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Appearances vs Reality

The words of the witches
  • Throughout the play, the witches speak equivocally to Macbeth, meaning that they speak purposefully ambiguously in order to make Macbeth misunderstand what they are saying.  The witches are malevolent creatures who worship devils and try to bring humanity to their doom, as well as representing the force of fate. Initially, when the audience encounters the witches, we are puzzled by their circular language ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, which seems designed to turn everything we understand on its head.   Equally, when Macbeth encounters the witches, they speak to him without true clarity, leading him to call them ‘imperfect speakers’. For example, they tell Banquo ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none’, meaning that he will have children who will be Kings, even though he won’t be King himself. By confusing Macbeth and Banquo as to why Banquo’s children will be Kings, they obscure the reality that it is Macbeth’s own jealousy of Banquo which will set in motion the events leading to that fate.  Similarly, Macbeth misconstrues their warnings about his lack of happiness as King, and decides that he then must become King, and must murder Duncan, leading to his own damnation.

  • Later in the play, Macbeth repeatedly refuses to listen to the witches’ warnings.  E.g. ‘for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’, the witches tell him. Macbeth takes this to mean that no-one can kill him, when really it refers to Macduff, who was born via C-section.

  • The appearance of witches mirrors their ambiguous speech.  Banquo comments that ‘You should be women/Yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so’, showing that the witches look ambiguous, as well as reflecting the way in which they are completely unnatural.

  • Repeatedly, in the play, characters encounter warnings about listening to the witches and ignoring the reality of what they say.  ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/In deepest consequence.’ In this quote Banquo reveals his suspicions that dark forces use ‘honest trifles’, ‘trifles’ expressing the trivial and meaningless nature of the truths they use to lure you in, in order to then betray people when it really matters.  This is what happens to Macbeth, who never seems to be able to recognise the betrayal of the witches, even fighting on once he himself has said ‘I begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend’ in the final act.

  • Whilst the appearance of the witches’ words is enthralling, the reality is quite different, leading to Macbeth’s betrayal, sin and ultimately his death.

Human deception (Lady Macbeth and Macbeth)
  • Mirroring the witches, Lady Macbeth is extremely ambitious and seeks to influence Macbeth to murder Duncan.  To this end, and eventually to stop them being found out, she repeatedly tries to disguise their ambitions to others.  

  • This may be seen where she faints when Macbeth is about to accidentally give them away when Duncan’s body is found, and in the banquet scene where she tells the lords that Macbeth often sees hallucinations, when he is about to confess to murdering Banquo.  In fact, much of Lady Macbeth’s character’s role is to distract others from seeing Macbeth too clearly.

  • ‘Look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under’t’, she instructs Macbeth.   In this, she asks Macbeth to look pleasant and act nicely, in order to conceal his true intentions.  The symbolism (simile) is of purposefully Biblical language, revealing Macbeth as the serpent, or the betrayer in the Garden of Eden, which will lead to the fall of man from Paradise.  In some ways, Macbeth even betrays himself and casts himself into hell as a result.

  • However, Lady Macbeth is not the only human equivocator.  As seen in the Porter scene, Macbeth also tries to equivocate to himself (telling himself that the consequences don’t matter) but cannot ‘equivocate to heaven’, showing that his lies cannot deceive God.

  • Moreover, some characters use the deception of appearance to test other characters - e.g. when Malcolm tries to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland by pretending to be an extremely sinful man.


Macbeth’s understanding of himself
  • Macbeth enters the play with a very strong reputation as a man of honour and bravery.  We might infer that he also sees himself in this way, despite the fact that his bravery will later be exposed as ruthlessness.

  • Frequently in Macbeth, characters use the language of costumes/the theatre to describe Macbeth, particular Macbeth’s situation after Duncan’s death.  E.g. when Macbeth is talking about the witches’ prophecies he asks ‘why do you dress me/In borrow’d robes?’ Referring to the fact that his new title is that of someone still alive.  Furthermore, he calls the truths the witches tell ‘happy prologues to the swelling act/Of the imperial theme’, referring to his life as though it were a play. This expresses the lack of true reality which Macbeth sees in his life after he meets the witches, instead seeing everything as a great act, for which he can simply disguise and costume himself in order to get what he wants.  Yet the ‘borrow’d robes’ of the King never truly fit him, and he is never truly able to play the role which he makes it appear he is fit for.

  • Later in the play, Macbeth has gone far in his brutality to become King and then not to lose his status that he has entirely lost sight of himself and his true self as he descends into the ‘restless ecstasy’ of madness.  Even when he dies (goes to do), he says ‘At least we’ll die with harness on our back’, armouring himself again his enemies, perhaps as another form of costume - Macbeth dies visually as he begins, a bloody soldier, mentally protecting himself from true understanding of his descent into tyranny.  

  • Moreover, Macbeth’s relationship suffers from his lack of understanding of who he really is - as he becomes more obsessed with staying King he ceases to have a good relationship with Lady Macbeth.

  • Furthermore, even his ultimate goals seems to defy reality.  Though he has striven to be King throughout the play, Lady Macbeth unwittingly reveals the truth of his ambition during the banquet scene - ‘you look but on a stool’ she says of the throne.  This reveals, that in reality, Macbeth’s ambitions are also worthless.

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