Throughout history, English texts have often utilised supernatural or spiritual themes as core plot elements. For the reader, an interpretation of such a text may view these either as literal aspects of the story, or as semantic devices used by the author to stimulate deeper levels of meaning. The 17th century texts of Macbeth (Shakespeare) and Paradise Lost (Milton) use the supernatural and spiritual respectively to shape the narrative. In addition, these are both canonical works that have been widely discussed and interpreted by readers over a long period, and are still actively studied today. For this reason, these two works provide definitive examples of how the supernatural and spiritual can be represented and how this representation can be used to create narrative meaning for the reader. Macbeth tells a story of human temptation and weakness using the supernatural as a key plot element, whereas Paradise Lost is an epic in which the spiritual intertext of the Bible is used to comment upon the nature of humankind, society and politics.
The tragedy of Macbeth contains a number of supernatural elements and the foremost of these is the three witches. The play opens with the poetic verse of the witches and this places their supernatural influence at the centre of events. Macbeth’s first line, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.39) is a direct echo of the witches’ opening chant, “fair is foul and foul is fair” (1.1.11). According to Kranz, the effect of this echoing is that “a close and mysterious connection between the hero and supernatural hags is established well before the actual staged temptation of the former” (346). Shakespeare’s placement of the witches at the forefront of events is key to shaping readers’ interpretation of the text.
Another way in which Shakespeare links the witches to events as they unfold is in descriptions of the weather and their influence upon it. Floyd-Wilson writes that “it was understood that these northern witches, unlike those in England, were especially adept at controlling the climate” (147). A clear link is established between the witches opening lines, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain” (1.1.1-2) and the inclement weather on the night of Duncan’s murder. On this night, Lennox observes that “the night has been unruly. Where we lay, our chimneys were blown down” (2.3.48-49), and the reader is led to reflect upon the witches supernatural influence in tempting Macbeth towards evil, and the influence of their prophecy upon his actions.
Shakespeare’s use of language is important in portraying the witches as a supernatural element and in separating them from the other characters in the play. In Kranz’s analysis of The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth, he focuses on the poetic metre of the witches lines, stating that “on the one hand, the tune clearly distinguishes the witches from the human characters, who always speak in blank verse, rhymed iambic pentameter, or prose” (352). The chanting and poetic verse of the witches is a textual feature that is unique to them, and this serves to highlight them as a distinct force with supernatural abilities in the mind of the reader or audience.
Two other important supernatural elements in Macbeth are the floating dagger and Banquo’s ghost, both seen by Macbeth. However, these are both more ambiguous than the witches, as it is unclear to the reader whether they are real phenomena or artefacts of Macbeth’s troubled state of mind following Duncan’s murder. Given that Macbeth is a play, the interpretation of these elements also depends upon the observer’s role as either a reader of text or an audience member in a production of the play. For example, a director may choose to somehow produce the dagger as a prop, or leave it as purely imaginery, relying solely on Macbeth’s soliloquy and leading the audience to suspect it is a figment of his imagination. The effect of representing this spiritual item as a hallucination is that the audience are led to feel sympathy for Macbeth and consider the effect that relinquishing to temptation has had upon him.
In a similar way, there is room for ambiguity in the way that Banquo’s ghost is represented. Floyd-Wilson writes that “the representation of Banquo’s ghost, which only Macbeth can see, again puts pressure on where to draw the lines between inner and outer” (157). In other words, the reader is led to question whether the ghost is purely an internal figment of Macbeth’s mind, representing his guilt and troubled mental state, or whether it is a real phenomenon, perhaps conjured by the witches. The text seems to suggest that only Macbeth can see the ghost, however it is possible that Lady Macbeth also sees it, and merely pretends to Macbeth that she doesn’t, in order to better cover up this supernatural vision from the dinner guests. In a stage production, it would be possible to show that Lady Macbeth does in fact see the ghost, while pretending in her speech that she does not. Again, there is some ambiguity here as to whether the ghost is a reflection of Macbeth’s guilt and descent into madness, or a literally “real” supernatural element. The ability for the supernatural elements in Macbeth to be interpreted either as semantic devices used to represent themes of temptation, evil and guilt, or as literal plot elements, or some combination of both, forms a key part of the play’s appeal over time and its canonical status in English literature.
