Study Guide

Macbeth The Supernatural

By William Shakespeare

The Supernatural

Act 1, Scene 1
Weird Sisters (the Witches)

FIRST WITCH
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

SECOND WITCH
When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

[…]

FIRST WITCH
I come, Graymalkin.

SECOND WITCH
Paddock calls.

THIRD WITCH
Anon.

ALL
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.1-13)

The audience might not get a look at the stage directions, but all the clues are here: the women speak in rhythmic, chant-like lines (check out "Writing Style" for a close look at their language); they call out to their familiars—and, since "Graymalkin" was a common name for a cat, the audience would have gotten the reference, sort of like saying, "I come, Crookshanks/ Hedwig calls"; and, finally, they end with that creepy inversion: fair is foul, and foul is fair." Supernatural? Super creepy, at least.

Act 1, Scene 3
Weird Sisters (the Witches)

FIRST WITCH
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'nnights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.
Look what I have. (1.3.15-27)

All the sailor's wife did was refuse to share her chestnuts, and now the sisters are going to make him impotent and infertile. You do not want to tick off a witch. (Oh, but those chestnuts? Sometimes a chestnut isn't just a chestnut, if you know what we mean.)

Banquo

BANQUO
Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner? (1.3.86-88)

Translation: "Are we tripping?" (We would insert a cautionary PSA about saying "No" to drugs, but we think Macbeth is a pretty good cautionary tale on its own.)

BANQUO
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' Earth
And yet are on 't?—Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question? 

[…]                            

                                You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (1.3.42-44;47-49)

If Macbeth were a horror movie—which it kind of is—then Banquo would be the skeptic who gets killed because he refuses to believe. Where Macbeth accepts the supernatural unquestioningly, doing some pretty dumb things like following a floating dagger and arguing publically with a ghost, Banquo isn't to completely discard his reason and rationality. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the wrong choice.

BANQUO
If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate. (1.3.61-64)

Let's assume that the witches are actually supernatural beings. (Just go with it.) Banquo is showing us how to approach the supernatural: very carefully. He doesn't want any favors from them, and he's not afraid of ticking them off. Although, considering how they feel about chestnuts, maybe he should be a little more cautious.

Act 1, Scene 5
Lady Macbeth

LADY MACBETH 

[…] The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief. 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!" (1.5.45-61)

Does Lady Macbeth actually believe she's calling on spirits? In other words, is she herself a witch of some kind? Or is this all just a metaphor for evil thoughts? It matters, because it affects how we read her madness at the end. Is she being driven crazy by these spirits, or is she having a psychotic break from realizing how awful her actions were?

Act 3, Scene 2
Macbeth

MACBETH
There's comfort yet; they are assailable.
Then be thou jocund. Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister'd flight, ere to black Hecate's summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night's yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note. (3.2.44-49)

Hmm. It sounds like somebody's channeling the witches. When Macbeth talks about his plans for the murder of Banquo and Fleance, he starts sound a lot like the weird sisters. What's that all about?

Act 3, Scene 5

HECATE
Have I not reason, beldams as you are?
Saucy and overbold, how did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death,
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call'd to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you. (3.5.2-13)

Even witches have to follow orders. In a way, the witches' disobedience seems like a parallel to the way Macbeth, "the wayward son," is insubordinate to King Duncan. The "supernatural" still has rules and hierarchy; what Macbeth is doing is unnatural, inverting the natural order of king and lord.

Act 4, Scene 1
Weird Sisters (the Witches)

ALL
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. (4.1.10-11)

And… this is maybe the most famous line in Macbeth. Here, they make all of Scotland sound like some nasty brew that they're whipping up over their fire. But if that's the case—then why does good triumph at the end?