The supernatural is a topic that runs throughout Shakespearean plays. Indeed, the ability of the supernatural to affect the movement of drama in Shakespeare's works is almost unparalleled. Supernatural elements often take on a power and efficacy that the forces of the natural world could never mimic, and supernatural events often have as great an impact on worldly events as everyday activities do. The examples in Shakespeare's works are numerous: Prospero's powers and his minion Ariel, the Ghost of Hamlet's father, Margaret's curse in Richard III, and the power of prophesy in Julius Caesar. Of all of these instances of black magic and the supernatural and their peculiar effects on the denizens of the land of the living, perhaps no example is more famous, however, than Macbeth and its witches. The play describes Macbeth and Banquo's encounter with the witches very early in the action of the play, and the strange prophecy seems to move much of the action of the drama. Indeed, their caldron spell with its bouncing trochaic meter is, next to Macbeth's "out, out brief candle" soliloquy, one of the more quotable moments of the play. Indeed, the supernatural aura surrounding the play has grown so infamous that actors refuse to say the name "Macbeth," while practicing for the drama, only referring to it as "The Scottish Play." But it is important to remember that, in Shakespeare's time, witches were not just the stuff of fairy-stories and Halloween costumes. Belief in the supernatural was real and pervasive and the idea that both men and women could appeal to occult methods and other black arts in order to fulfill their worldly desires was widely held. Many documents from Shakespeare's time illuminate the common belief in witchcraft, explain its elements, and offer a methodology for bringing witches to "trial." This belief reflects the overwhelming power that the witches seem to have in Macbeth and show that their power is not in the least theoretical but a real and physical spur as Macbeth's grapples with his own desires for expanding his worldly station by Duncan's murder.
Innocent VII in his Bull Summis desiderantes, Dec. 5th, 1484, describes the practices of witchcraft with which he has come into contact:
many persons of both sexes... give themselves over to devils... And by their incantations, charms, and conjurings... cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish... these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving...
Here we see that people believed that the practice of witchcraft was not uncommon, and, indeed, we must admit that it is possible that it was somewhat common. It is fairly easy to imagine how certain pre-industrial people living in abject poverty and lacking education might attempt to turn to magical sources for prosperity in the face of a society and a world that seemed blind to their needs. What may be more difficult for the modern reader to believe is that others believed that such occult remedies were in fact effective. The above document clearly shows that extremely educated and powerful people, such as bishop Innocent VIII, were not only aware of the practice of witchcraft but also were willing to attribute a wide range of powers to its practitioners. Here, Innocent VIII claims that, by using occult measures and methods, witches were able to destroy the natural order of things. Aside from causing pain, they were able to destroy harvests, to stop animals from procreating, to inflict unbelievable pain on people, and even to destroy the abilities of humans to procreate.
Of course, it is possible that this idea of witches was created by the intelligentsia as a more understandable explanation for theodicy, or rather, for the problem of why a just God would allow terrible and evil things to occur on the earth. By blaming famine and infant mortality on the work of "evil witches" in the midst of the community, one could affectively remove God from any blame for evil, because these events would be of a purely human origin. The link between witchcraft and evil, and the efficacy of witchcraft in promoting evil hangs over the entirety of Macbeth. In this play, Macbeth is spurred on to think of Duncan's murder by the witches' prophecy, and it is due to their intervention that he first hatches his evil plot.
In his first encounter with the "three weird sisters," Macbeth and Banquo are both told prophesies about their futures. Macbeth is told that he shall be king and Banquo that he shall be the father of kings. Their intervention early on and their strange prophesies set into motion the terrible events of the play that follow. They all hail Macbeth, calling him by titles that he has not yet attained:
Witch 1: All haile Macbeth, haile to thee Thane of Glamis.
Witch 2: All haile Macbeth, haile to thee Thane of Cawdor.
Witch 3: All haile Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter.
Macbeth, although surprised by the appearance of the sisters, is hardly shocked when they call him the Thane of Glamis, for this, indeed, is his title and it is therefore a logical mode of address. When they thereafter address him as both Thane of Cawdor and King, however, Macbeth is taken aback as both the King and the thane of Cawdor currently live. When it turns out that the Thane of Cawdor is slain as a traitor and Duncan then bequeaths that Macbeth should receive the title of Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth decides that the witches' prophesy is correct. It is at this point that Macbeth then considers murdering Duncan in order to receive the title of King, a thought that should have never entered his mind were it not for the very prophesy breathed by the sisters that Macbeth should be crowned King. Indeed, here we see that the Witches action serves as the inspiration for the malevolent events that follow in the play. Indeed, it is man himself, in this case Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who is responsible for the crime, but the witches act as an important catalyst. Thus, Shakespeare shows that, like Innocent VIII, his belief in witches is not theoretical or meant purely to achieve a macabre affect, but to be frighteningly and terribly real. In this instance the supernatural takes on a character that is far from simply "scary"; here the supernatural is effective and has a considerable impact on the events within the world.
Thus, we see that the three sisters of Macbeth need to be viewed as something far beyond a metaphor. Their position in the play is considerably more concrete than being assigned to the role of one small but significant symbol in an allegory about disorder in the governance of a state. While it might seem strange that such a literate playwright would hold these superstitious beliefs, we must once again remember that these beliefs were not limited to the lower strata of society:
The striking thing about the witches in this woodcut is that they are so well-dressed, so decent. The clear implication is that they are (or are imitating) noble women. The practice of witchcraft, real or imagined, was not limited to those of lower social status.
Shakespeare, then, being in a similar position to Innocent VIII in relation to his views on the supernatural, might then have used the weird sisters of Macbeth as another answer to the problem of theodicy. Perhaps his motivation in deploying them is to offer some root cause for Macbeth's wickedness other than that it was his nature to be evil. This external prodding, this suggestion that he was in some way tempted by an instrument of the devil takes the focus, up to a limit anyways, off of Macbeth's evil deeds and places them into a greater context. Also, it allows Macbeth to seem more human, since the idea for the cold-blooded murder is not simply one that he struck upon himself. Rather the supernatural influence upon Macbeth is a significant contributor to his moral decay and eventual ruin.
The supernatural plays an enormous role throughout the body of Shakespeare's works, and we see examples of it in plays such as The Tempest, Richard III, and Macbeth. Given the skepticism of 21st century society, which encourages its citizens to turn a rigorous and scientific eye to earthly phenomenon, we may wish to dismiss such supernatural characters as fabrications of a macabre whimsy included to delight and terrify as do ghost and goblins in children's fairytales. Making such an assumption would lead to egregiously incorrect surmises, however. On the contrary,…