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Nature and the Unnatural


The witches show us what the unnatural looks like. "What are these / So wither'd and so wild in their attire, / That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth, / And yet are on't?" (1.3.39-42), wonders Banquo when he first sees them. He also tells them, "You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so" (1.3.45-47). The witches are not fiends that only visit this world. They are inhabitants of this world who look like they should be human, but in them the human form is unnaturally distorted. [Scene Summary]

Later in the scene, after he has received news that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth asks himself "why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature?" (1.3.134-137). "Suggestion" means "temptation," so Macbeth is asking himself why he feels himself giving into temptation, especially a temptation that makes his heart race and his hair stand on end. The "use of nature" means the way things usually and naturally are, so Macbeth means that he is not used to feeling this way. It's as though his body is warning him against what his mind is thinking. [Scene Summary]


After Lady Macbeth receives her husband's letter, she is eager to talk him into doing the murder she knows that he has in mind. To prepare herself, she calls upon evil spirits to "Stop up the access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctious visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose" (1.5.44-46). "Compunctious visitings of nature" are the messages of our natural human conscience, which tell us that we should treat others with kindness and consideration. Lady Macbeth wants to be unnatural, so that she can be "fell," deadly. In the next breath, she calls upon those evil spirits -- the "murdering ministers" -- to "Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, / Wherever in your sightless substances [invisible bodies] / You wait on nature's mischief!" (1.5.47-50). "Take my milk for gall" means "take my milk away and put gall in its place," and "wait on" means "assist," not just "wait for," so she seems confident that somewhere in nature there are demons with the power to make nature itself unnatural. [Scene Summary]


Just before Macbeth murders King Duncan, Banquo is preparing to go to bed, and says to his son, "A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, / And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose! (2.1.6-9). Banquo doesn't say just what thoughts are disturbing his sleep, but we can guess that they have to do with the witches' prophecies. He certainly suspects that Macbeth intends evil to King Duncan, and he may also have some doubts about his own ambition or his own safety. In any case, such thoughts of evil are not natural; they are what human nature "gives way to" when we are going to sleep.

After Banquo has gone to bed, Macbeth hallucinates, seeing a bloody dagger in the air, and then he tells himself that it is the time of night for such a hallucination: "Now o'er the one half-world / Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse / The curtain'd sleep" (2.1.49-51). "Nature seems dead" because it's dark and quiet out, but as people fall asleep human nature seems dead, too, and then wicked dreams can take control. [Scene Summary]


As Lady Macbeth waits for Macbeth to murder King Duncan and return to her, she says of the king's grooms, "I have drugg'd their possets, / That death and nature do contend about them, / Whether they live or die" (2.2.6-8). Here she uses the word "nature" in the sense of life, which struggles with death.

Later in the scene, after Macbeth has killed the king, he frets that he has murdered sleep and that he will never sleep again. He speaks of sleep as "great nature's second course, / Chief nourisher in life's feast" (2.2.36-37). The second course of a meal was the main course, not the appetizer or the dessert, and so the "chief nourisher." Macbeth feels that he will never again be nourished by kindly nature. [Scene Summary]


When Macbeth explains why he killed King Duncan's grooms, he describes the horrifying sight of the dead king's body: "And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature / For ruin's wasteful entrance" (2.3.113-114). Macbeth is lying about his motives, but his sense of horror may be genuine. Perhaps the king's wounds did indeed look like a great, gaping hole in life itself, a hole that lets in death and destruction. [Scene Summary]


Immediately after the scene in which King Duncan's body is discovered, there is a dialogue entirely devoted to the unnaturalness of the night of the murder. Ross is speaking with an Old Man. The Old Man's memories go back seventy years, but nothing he can remember compares to what has happened during this night: "I have seen / Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night / Hath trifled former knowings" (2.4.2-4). Ross replies "Ah, good father, / Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man's act, / Threaten his bloody stage" (2.4.4-6). The "heavens" are the heavens above, where God lives, and they are also the upper regions of Shakespeare's Globe theater. Ross is saying that the heavens frown angrily ("threaten") as they look down upon man playing his part on the stage of life, which has been made bloody by the murder of King Duncan.

King Duncan should have been honored and loved, so his murder was unnatural, and Ross and the Old Man go on to tell each other of all the unnatural things that have been happening lately. They do not know that Macbeth is the murderer, but as they speak we can see the parallels to Macbeth's unnatural acts.

Ross points out that though the clock says it's time for the sun to shine, it's still dark. Ross thinks that maybe this terrible night is stronger than day, or maybe the day is ashamed to see what has been done in the night. We are reminded that Macbeth wanted a very dark night for the murder, one in which he wouldn't have to look at what he was doing, and he got such a night. Now that night has lingered into the day. The Old Man comments, "'Tis unnatural, / Even like the deed that's done" (2.4.10-11).

The Old Man goes on to say that other unnatural things have been happening, too: "On Tuesday last, / A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd" (2.4.11-13). The falcon's "pride of place" is the highest point of its flight. And the owl, which usually catches mice on the ground, went up instead of down, and killed a falcon. Also, a falcon is a day creature, and a royal companion, while the owl is an untamable bird of night and death. If things in nature stands for things in human life, King Duncan was the falcon, and Macbeth the owl.

Even worse, King Duncan's horses, "Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, / Turn'd wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, / Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would make / War with mankind." (2.4.15-18) A "minion" is someone's favorite. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were King Duncan's minions. The King showered them with honors and gifts, but they turned wild and made war on their master.