Unlike Macbeth, which uses supernatural elements to tell a human story, Milton’s epic Paradise Lost tells the spiritual Biblical story of the fall of man, while giving human qualities to the demonic and angelic characters. In this way, the author is able to provide meaning and commentary upon human nature and society from a spiritual setting. Book One of Paradise Lost is concerned in particular with the fallen angels and their expulsion from Heaven after being led by Satan to challenge God’s authority. This continues on to a description of Hell and the building of its capital, the city of Pandaemonium. Book One also depicts Satan as a charismatic political figure, using rhetoric to achieve his desired outcome. The human qualities of Satan and his other fallen angels allows the reader to reflect upon the imperfect and darker nature of humankind.
According to deGruy, “humanity has often sought to understand its own nature through comparison with angels” (117) and certainly Book One of Paradise Lost aids such a comparison. Satan, with his “baleful eyes” (1.56), carrying his shield “hung on his shoulders like the moon” (1.287) is given human characteristics. The presence of the shield, an outmoded form of defence at that time, also alludes to fallen Greek heroes. Kates states that “in the creation of the figure of Satan and the fallen angels and in the entire recounting of the war in heaven, Milton simultaneously imitates and radically criticizes the classical heroic tradition” (306). Therefore this representation of Satan is an intertextual allusion to the classical Greek epics that are stylistically similar to Paradise Lost.
In addition to being personified, Satan is also characterised as a political figure. Bennett contends that “Milton’s conception, in Paradise Lost, of the fall of Lucifer has always been recognized as political in nature” (441). Despite the fact that Satan is a supernatural being, Milton’s Satan is used to reflect the darker qualities of humankind and to comment upon the politics of England at the time. The Satan of Milton’s epic consoles his followers with the idea that it is “better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (1.263), a demonstration of his use of rhetoric to further his goals. This theme of political persuasion continues with Satan proclaiming that “our better part remains / To work in close design, by fraud or guile, / What force effected not” (1.645-647). Here Milton is representing Satan as a force that works in the background to pursue evil means, having lost in his attempt at open war with God. This representation sets the scene for Satan’s future influence as the Serpent, bringing temptation to Adam and Eve and thus causing the fall of man in Book Nine.
Macbeth and Paradise Lost are both canonical works of the 17th century that have been widely studied, interpreted and re-interpreted over time. Both texts utilise supernatural elements that are central to the plot and to reveal deeper meaning, providing also for a level of ambiguity that allows for different interpretations. The supernatural elements in these texts are used as a means of reflecting upon the evils of temptation for humankind and the consequences of falling to the darker side of human nature. In Macbeth, the supernatural can be viewed either as literal elements or as metaphors for the psychology of the human protagonists. In Paradise Lost, Satan is given human characteristics which allow the author to provide commentary upon human nature, society and politics. These texts both provide definitive examples of how the supernatural and spiritual can be used to create a deeper narrative meaning.
Bennett, Joan S. “God, Satan and King Charles: Milton’s Royal Portraits”. PMLA 92.3 (1977): 441-457. Print.
deGruy, Karma. “Desiring Angels: The Angelic Body in Paradise Lost”. Criticism 54.1 (2012): 117-149. Print.
Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “English Epicures and Scottish Witches”. Shakespeare Quarterly 57.2 (2006): 131-161. Print.
Kates, Judith A. “The Revaluation of the Classical Heroic in Tasso and Milton”. Comparative Literature 26.4 (1974): 299-317. Print.
Kranz, David L. “The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth”. Studies in Philology 100.3 (2003): 346-383. Print.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 2000. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2004. Print.