Explore the way the theme of the supernatural is presented in Macbeth and The Withered Arm

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Explore the way the theme of the supernatural is presented and developed in the texts you have studied.

The play, ‘Macbeth’ was written by William Shakespeare in the early 1600’s and is a gothic tragedy filled with elements of the supernatural. Shakespeare was an extremely popular playwright of the day and was part owner of the Globe Theatre. King James I loved the theatre and adopted the Globe Theatre; the players became known as the King’s Men. Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth’ with James I in mind  as James was terrified of assassination attempts and was also intrigued by the supernatural and witchcraft and had written a book about the supernatural called ‘Demonology.’ James I interest in witchcraft was not unusual; during Shakespeare’s time, there was a powerful belief in the supernatural and its ability to turn events on their head. ‘Macbeth’ would have appealed to a large audience. The theatre in Shakespeare’s day was like a courtyard. At the back of the courtyard was a stage with curtains for the actors and a trap door for ghosts to emerge and the dead to disappear.  Most of the lighting was natural as the plays took place outside. Theatre was extremely popular in Shakespeare’s day and was a fun-filled, rowdy experience which spoke about issues of the day.

‘The Withered Arm’, a short story, was written by Thomas Hardy in 1888 but is set earlier in the decade. Hardy wrote about life in rural South-West England. Two hundred years after Shakespeare, the belief in the supernatural was beginning to abate but in pockets of rural England, superstition remained very powerful and shaped the destinies of the community. It is this rural community and its working people which interested Thomas Hardy. He believed in the supernatural, as did his family who sought advice regularly from a fortune teller they called The Planet Ruler.

In the opening scene of Macbeth, the audience witness a desolate scene with three witches huddled together. The atmosphere on the stage is gloomy, eerie and portentous.  Accompanied by thunder and lightning, Scene 1 creates a dramatic opening to the play. The Witches’ speech is full of cryptic language and confusing phrases. Speaking in short rhyming verse that sounds like a chant or a spell, the witches talk about ‘when the battle’s lost and won’ and ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. Here they are presenting contradictory riddles which the audience cannot yet work out. Perhaps the battle refers to Macbeth’s initial battle which he wins but many die, so they have also ‘lost.’  Perhaps the phrase also points to the final battle at the end of the play when Macbeth is killed by Macduff. The ‘fair is foul’ riddle may be referring to Lady Macbeth who appears genteel but is actually conniving and manipulative. There are echoes of Lady Macbeth’s own words which she speaks in Act 3 when she says ‘Look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under it.’  It is this deceit that leads to Duncan’s death. The general ambiguity of the Witch’s speech prefigures what is to come. This is a play about certainty and doubt, real and unreal and the natural and unnatural. The witches’ prophecies come to dominate and predict the direction of the play. The supernatural in ‘Macbeth’ then, is central.

Shakespeare stages Macbeth’s visit to the witches in a dark cave with a cauldron in the middle. Again the atmosphere is portentous and the witch’s presence is accompanied by thunder, creating tension and fear. The witches begin to make their spell by dropping ingredients into the cauldron accompanied by chanting riddles; ‘toad, that under cold stone/ days and nights as 31 swelter’d venom got.’ Here the witches refer to a toad sweating out poison.

The ingredients are all parts of animals which are poisonous, which taken together make a monstrous person; ‘eye of newt, toe of frog/ wool of bat and tongue of dog.’ As well as ‘liver of blast feaming jew.’ Shakespeare seems to be saying that Macbeth has lost all his humanity and himself is half monster. The audience at that time would have been fearful of the witches spell as they were seen as the devil’s servants.

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 Only two scenes later, the ‘weird sisters’, as they refer to themselves, meet on the heath as agreed. Again, the atmosphere is portentous, deserted and thunderous. This time, however, Macbeth and Banquo meet them. Banquo cannot believe what he sees: “so wild in their attire/ that look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth/and yet are on’t?’ They have a strange appearance; they have beards, yet appear to be women and are in human form but are distorted. Because the witches seem unearthly, it questions the audience as to who they really are. Do they have supernatural powers? Where do ...

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