “You are a lover” (I, iv, 17). If we accept this as an explanation for Romeo’s pursuit, then Juliet is another Queen Mab, inciting Romeo’s nature to seduce her.

The dreams that Mab reportedly sets on offset the possibility of pure love with their depravity. When the fairy rides in her hazelnut chariot across the lips of ladies, “oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues/ Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” (I, iv, 75-76). These ladies are indulgent and impure; their breath is “tainted.” The lawyer Mercutio describes will go to “smelling out a suit,” like a predatory animal catching the scent of blood (I, iv, 78). The soldier is disturbingly bloodthirsty, and once Mercutio’s speech has built up he talks of Mab as follows: “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,/ That presses them and learns them first to bear” (I, iv, 92-93). The descriptions of the dreams begin simply, and increase in detail and immorality with each new dreamer. In an account of a societal structure that is being pulled apart by desires, Mercutio’s language deteriorates accordingly. The construction of his speech becomes less coherent as the speech continues. Eventually, it becomes obvious that he is ranting. At this point, Romeo cuts him off.

The way in which this speech ends speaks quite powerfully to Romeo and Juliet as a whole. Romeo interrupts Mercutio mid-sentence, saying, “Thou talk’st of nothing” (I, iv, 96). The idea that speech is an insufficient medium recurs throughout the play. We witness the concept’s expression in the infamous balcony scene. Romeo begins to profess his love by the moon, but Juliet interjects, “O, swear not by the moon” (II, i, 151). After a short exchange, she then bids him not swear at all: “I have no joy of this contract tonight” (II, i, 159). She has enough intelligence to see that she cannot trust an oath made so impulsively. The contract that will bring her joy is a vow of marriage, the promise of a lifetime together. Being the romantic he is, Romeo is all too willing to prove his words.

Unsupported talk means nothing; actions show the character - and this is true not only in Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet’s vow to kill Claudius is barely convincing until he carries it out; Lady Macbeth asks, “Art thou afeard/ to be the same in thine own act and valour/ as thou art in desire?” (I, vii, 39-41); Hamlet and Macbeth question the tidings of their otherworldly visions until they have seen sufficient evidence. Still, we see a difference here: Romeo can tell Mercutio that he talks of nothing, but neither Hamlet nor Macbeth can extricate themselves from the grips of the fantasies they experience.

When the supernatural appears only in language, rather than in the play’s reality, it has a very different effect on the characters. Romeo is allowed to dismiss the strange fairy Queen Mab because it is clear that she is Mercutio’s invention, and does not have any bearing on the real world. Because Romeo does not see her with his own eyes, she does not dwell in his mind. In Macbeth and Hamlet, the witches and ghosts are waking apparitions, not so easy to ignore. It is difficult to disregard such things as unreal, because in order to do so they would have to admit that they cannot trust their sight.

Indeed, we find that the guards Marcellus and Barnardo call for Horatio to “approve our eyes” – unable either to dismiss the Ghost or to believe in it on their own (Hamlet: I, i, 27). Macbeth, too, must doubt what he sees: “Mine eyes are made the fools o’th’ other senses,/ or else worth all the rest” (II, i, 44-45). Inevitably the characters of these plays decide that they really do see Ghosts and weyard women, dreamlike visions in waking moments. These supernatural beings they see “look not like th’inhabitants o’th’ earth/ and yet are on’t” (Macbeth: I, iii, 39-40). The world of Romeo and Juliet remains one in which we can trust our eyes and set expectations for what may appear before us; that is how a supernatural presence functions when it is contained in another character’s language. When the fantastic vision appears before us and speaks its own speeches, we know that we have entered a different and unpredictable world.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 1997.

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