All of this unnaturalness is self-destructive. In the end, the horses ate each other. At their ends, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are eaten up from inside, Macbeth by despair and Lady Macbeth by madness.

After the discussion of the unnaturalness of the night, Macduff enters and Ross asks him if it's known who killed King Duncan. Macduff delivers -- probably without believing it -- Macbeth's official version of the story, which is that the king's grooms, bribed by the king's sons, did the murder. Ross then comments, "'Gainst nature still!" (2.4.27). Ross means that it's just as unnatural for the king's servants and sons to turn against him as it is for an owl to kill a hawk or horses to eat one another. [Scene Summary]


Just before he has Banquo murdered, Macbeth justifies the deed to himself by saying that Banquo has "royalty of nature" (3.1.49), and that "under him, / My Genius is rebuked" (3.1.54-55). A man's "Genius" is his guardian spirit, and Macbeth means that he feels that Banquo is naturally superior to him. Later in the scene, as Macbeth is giving the murderers a kind of pep talk, he points out that every dog and every man has different characteristics, "According to the gift which bounteous nature / Hath in him closed" (3.1.97-98). In both of these statements there is a sense that an individual's nature is a given, something determined by nature in general. [Scene Summary]


After he has arranged for the murder of his friend Banquo, Macbeth tells his wife that he is determined to do everything it takes to secure his position as king. He says that he will "let the frame of things disjoint [fall apart], both the worlds [heaven and earth] suffer" (3.2.16), rather than continue to "sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly" (3.2.17-19). This is an implicit admission that he knows what he's doing is against both heaven and nature.

A little later Macbeth reminds his wife that they are in danger because Banquo and Fleance still live. She answers, "But in them nature's copy's not eterne" (3.2.38). "Eterne" means "eternal," and "nature's copy" is nature's copyhold, the lease on life that we all receive when we are born. We all die sometime or other, so none of us has an eternal lease on this life, and Macbeth is glad of it, because it means that Banquo and Fleance can be killed. [Scene Summary]


Although Fleance escaped, First Murderer assures Macbeth that Banquo is dead, saying, "safe in a ditch he bides, / With twenty trenched gashes on his head / The least a death to nature" (3.4.25-27). He means that even the smallest of Banquo's wounds would be enough to kill anyone. Using the word "nature" in another sense, Macbeth replies, "Thanks for that / There the grown serpent lies; the worm [Fleance] that's fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed, / No teeth for the present" (3.4.29-30).

A little later, when Banquo's Ghost appears and then disappears, Macbeth tries to justify himself. He says that men have been killing men for a long time, since before there were even laws against it: "Blood hath been shed ere now, i' the olden time, / Ere human statute purged the gentle weal" (3.4.74-75). It's a natural thing to shed blood; what's not natural is that now the dead "rise again, / With twenty mortal murders on their crowns, / And push us from our stools" (3.4.81).

At the end of the same scene, after the appearance of Banquo's Ghost has broken up Macbeth's feast and made Macbeth half-crazy, his wife says to him, "You lack the season of all natures, sleep" (3.4.140). A "season" is a preservative; she means that everyone needs sleep, and that his problem is just a lack of sleep. But his human nature has been so twisted by his crimes that he can no longer sleep. [Scene Summary]


When Macbeth goes to the witches to learn his fate, he requires answers to his questions, even if it means that winds knock down churches, waves swallow ships, crops are lost, or palaces and pyramids crumble into nothing. He demands that, "though the treasure / Of nature's germains tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken, answer me" (4.1.60). "Nature's germains" are the seeds of all nature (we might call them "the building blocks of life"), and "destruction" is imagined as a person that would destroy so much that it would become sick of itself. In short, Macbeth wants his answers, even if it means that nature will turn unnatural.

Later in the scene, after Macbeth hears the prophecy that he shall never be defeated until Birnam wood come to Dunsinane, he tells himself that the prophecy means that "high-placed Macbeth / Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath / To time and mortal custom" (4.1.100). A simpler way to say it is that Macbeth is sure that he will live out his life and die in his bed, but Macbeth's way of saying it may remind us that he canceled Banquo's "lease of nature," and that he expects to get the benefits of nature by unnatural means. [Scene Summary]


When Ross informs Lady Macduff that her husband has fled to England, the lady is both fearful and angry. She exclaims, "He loves us not; / He wants [lacks] the natural touch: for the poor wren, / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, / Her young ones in her nest, against the owl" (4.2.11). Her bird metaphor shows that she knows that Macduff, by himself, wouldn't have much of a chance against Macbeth and all the powers a king can command. In such a fight Macduff would be the wren and Macbeth the owl, the bird of night and death. Even so, she's angry with her husband because she wants him with her. In her mind, the natural thing for him to do is stay and protect her and their children. [Scene Summary]


When Malcolm tests Macduff's intentions , Macduff protests that he is not treacherous, but Malcolm answers that Macbeth is treacherous and that A good and virtuous nature may recoil / In an imperial charge" (4.3.19-20). He means that under pressure from a king, a good man may not be able to live up to his own virtuous nature. [Scene Summary]


When Lady Macbeth's waiting-gentlewoman tells a doctor of the lady's sleepwalking, the doctor comments, A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching!" (5.1.10). ("Watching" means staying awake.) Near the end of the scene, after Lady Macbeth says things that implicate her in the murder of King Duncan, the doctor guesses at the reason for her "great perturbation in nature": Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds / To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets: / More needs she the divine than the physician" (5.1.71-74). [Scene Summary]

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