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Supernatural elements in any story intrigue, thrill, and capture the attention of readers, adding an extra dimension to the text and performance. Rather than merely to delight his readers, though, Shakespeare incorporates ghosts and apparitions into his plays to serve a very specific purpose in the advancement of the story. In some instances, Shakespeare chooses pensive soliloquys to relay the inner workings of a character; in others, he chooses otherworldly hallucinations. From Julius Caesar, where the ghost of Caesar has a brief interaction with Brutus, through Hamlet, where King Hamlet returns to his son to reveal the truth, and finally to Macbeth, where spectral images torment the ambitious king to insanity, Shakespeare continuously develops his use of the supernatural as an important method of characterization. Though the ghosts, apparitions, and hallucinations in these tragedies always serve as an inside glimpse into a character’s mental state, they do this most prominently in Macbeth.
In Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, ghosts of deceased figures that played an important role in the protagonists’ pasts return to them, and in both cases, serve as a manifestation of their inner turmoil. The ghost of Caesar appears to Brutus in Julius Caesar and declares to him that they will meet again at Philippi, the site of the battle at the end of the play in which Brutus dies. Before he murdered his leader, Brutus had misgivings about his actions; now, these misgivings have escalated. The critic F.W. Moorman makes the important point that “the spirit of Caesar is the embodiment of Brutus’s sense of the failure and impending ruin of his cause” (195). Though we never explicitly hear Brutus’s thoughts in this scene, his conversation with the spirit makes it clear that he is anxious about facing the consequences of his actions. Something similar occurs in Hamlet, when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to confirm what the young prince has suspected all along: that his father’s death was a murder, and that someone very close to him—Claudius—was responsible. Upon hearing the truth, Hamlet’s first words are “Oh, my prophetic soul!” (I. v. 40), confirming the notion that he’d had his suspicions long before they were confirmed. We didn’t learn of these, though, until the ghost appeared—King Hamlet’s ghost serves as a driving force, revealing Hamlet’s troubled thoughts and transforming them into actions that will ultimately lead to his downfall.
These elements of the supernatural, however, do not figure as prominently into these early plays as they eventually do in Macbeth. Shakespeare’s use of ghosts and apparitions progresses over time. While these figures, as previously discussed, do make appearances in Julius Caesar and Hamlet, there are more obvious ways in which we learn about the characters’ mental states. In Julius Caesar, we learn the most about Brutus through his interactions with others, particularly through his arguments with Cassius earlier in the play. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s famous soliloquys play the most salient role in disclosing his thoughts; especially towards the end of the play when he is troubled more and more over his delay in killing his uncle, his deliberative asides become frequent and quite revealing. In Macbeth, ghosts and apparitions are central to the title character’s development. Moorman notes that “A ghost is demanded in Macbeth by virtue of the peculiar constitution of the ghost-seer’s mind” (195-96), echoing the idea that in this tragedy, a ghost’s presence is indicative of Macbeth’s mental state. Macbeth is tormented by the power of his own ambition clashing with his embedded morals that condemn acts of regicide. He is pushed along by both the prophecy that proclaims him king and his determined wife’s goading, yet held back by his own conscience. His panic to ensure that the throne remains his even causes him to kill someone he once considered a friend. Because of this, his mind is in one of the most delicate states a Shakespearean protagonist has ever experienced, and following the crime, it begins to fall to pieces entirely. The ghost of Banquo’s appearance at the banquet is so unsettling in part because it does not even have to utter a word to serve its purpose. This spirit appears as an embodiment of Macbeth’s crippling guilt for the crimes he has committed, for killing both Duncan and Banquo, as evidenced by the frantic line Macbeth delivers in response: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake thy gory locks at me” (III. iv. 50-51). Though the ghost is a hallucination, since it appears to no one other than Macbeth and speaks no words, this hallucination reflects Macbeth’s deteriorating psychological situation. His mind is slowly collapsing under the weight of the guilt, and Shakespeare incorporates this vengeful spirit in order to relay this to the audience.
This same theme holds true for Macbeth’s other hallucinations, which, while they do not involve the physical embodiment of a spirit like his vision of Banquo’s ghost, still reveal just as much about his mind. Just before he kills Duncan, he imagines voices calling out “Macbeth doth murder sleep!” (II. ii. 33), which effectively reveals his guilt even before he commits the crime. The famous dagger hallucination serves the same purpose: its presence puts his inner uncertainty on display for the audience, and an explicit statement of the guilt he feels is therefore unnecessary. This, in many ways, is far mar potent; we can see his guilt in the image of the dagger, feel his guilt as he stares at it and wonders whether it is truth or fiction. We do not have to hear his guilt. Through the image of the dagger and the hallucination of the voices calling out, we learn exactly what is occurring inside the ambitious noble’s mind. These apparitions are both hallucinations and supernatural messengers; though they are not real, they are a very purposeful product of the inner workings of a troubled mind. Shakespeare places them in strategic positions throughout the text, both before Macbeth commits the fateful crime and after the deed is done, in order to characterize his antihero in a much subtler way.
The fact that characters other than the protagonist also experience these supernatural projections further sets Macbeth apart from the earlier plays. Lady Macbeth falls prey to these hallucinations as well, and they more directly contribute to her death than they do to Macbeth’s. Earlier in the play, she seems incredibly self-assured, positive that killing Duncan will bring she and her husband to the esteemed status they deserve. While Macbeth falters in his confidence from the beginning, Lady Macbeth seemingly never wavers. Only later, through her persistent hallucinations of blood on her hands, do we learn that her mind is more fragile than it initially seemed and that guilt has affected her as well, perhaps even more so than her husband. The critic Isador Henry Coriat describes this as “one of the cases in which hallucinations developed out of subconscious fixed ideas which has acquired a certain intensity” (72), which suggests that the newly-appointed queen’s guilt has been silently building up over the course of the play and now, at last, it manifests itself as this hallucination. This vision of unwashable blood on her hands starkly contrasts with her former mentality that “A little water clears us of this deed” (II. ii. 84), and shows us at last the true Lady Macbeth, the one who can no longer hide behind her false confidence and who experiences the same guilt that plagues her husband. She can no longer maintain her façade; insanity has taken hold, and Shakespeare places this hallucination at the ominous beginning of the end.
Finally, the effects of the supernatural in this play are not only limited to those apparitions that the characters conjure from their minds: the three mysterious witches are a crucial component of this text. They primarily serve as catalysts for the havoc that is wreaked from start to finish; after all, they are the ones who first present the idea of kingship to Macbeth. Their crafty prophecies lull him into a false sense of security in his own power, and these misinterpretations lead to his ultimate demise at the sword of Macduff. However, though they have an obvious driving role in this play, they also subtly serve the same purpose as the other supernatural conjurations: they bring out something from deep within Macbeth’s mind. Their prophecies are outward manifestations of his inward ambitions. As an important military leader, Macbeth was an ambitious individual prior to the events of this play. At the beginning, though, he seemed content with his own successes—the witches are able to bring out Macbeth’s hidden ambitions from within, revealing his true nature to the audience for the first time. We learn a lot about Macbeth through their predictions, about what he truly desires and the lengths he will go to achieve his chilling goals.
Without these supernatural messengers and foreboding hallucinations, the tragedies that unfold in Macbeth would be far less frightening and devastating. These elements add an extra dimension to the text that could not be achieved through words or actions. Shakespeare’s use of ghosts and apparitions, though always for the same purpose, developed from a small, foreshadowing conversation in Julius Caesar to a masterful, widespread means of characterization in Macbeth, allow readers to delve into the minds of the troubled characters in a unique and effective way.
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