For my Teaching English in the Secondary School class here at New Paltz, I’m constructing a unit plan centered on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In doing so, I’ve had to beat Macbeth to death, analyzing many aspects which I’ve had to include in my lesson plans. Since Macbeth is ever on my mind, while reading the first act of Hamlet, I noticed a parallel between the two plays that I couldn’t deny: the presence of supernatural beings play a large role in their respective plots. I found the connection very interesting, so much so that I’ve been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to blog about it. Of course, after doing a bit of research online, I quickly realized I certainly wasn’t the only one—let alone the first—to make this connection. Nevertheless, I’ll proceed to highlight it here, continuing my trend of scholar-supported propositions.
In Macbeth, Macbeth and his friend Banquo encounter the three “weird sisters” in Act I, scene iii, on their way to a heath. Though challenged by Banquo at first, the Witches proceed to hail Macbeth, the “Thane of Glamis,” “Thane of Cawdor,” and “king hereafter” (I.iii.46–48). These words that “sound so fair” are pondered by Macbeth, who becomes obsessed with the notion of his kingship. As we all know, this obsession sparked by the Witches’ prophecy consumes Macbeth, and his actions following his meeting with them are all made with the intent of making those prophecies come true. Had it not been for the almost ghost-like Witches to appear, Macbeth might never have pursued the throne, at least in the manner of taking it upon himself. Unlike Hamlet’s Ghost, who merely wants his death avenged, the Witches harbor seemingly unconditional ill intent for Macbeth; therefore, though sharing similarities, the two supernatural beings serve rather different roles in their respective plays.
In Hamlet’s opening act, the officers Bernardo and Marcellus inform Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, of a “dreaded sight… [an] apparition” in the form of Hamlet’s father, the dead King Hamlet (I.i.23, 26). After Horatio, who at first doubted the sight, sees the Ghost, he informs Hamlet of “a figure like [his] father” (I.ii.199). Hamlet himself encounters the Ghost in scene iv, where it proceeds to persuade him into taking action against a situation he is already uncomfortable with: the Ghost incites Hamlet to take revenge on his father’s death by killing King Claudius, his uncle, who is currently married to his mother, Gertrude. What’s notable about this encounter is that, unlike in Macbeth, the Ghost does not divulge a vague prophecy left to interpretation but, rather, it proposes a specific direction. This explicit direction serves as the impetus for Hamlet’s ensuing actions, whereas in Macbeth, Macbeth’s actions are a result of his own ambitions and desire to proactively fulfill the witches’ prediction. Hamlet wishes only to fulfill the ghost’s desire to have his death avenged. (I’d argue that Hamlet’s actions in avenging his father’s death are not completely self-serving but are primarily for his father’s sake.) Whereas Hamlet’s Ghost guides the play’s protagonist toward a (reasonably) morally just outcome, Macbeth’s Witches guide its protagonist to an immoral journey to kingship, one that ultimately fails miserably. Though Hamlet “fails” in that he doesn’t survive at the end of his play, we, the audience, sympathize with his character because we are more apt to feel for his cause. Macbeth and the Witches are characters for whom we tend to feel less sorry, as the Witches are malicious and Macbeth is overly ambitious.
Another interesting connection between these two plays is the circumstances in which the supernatural beings appear. In Macbeth, the Witches appear on a day “so foul and fair,” in Macbeth’s opinion, as he’s ever seen (I.iii.37). Such an observation indicates that, though it might be a pleasant day so far, there is an inexplicable foulness about it, and it serves as the foreshadowing of upcoming events that do indeed prove quite foul. In Hamlet, a similar sentiment is uttered by Marcellus in the famous line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” noting that things are quite obviously amiss (I.iv.67). The whole atmosphere of both plays seems tense with the possibility of dark moments to come; as the play progress, those moments come true. It only goes to show how closely the supernatural beings are tied to the overall instability of the environment in which they haunt.
Coming to some closure, this observation of mine is merely a way of establishing a connection between two of Shakespeare’s plays we are/will be reading in class. As I read Hamlet further, I will look for more connections between the two, and depending on my findings, I might revisit the subject in a future blog post. For now, I encourage you (and myself) to be mindful of the supernatural and its effects in this play and in Macbeth when we read it later this semester. (For more information, check out this student’s Bachelor’s thesis; it gives a very thorough look into the subject: is.muni.cz/th/153037/pedf_b/Thesis_Jana.doc)