Appearance and Reality in Macbeth
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As one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Macbeth portrays the untimely end of its main role at the hands of what appears to be his own ambition. However, Shakespeare carries the audience through a series of strange events that lead the viewer to question images used by the three witches, effectively the narrators, and motives of characters, which seem unfounded. The line between fantasy and reality is undefined by the playwright, leaving images and surreal occurrences open to interpretation. One interpretation is that the unnatural happenings within the play are not all they seem but are in fact the physical representation of the workings of the disturbed minds of the characters, visions that Shakespeare allows the spectators to witness. Moreover, the characters are not exempt from this apparent theme throughout the play. Many use a false guise to hide their real beliefs, often guilt. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony transfers the possibility that not all is what it seems directly to the audience through soliloquies and the basic narrative.
Macbeth has a striking reversal of character within the play, hiding behind his loyal and patriotic persona that the audience is aware of by other characters assessments of him throughout the play:
“For brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name”
He brutally murders his own friends for self-ambition (with much persuasion from his once honourable wife, Lady Macbeth) and eventually becomes the tyrannous King of Scotland and is notoriously hated:
“The devil himself could not pronounce a name more hateful to mine ear”
The discovery of Macbeth’s treachery leads to his own downfall, allowing the characters to realize that whatever he appeared to be, Macbeth proved that his honourable, heroic reputation was purely a facade to hide his evil, unjust deeds. This change of character is unexpected and unfounded. Macbeth appears to be unaware of his own thirst for power until his first meeting with the witches, which has a marked and profound affect on his character, detaching Macbeth from his senses as the play progresses. Moreover, Macbeth’s changing character is not isolated incident. It is fairly evident within the original Thane of Cawdor who described by Macbeth ere his knowledge that he was a traitor to the King, greatly contradicts that of those who are aware of the Thane’s evil actions.
One argument suggests that the changing point in the personalities of the characters be before their introduction to the text. From the starting point, the audience is only aware of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the original Thane of Cawdor ‘s good actions that precede their entrance in the play suggesting that they have been collectively corrupted by an external power. Making them inexpressive and soul-less, this power exposes their evil natures. This interpretation suggests the “unearthly” hags whom open the play by chanting what appears to be an inexplicable spell are actually dictating the outcome of the events to follow. However, at the plays opening although the witches appear to be mystical, the audience is only aware of the relevance of their words when analysing their chant retrospectively. What appears harmless is in fact evil and sadistic.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair.” Firstly, Shakespeare has attempted to comment on the commonly held ideas of superstition in Elizabethan times; the natural balance that the world holds between heaven and hell, honesty and deceit, alongside the strongest opposing forces; good and evil. Shakespeare tackles these issues on how upsetting the balance can concern the people, relating the plot to their own superstitions.
This paradox appears to be play on words; however, this phrase is a prediction of the play’s ending. Connoting that to be seems to be good could really be evil and what appears to be evil may in fact be good. Moreover, it is evident that whilst Macbeth and his queen appear heartbroken at the death of their friend King Duncan, in fact they are preventing their murderous lies from discovery and hide behind their honourable reputations. Therefore the witches are omnisciently summarizing the whole situation, seeing Macbeth’s opposing appearance and reality from the opening of the play which is not discovered by other characters until the closing. The knowledge character’s have of each other greatly contradicts what the audience and apparently the witches are aware of, this clever use of dramatic irony causes the final understanding to have a greater climax and effect on the characters.
The witches described to resemble both men and women due to their haggard state. Banquo implies that the witches are women but refuses to make assumption to their sex, as they are unrecognisable.
“You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so”
This suggests that the three sisters are speaking posts from which Shakespeare could deliver direct narration to the audience in an original way. Their fantastical appearance allows them to have abilities that an ordinary character such as does not possess, such as prophecy.
The witches mesmerized Macbeth at their first meeting and his intense questioning greatly contradicts the light-hearted quips Banquo teases them with as he comments on their bizarre appearance. Yet, Macbeth solemnly and directly asks them to speak. This combination of both his good nature and self-ambition eventually leads to his downfall. The witches greet Macbeth in prophetic and poetic form. This is the first instance in which the audience discovers what the sisters represent; they are not humorous or harmless but in fact evil and twisted.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis,
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor,
All hail, Macbeth! Thou shalt be King hereafter.”
After greeting Macbeth with “great prediction of noble having and royal hope”, the arrival of Ross and Angus to pronounce Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor, as the first of the predictions becomes true, triggers an immediate impact on his character. It makes him introverted and detached while a secret plot forms to make the last prophecy a reality also. Macbeth appears to continue his normal life but we are aware through the letter to his wife that his deeply rooted ambition- encouraged by the witches, clashes with his own morality and subsequently turning him slowly insane. Again, Macbeth hides behind a facade to prevent the discovery of his treachery.
