The Supernatural in Shakespeare's Plays "Hamlet" and "Macbeth"

Term Paper, 2022

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7





1. Supernatural beliefs and Witchcraft in England

2. The role of Hamlet's mourning in the play
2.1 The analysis of Ghost in Hamlet

3. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth

4. The Ghost in Macbeth




Stories with supernatural elements like ghosts and witches existed before the coming of Christianity. Folkloric tales, vernacular beliefs and legends were at the roots of such stories. Ghosts and witches fascinated and at the same time scared many people around the world. During Shakespearean times, people believed in the idea of good and evil and were very superstition. The idea of the afterlife was also very popular. The unknown scared but at the same time amused many people; therefore, many plays feature supernatural elements in them. William Shakespeare who wrote his plays during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras used supernatural beings like ghosts and witches to help move the plot and convey a certain atmosphere.

The depiction of supernatural creatures changed throughout the years. Many stories feature different kinds of ghosts and the reasons for their appearances. The contemporary image of ghosts and witches is vastly different from the medieval ones. In the past, ghosts appeared to convey a message or haunt the living, while witches were usually women who did not conform to the standards of society at the time.

Many scholars explored the depiction of the supernatural from medieval to modern times. In this study, many scholars and critics such as Joynes, Kittredge and Bradley were helpful in the creation of this term paper.

The research method used in this term paper is qualitative text analysis. Two Shakespearean plays have been chosen for such analysis, Macbeth and Hamlet. Both plays are compared to trace similarities and differences in the depiction of supernatural beings. Supernatural creatures in the selected plays are essential to the plot as they determine the further actions of the characters. In both plays, they appear early on in the stories. The Weird Sisters change the life of Macbeth and encourage him to follow his deepest desires, while the Ghost of Hamlet prompts the young Hamlet to vengeance. In Macbeth, we first get to know Banquo as a character and then the Ghost of Banquo. The spectre appears later in the play during the banquet but the Ghost of Banquo is only visible to Macbeth and no one else.

The term paper will explore the roles of The Weird Sisters and decide whether they are responsible for Macbeth's actions or he alone is in charge of his destiny. The theme of prophecy and the role of destiny that was very popular at the time the play was written is also going to be explored and analyzed. Moreover, I will compare the Ghost of Hamlet to the Ghost of Banquo in the plays.

The aim of this term paper is to trace supernatural creatures in Shakespearean plays and find reasons for the use of the supernatural in the plays. In Hamlet, I will focus my attention on the Ghost, its description and its purpose in the play. In Macbeth, I will look at The Weird Sisters and the Ghost of Banquo. In order to contrast the ghosts in both plays, I will look at their appearances, purpose in the play and personal motifs. Moreover, I will explore the role of witchcraft, prophecy and destiny in Macbeth.

The theoretical part of this term paper is concerned with the development and changing of medieval ghost stories. I will look at the image of medieval ghosts and determine the reasons for their existence as well as the influence of superstition in England. Furthermore, the history of witchcraft is explored and how people's fears induced by the things they could not explain resulted in many deaths throughout the centuries.

In the second part of the term paper, I will look in more detail at the depiction of the Ghost of Hamlet in the play and its purpose. I will decide whether it is indeed a ghost from Purgatory, an evil spirit or just a figment of imagination. In Macbeth, I will also analyze the ghost and the reason for its appearance at the banquet scene. In Macbeth, the roles of witches will be explored.

Overall, the term paper argues despite Shakespeare being inspired by the early medieval depiction of ghosts, in Hamlet and Macbeth, ghosts are just figments of imagination. They appear with a message they want to convey to the living and they are only visible to a limited amount of characters. The witches in Macbeth are also indispensable to the play as they set the whole plot into action and therefore affect every character in the play. William Shakespeare gives a lot of power and influence to supernatural beings in his plays.

1. Supernatural beliefs and Witchcraft in England

Before looking at supernatural beliefs, it is important to define what supernatural means in the first place. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘supernatural' means, departing from what is usual or normal, especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature” (“Supernatural”). Thus, the supernatural includes things and forces that cannot be explained like ghosts, witches, fairies, etc.

