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Paracelsus, Heinrich Khunrath and Macbeth: An Alchemical Argument


In Renaissance history of medicine, Paracelsus propounded a theory opposed to traditional Galenic theory of curing like with like. He attempted cure for difficult physical as well as mental diseases through this alternative theory that also freely made use of alchemy, astrology and magical or supernatural (hyperphysical) ways. Among his followers Heinrich Khunrath and other alchemists made use of ancient alchemy and hermetic knowledge. Alchemy turned out to be a life-changing process of reform of the spirit with close connection with Christianity instead of mere production of gold out of base metal. This spiritual alchemy with its emphasis on spiritual and religious improvement had a major influence on European understanding of alchemy as a wise man’s quest. Carl Gustav Jung found the symbolism of alchemy to be appropriate for psychotherapy as it could suggest the encounter with the unconscious and help understand the difficulties in the process of individuation. Following alchemists Jung tried to unravel the mysteries of psychic transference. In this paper I used the Renaissance alchemical theory to look at the convoluted psyche of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the manner of Jung. If we understand their pursuit of the crown as a play of desire in which they seek the help of the dark forces of the unconscious and fall victim to those forces, then we may interpret their pursuit in terms of Renaissance spiritual alchemy as a failed experimentation. In his pursuit Macbeth fails to harness and handle his anima and is destroyed by the dark forces of the unconscious. In alchemical terminology, the self is the lapis or philosophers’ stone. Macbeth fails in the production of this ‘gold’, i.e. his integrated self. The alchemical conjunction that is supposed to lead through death to the rebirth of the self, in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s case turns out to be fatal and horrible. Their encounter with the numinosum ironically leads to destruction instead of resurrection.

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