Banquo inquisitively encourages the witches to disclose information on his own future, to which the hags respond in an equally curious and contradictory fashion.
“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get Kings though thou be none: So all hail Macbeth and Banquo!”
Banquo’s predictions are paradoxes- how can he be greater and lesser than Macbeth can. The answer is that although Macbeth would seemingly be greater because he becomes King, it is through deceit and discreditable deeds that he becomes a tyrannous leader, therefore less than Banquo who is loyal and praiseworthy. Macbeth would appear to be happy, as he had achieved his fundamental aim but his own murderous acts torments him. Although Banquo will die, he has does not have to weigh the same heavy burden as Macbeth. The final prophecy, explained at the completion of the play is that once Macduff overthrows Macbeth, Banquo’s descendants become future kings. Banquo does not understand the contrived nature of the predictions and merely accepts them as words with no meaning. In reality however they are predicting the breakdown of Macbeth’s character and how he shall pay for his evil actions.
Meanwhile, Macbeth is lost within the possibility of the future and forgets to analyse the possibilities of the present. Banquo however undermines the stunning prospect of what the witches are suggesting by scrutinizing their reality and their goodness:
“The instruments of darkness tell us truths…to betray us in deepest consequence.”
Banquo is suggesting that the witches are manipulating Macbeth, encouraging him to take fate in his own hands. Banquo uses this unique insight into the malevolence of the witches to suggest that by knowing that Macbeth was to become Thane of Cawdor has mystified his ability to judge the situation. Moreover, he argues the Witches attempt to gain from Macbeth’s fortune. Moreover, as Macbeth is “rapt” by the amazing prospect of becoming King, Banquo is patronizingly warning him that dealing with the “devil(s)” is dangerous. However, he trusts in Macbeth to allow fate to take its course based on his awareness of Macbeth’s honest nature. What Banquo did not suspect was the how affected Macbeth was by the witches and how he intended to ensure he became King.
Macbeth’s thoughts had already turned to his own intervention as he envisages a path to his own Kingship, a path that Macbeth will complete to achieve his ultimate goal. The impact of the unsubstantiated ambition Macbeth has acquired after meeting the witches has turned his thoughts to murder, as an unknown source dictates his formidable actions.
“This super natural soliciting cannot be ill; cannot be good…present fears are less than horrible imaginings…function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not.”
Macbeth displays a naive side to his character, as he cannot understand the work of the witches and attempts to tackle the presence of good and evil amid the prophetic proceedings. Furthermore, within his soliloquy Macbeth also connotes it is more frightening that he is imagining committing murder than that of the witches’ rationale. However, Macbeth implies that it has woven this ideal of becoming King into his mind and now he can only think to the future, as it is the only real thing to him. Essentially, Shakespeare is suggesting to the audience what Macbeth’s definitive objective is and how now there is nothing to prevent him from obtaining those goals, as murder is not a foreign concept. This suggests the involvement of a paranormal force that has influenced Macbeth to become ruthless and open to wicked persuasion. There is seemingly no suggestion as to why his character could have distorted to such a high level apart from the witches’ participation.
However, the last remnants of Macbeth’s conscience are working, attempting to untangle him from the grasp in which self-ambition holds him and it is evident at this point that Macbeth has trouble accepting the evil, murderous ideas. Albeit he contemplates that he must kill his friend King Duncan so that he may become King, Macbeth is still aware of the horror of his actions. He assures himself that if fate made him Thane, and then it can make him King.
“If chance will have me King, why, chance can crown me, without my stir…come what come may, time and hour runs through the roughest day.”
Conceivably, Macbeth was encouraging himself to put the evil thoughts out of his head in an attempt to quash the burden of knowing the future but not trusting destiny to take it’s own course. However, Macbeth’s conviction to his principals does not last, as his wisdom cannot prevent the surge of self-ambition that eventually overcomes him.
Macbeth becomes aware of his competition to the throne shortly after he reveals that he shall let nature decide his fate. As he becomes aware that Duncan has made his son The Prince of Cumberland and next in line for the throne. Macbeth soliloquises how he intends to deal with his struggle to become King, believing if he acts without really thinking about what he has to do, it will be as if he never committed the crime.
“Let not light see my black and deep desires; the eye wink at the hand; yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”
Macbeth is attempting to hide his homicidal plots against the successor to the throne, believing that if he makes an exception to his principals, it would be as if he did not commit the crime at all. Macbeth seems to justify his behaviour by suggesting that murder is acceptable as long as he benefits from it. Yet still, he lays judgement on himself by acknowledging that he will regret the murder of Duncan, Macbeth fears the consequences.