Supernatural often goes hand in hand with superstition. Sudden luck or tragedy that people cannot predict makes some people believe in destiny. The idea that one's life is already decided upon and one should just follow the path is still popular after many hundreds of years. In the past, the beliefs in supernatural and superstition were more common than in modern times. From Middle Ages to Elizabethan- and Jacobean England, the idea of good vs. evil was prominent due to the strong influence of religion and many supernatural stories appeared as a result of vernacular beliefs and the teachings of the Church.

In early medieval texts, a variety of ghosts is depicted. Some of them return incorporeal bodies, but not all of them “take as their subjects the spirits of the departed.”(Joynes, xii) Medieval ghost stories differ from the modern ones because their goal was not to scare people, “In the Middle Ages, a time of unquestioning religious faith, a ghost story often had an exemplary purpose and was intended to evoke a wondering response from its listeners.” (Joynes, xii) Modern ghost stories, on the other hand, usually have an entertaining purpose, such as to amuse and scare the readers. Overall,there are not many ghost stories recorded in the early Middle Ages as only monks or churchmen usually wrote them down, but it changed with time.

‘The Twelfth Century Renaissance' is an upsurge of culture, literature, architecture and philosophy in Northern Europe.1 Crusades, as well as contact with other cultures, resulted in cultural growth and “the emergence of powerful, centralising monarchies which, in addition to vying with each other for territorial gain and sway throughout Northern Europe, competed in the sphere of cultural patronage.”(ibid. 61) Court clerks tried to entertain and amuse the audience, therefore, many ghost stories were written down with such purpose. (cf. Joynes 62) Tales of marvels prompted philosophical debates and speculations and the demand for ghost stories was growing. The stories were largely based on folklore takes, legends and vernacular beliefs.

The idea of the ‘restless dead' became more popular within the population due to the influence of pre-Christian beliefs. Andrew Joynes argues, The tomb is the domain of the dead, to which the ghosts stumblingly return at dawn if they are wandering revenants, and where barrow-dwelling spirits assault the living. There is often something elemental about the ghosts' behaviour: they consort with and madden cattle, and, like the winter storms, they batter the roofs of dwelling-places. (Joynes 125)

This clearly illustrates that the dead were linked with the place of their deaths, usually tombs. The apparitions haunted the living. According to the stories, people could get rid of the ghost by digging up the body and performing a ritual that ends in putting the decapitating head between the knees, consequently burning the body and scattering the ashes. (cf. Joynes 125)

In Medieval times, ghosts resembled normal people unlike the depiction of ghosts in modern days. They are not transparent, cannot hover over the floor or walk through walls. Most of the time they have a physical form and it is often unclear whether they are dead or not. They are usually sent by God to people to give people a message, haunt the living or warn them about the coming doom. Another point worth mentioning is that religion played a big role in medieval times, therefore, ghosts often asked people to pray for them to save their souls from damnation.

In Hamlet though, the form of a ghost is different. It is an airy figure, closer to a modern ghost. Moreover, the ghost is not a messenger of something large like the destiny of the whole Kingdom, the ghost appears before Hamlet because of a personal matter that has nothing to do with God. Such changes implemented by Shakespeare were unique and not typical for that time. Moreover, in the play, we have a royal ghost that is rarely depicted in literature.

Apart from ghosts, the belief in witches was also prominent in England before 1558. They were usually divided into two types, the good ones and the bad ones. Kittredge argues that “Witches may be white or black — beneficent or malefic— and it is, of course, only the latter that are hated and feared by the people at large, for white witches, who heal diseases and undo the spells of malignant sorcery are regarded as friends of mankind.”(Kittredge 23) However, both types of witches were feared by people as they could use their powers for good and the bad. Persecution of witches that grew into epidemics that lasted from 1400 to 1700 was rooted in the fear of maleficent witches. (cf. ibid.24)

The belief in evil existed long before Christianity came to Europe, “Without this popular belief in maleficium, the initial suspicions and complaints which were the starting-point of all prosecutions would have been impossible and inconceivable.”


1 See C.N.L. Brooke, The Twelfth Century Renaissance, London 1969.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Supernatural in Shakespeare's Plays "Hamlet" and "Macbeth"
University of Bonn
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
medievalstudies, Shakespeare, Macbeth, Hamlet, supernatural, witches, ghosts, ghostnarrative, horrorstories, medieval, renaissance, theweirdsisters, Banquo, ghostofbanquo, prophecy, witchcraft, destiny, afterlife, William Shakespeare
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2022, The Supernatural in Shakespeare's Plays "Hamlet" and "Macbeth", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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