The Natural World in Macbeth
Welcome to the latest issue of Dramaturgy Corner. I’ve been traveling non-stop for the past few weeks, but I wanted to check in with all of you, say hello, and chat about nature imagery in Macbeth – perfect vacation activity, right?
But seriously, images of plants, animals, and weather are abundant in Shakespeare’s work generally and in Macbeth specifically. While the church and the court are common settings in Shakespeare, Macbeth moves us into the wilds and heaths of Scotland, and as a result the play feels much more connected to the natural world than many of his other plays. The vibe is much more pagan and wild than mannered and lawful.
Jordan’s production of Macbeth leans heavily into the nature imagery of the show. Our gateways into this world were the three Witches, or Weird Sisters. After one of our first rehearsals, Jordan wrote:
“We explored the possibility that the Weird Sisters are essentially ancient environmentalists. I promise we will not have them wearing Greenpeace t-shirts, but the argument that they are protecting something that humans are ruining is shockingly well-supported by the text. What's more, the source material for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, describes three sisters who are "Creatures of the Elderwood", more god and guardian-like than the malevolent view of "witches" that King James promoted, and which Shakespeare somewhat played to (even more so with Middleton's later additions to the play). I also recently learned from Nathaniel Sharer [our Technical Director] that Tolkein created his Ents attacking Isengard in Lord of the Rings as a wish-fulfillment alteration of the Birnam Wood prophecy in Macbeth. Nature is an extraordinarily potent force in this play, especially in its various cycles. The way people interact with and describe it is central to the story and atmosphere.”
Some of the most prevalent categories of nature imagery that recur throughout the play are weather, plants, and animals.
· The witches are inextricably associated with stormy weather. They open the play with the question “When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain,” and their every subsequent appearance is accompanied with bad weather.
· Scotland is an intensely foggy place in Shakespeare’s imagination. From the opening descriptions of the battle to the witches’ incantations, there is a pervasive sense of an inability to see things clearly
· “Unnatural” weather comes up again and again, and serves as a reflection of unnatural and dark doings perpetuated by humankind. Both Macbeth and the witches reference weather that is simultaneously foul and fair.
· Plant imagery in the play is associated with human growth; specifically, a person’s rise to power. Both Duncan and Banquo use planting/growing language when describing political ascent (Duncan: “I have begun to plant thee and will labor/To make thee full of growing” (I.iv); Banquo: “If you can look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow and which will not/Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear/Your favors nor your fate” (I.iii)).
· Birnam Wood is the ultimate plant/power metaphor. Macbeth feels secure in his power because the witches’ prophecy – “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him” (IV.i) – seems impossible. But when human horribleness rends the natural order so much that a forest can move, anything can happen. Birnam Wood’s march, brought about by the felling of a forest, is the ultimate endpoint of a society that has sinned against nature so strongly.
· Snakes and serpents appear when someone is plotting or sneaking. Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to “look like th’ innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t” (I.v). Macbeth refers to Banquo as a serpent – the hidden threat – whose son, Fleance, will grow from the worm to an even bigger danger (“There the grown serpent lies. The worm that’s fled/Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (III.iv)).
· Birds appear so regularly that at times Banquo almost seems like an amateur ornithologist. Lady Macbeth summons ravens and owls that symbolize death, while Banquo points out gentle martlets that make nests. The falcoln, nature’s hunter, gets eaten by a much smaller mousing owl – an unnatural act that reflects on the unnatural deeds that have been done; specifically, Macbeth’s murder of Duncan.
· Macbeth compares himself to bears and horses, fierce and attacking animals that lash out in desperation. Others describe him as, variously, a dog (hell-hound) and a mousing owl.
· Ross and the Porter also mention horses, remarking on rumors that Duncan’s horses ate each other after he was murdered.
Throughout, we see callbacks to nature functioning the way it should, and functioning the way it shouldn’t. This journey from natural to unnatural reflects human interference in fate and custom, especially through murder. Our scenic design relies heavily on nature, and the witches’ altar is set in a deep and dark forest. The pagan, ritualistic elements of the show will be extremely important in our production.
And with that, I think I’ll go for a walk in the woods myself. See you next week for our special tech week post!