Macbeth writes to his Lady in hope that she can advise him on what he should do, this is evident of the strong and loving bond they have before they are lost in separate worlds of guilt and suffering. Immediately, Lady Macbeth decides that although it is evil, Duncan must not prevent them from reaching their goal and she begins to plot against the King.
“Thou wouldst be great, art thou not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it…which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem to have crown’d withal.”
Lady Macbeth analyses her husband as she discusses the news he has just shared with her. She believes that becoming King is not of his reach but he does not have the fortitude to corroborate with destiny and ensure that he reaches his goal to become king.
Although it appears that Lady Macbeth has a more forceful nature than her husband does, one argument suggests that in fact she is the weaker character. Being more susceptible to the paranormal control that is taking away her morality, Lady Macbeth eventually kills herself when she can no longer live with the “fiendish” acts she has committed. Macbeth alternatively, is conflicting his own misconduct and lives to face the consequences of what he had done. Encouraging herself to become “unsex”, Lady Macbeth attempts to surpass her female emotions so she cannot feel affection for the man she was prepared to kill, which is the very facade she abuses to hide her own guilt. As Lady Macbeth’s plots form to assassinate King Duncan, she demands that Macbeth cover the burden of much emotional contemplation, as his troubled expression exposes his evil thoughts. Her scheming mind encourages Macbeth to appear harmless and give no reason for his peers to doubt him; however, in reality Lady Macbeth is coaxing him to deviously snatch what he wants.
“Your face…is a book where men may read strange matters…look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.”
The use of a simile to describe Macbeth as a flower could refer to people who can sense or ‘smell’ trouble. By suggesting, that Macbeth should become like a flower connotes that he can ward off any suspicions by smelling sweet, without notion to doubt him. The religious connotations that propose the serpent the most evil creature refers to the story of creation where it was the ultimate temptation, suggesting further similarity between Lady Macbeth and Queen Mary.
Lady Macbeth is almost a juxtaposed title within its context in the play. “Lady” connotes pureness and honour, whereas “Macbeth” implies immorality, unjustness and murder. Lady Macbeth as an individual character displays both of these traits. Hiding behind her guise as a poised and beautiful woman, she can control what mainly the male characters believe about her. In reality, her wickedness almost exceeds that of her husband as Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to make unprepared decisions. Shakespeare conceivably designed Lady Macbeth on Queen Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary who was a notoriously murderous Catholic woman. Lady Macbeth often refers to “hiding from the heavens,” which connotes a fear of the fate that awaits her, a trait often claimed to be associated with Mary. Moreover, Lady Macbeth and Queen Mary assume the roles mainly associated with male leaders; Queen Mary as the tyrannous leader of England and Lady Macbeth as a calculating and dominant character. This allows Lady Macbeth to become a representative of Shakespeare’s attitude towards Queen Mary and effectively by feigning her as a wicked character; he aims to please his Elizabethan audience.
As Duncan arrives at the castle, he comments on the peaceful and resounding atmosphere, unaware of the conspiracy to murder him in the very same place.
“This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.”
This dramatic irony builds upon the absurdity of Macbeth and his wife’s exchange of character, relating to the argument that suggests the supernatural involvement has caused “Fair” to become “Foul”. There seems to be no other reason why they could become so evil, when they used to be so good.
Macbeth contemplates the threat he poses to his ‘friend’ King Duncan. Away from temptation, he assures himself that murdering such a good man is demonic and demands to his wife that they should stop calculating under false pretence. Lady Macbeth infuriated by Macbeth’s suggestion calls him a coward as she continues to prepare for the murder of Duncan.
“What beast was’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? …Then you were a man; and, to be more than you were, you would be so much more the man.”
Lady Macbeth connotes a manipulative of Macbeth’s male ego and her own sexuality to encourage him to be a better person, relating to the witches prediction that suggested Macbeth would be ‘better’. Although he would appear a better person, if he became the King, in fact he slowly mentally deteriorates. However, it is plausible to believe Macbeth was coaxing his wife to support his bloodthirsty narcissism and collaborate with his own personal ambition. Lady Macbeth’s demonic intervention encouraged him to kill the King but the residing guilt soon replaces any pre-conceived ideals of happiness Macbeth’s kingship would bring. A destructive paranoia formed in both characters as Macbeth repeatedly resulted to murdering what he considers competition.
Tainted with haunting images the events that precede the murder are conjured by the couple’s guilt. Macbeth realises that in killing Duncan, he has removed the faï¿½ade of who he used to be. This understanding is reminiscent of Macbeth’s opinions after hearing the original predictions when he suggested that he could only appreciate the reality of murder once he had committed it; Macbeth now has to comprehend the extremity of his actions.
” Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more! …Glamis hath murder’d sleep…Cawdor shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!”
Macbeth’s responsiveness to the murder of King Duncan shows an awareness that he has changed. He refers to himself in three different terms. Glamis is Macbeth’s ambitious title that longs for power as it “murders sleep”. A reference to what he actually has done and how it shall affect the person, he used to be, whereas Cawdor is the result of the predictions. This suggests that although he has achieved his goal, his murderous actions cannot bring him happiness. Macbeth then refers to his actual name suggesting whatever he once was or has become, he shall no longer be at ease with himself again and effectively; he shall sleep no more.
Macduff’s indication that Lady Macbeth would be unable to bear the horrific news that King Duncan’s murder had taken place in their house is almost comical. The audience is aware that she had intentions to kill him personally if her husband could not. Lady Macbeth hides behind this pretence allowing Macduff to shelter her from her guilt. However, her faï¿½ade could not diminish the residing regret that plagued her sleep with visions of irremovable blood on her hands as she relives Duncan’s murder every night.
“Out, damned spot! Out I say! …What need we fear who knows it, when none all our power to account?
This hallucination was a metaphor for Lady Macbeth’s shame suggesting that she cannot pretend to herself, even if no one else discovers the awful truth, she shall be riddled with the reality for her entire life. As she speaks in her sleep, Lady Macbeth who believes she is talking to her husband demands to know why a strong soldier should fear the outcome of their fiendish acts. Believing if they can protect their secret until Macbeth became King, Lady Macbeth hoped their amounted power would protect them. However, even though it was apparent that Lady Macbeth could conspire to murder Duncan and manipulate what people thought of her, she could forget her evil actions, which eventually caused her to commit suicide.
As Banquo’s suspicion grew, endemic paranoia persuaded Macbeth to crush the possibility of his deception being uncovered and hired murderers to kill him, not consulting his wife in the process. The lack of Lady Macbeth’s provocation is evident of Macbeth’s priorities; self-preservation. No longer examining their future as King and Queen, Macbeth decides on Banquo’s fate without consulting his wife, apparently showing signs of the irrevocable break down of their loving bond. Having disposed of Banquo, Macbeth shows evidence of remorse as tormented by the horrific actions he has part-taken in. However, Macbeth avoids confronting his guilt and slowly disappears into a constant daze and although attacked by regret, he now only sees it as a nuisance, not an emotion. Plagued by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth is the only one able to see him. In reality, the ghost does not exist and this suggests, psychosomatically Macbeth’s mind is fighting against the evil that overwhelmed his honourable judgement. The evil that allowed him to murder Duncan and Banquo, which supports the claim that a greater evil is controlling the couple but now they are trying to make themselves realise the consequences of their actions.
Desperate for guidance, fearing his future as King and perhaps searching for new challenges Macbeth seeks the three hags and begs them to share their knowledge of what will happen next. Greeting him in their usual banter, the witches profess that their actions are “without a name”, suggesting perhaps that it was an evil that dare not even say its own name. In addition, the witches are aware of the depravity of their meddling; yet, they show no remorse. The extraordinary witches appear real to the audience and the characters; however, one argument suggests that in fact they are the amorphous embodiment of evil, brought into existence to balance the forces of nature; “fair and foul” and are in fact the conjuring of infected minds and the further Macbeth follows their direction, the stronger they become. Indirectly, the witches’ power is evident as Macbeth becomes more reliant on their foresight.
The witches are chanting a second inexplicable spell as Macbeth informs them that his fortune has become a reality but enquires how much more destruction must be suffered to achieve this goal. The twisted hags inform him through a series of apparitions as to what his fate holds.
“Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff; Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.”
Appearing to him as an armed head it proposes imminent war however Macbeth discards the image believing that although it suggested Macduff posed a threat, it appeared to reverse this prediction by informing Macbeth to “dismiss” ‘him’. Unsure of the witches, Macbeth ignores their warning, believing it to be purely poetic, which later proves to be a misjudgement as Macduff is the man who eventually overthrows and murders Macbeth.
“Be bloody bold and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”
The vision of a bloody child represents Macduff. Having been born by caesarean section, he was not “born of woman” under the Elizabethan description of such and the image of the bloody child is that Macduff of “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d”. Indirectly, the witches are informing Macbeth that only Macduff can harm him, therefore not lying to him but encouraging him to anticipate that he is invincible and that because everyone must be born by a woman, he should fear nobody. Moreover, the apparition’s persuasion to mock others confirms Macbeth’s belief that he is better than everybody is and that no one can harm him, which is a false sense of security.