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.