Equivocation in Macbeth
- Pages: 11
- Word count: 2678
- Category: Macbeth
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In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the theme of equivocation to effectively illustrate the evil nature of the witches. Equivocation is the use of ambiguous expressions in order to mislead. The prophecies of the witches play a mischief in this play, as they are a form of deception that at times use vague language to dodge an issue. The three influential prophecies, which the witches make in this play, are that the protagonist Macbeth will become the king of Scotland, Banquo will be the father of the king of Scotland, and Macbeth will not be killed until the Birnam wood moves to Dunsinane hill. The sources of these prophecies are the witches who put together the devious words into Macbeth’s mind, which demonstrates the evil nature of the witches.
In Macbeth, one of the earliest prophecies that the witches make is that Macbeth will become the king of Scotland. “All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter!”(I.iii.50) is the prophecy in which no indication of the doom of Macbeth is present. The literal meaning of this apocalypse is that Macbeth will become the king of Scotland. Thus, his ambition to take the pursuit of breaking the natural order to become the king becomes ungovernable. This is evident when Macbeth is shown hallucinating of a dagger before he kills Duncan, the real king of Scotland. Macbeth says, “Is this a dagger, which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee”(II.i.33-34), which shows that he is in a great doubt on whether to assassinate Duncan or not. The metaphorical meaning of the revelation disclosed by the witches is that Macbeth will ultimately be ruined in the future after he reaches his ambition of becoming the king, as he will have to face the resistance of the loyal nobles of king Duncan including Banquo, Macduff, Malcom, etc. Macbeth is greatly affected by this prophecy and becomes the target of the mendacious and perplexing words spoken by the witches and kills the king. Hence, the witches are of evil nature because they indirectly ruin Macbeth’s life.
Equivocation and Double Meanings in Macbeth
Shakespeare uses equivocation not to confuse but to either get across multiple meanings or to leave dialogue and events in the play open ended. Equivocation can be seen with the witches and whenever they talk. The witches are themselves a vague set of characters who talk in a puzzling riddle-like manner. For instance when Macbeth goes to see them for the second time they are very vague about predicting his future, intentionally confusing him and making him overly confident. An example of this riddled dialogue goes like this:
All (three witches): Listen, but speak not to’t.
Apparition: Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until;
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
Macbeth: That will never be:
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
That excerpt shows how the witches twist and play with Macbeth’s mind and feelings. By the end of the Apparition’s lines, Macbeth is convinced he can not be killed by anyone, and so grows in confidence till seething and almost rupturing with it. It also shows Shakespeare’s use of equivocation and how, unless certain lines are studied, their true, if vague, meaning cannot be seen or understood.
The quoted phrase, “fair is foul and foul is fair” is used frequently, the phrase itself is an oxymoron. Early in the play the reader sees Macbeth as the hero because he has saved all of Scotland from the Norwegians. Duncan, honoring Macbeth, says, “More is thy due than more than all can pay.” (Act 1, Scene ) Towards the middle of the play the reader suddenly begins to pity Macbeth, slowly realizing his encroaching insanity for what it is, a downward spiral of death and increased mistakes. Finally, at the end of the play, the reader’s opinion of Macbeth moves more towards hate and a feeling that Macbeth is unmistakably evil. As the second witch said:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes:
(-Act 4, Scene 1)
Such is Macbeth’s fair to foul story in a flash. There is also Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Malcolm, and Donalbain, and perhaps even Banquo. Each of these character’s development follows the “fair is foul and foul is fair” format.
In the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth shows a beautiful face, yet what she says in private is evil. In fact in Act 1, Scene 5, she says:
“Art not without ambition; but without
The illness that should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou’dst have, great Glamis…
She is saying that Macbeth is ambitious but lacks the brutality of character (the illness) to carryout any evil deeds through. After this Lady Macbeth continues on, trying to convince Macbeth to murder Duncan and eventually succeeds. From the end of the first Act through the 2nd, Lady Macbeth has shown her “innocent-self” perfectly capable of committing heinous deeds. Yet eventually the “illness” gets the better of her, as it did Macbeth, and she kills herself unable to stand living with her burdens.
On the other side of the “fair is foul and foul is fair” phrase there is Malcolm and his loyal followers. Malcolm and Donalbain were seen as traitorous murders as they fled their fathers’ murder. Because of Lord and Lady Macbeth’s craftiness, there were seen as traitors along with the grooms. For the people at Macbeth’s Inverness castle their fleeing only confirmed suspicions. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff says, “… Malcolm, and Donalbain, the king’s two sons, are stol’n away and fled, which puts upon them suspicion of the deed.” In the end Malcolm comes back with an army in tow to avenge the wrong done against him and his country men. As Macduff stated:
Hail, king! For so thou art: behold, where stands
The usurper’s cursed head: the time is free:
I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds;
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine:
Hail, king of Scotland!
As for Macduff himself, he was also thought a traitor half way through the play. Being distrustful and disgruntled with Macbeth he runs to England to join Malcolm. Later though, after being tested by Malcolm to find out where his loyalties lie, Macduff finds out that Macbeth has slain his family. Wrapped in a shroud of vengeance he returns with Malcolm to take Scotland back. Like Malcolm and Donalbain, Macduff goes from “foul to fair.”
Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
– (Act 1, Scene 1)
“Fair is foul and foul is fair” is necessary for the development of certain characters in Macbeth, such as Macbeth. The statement itself is vague enough so that the audience will never know what the change from fair to foul will. The quote also suggests that the audience and the characters in the play shouldn’t trust anyone because the characters may not be what they seem to be. This famous quote is the epitome of the play’s subtleties and double meanings.
In William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, the theme of ambiguity and equivocation stands our quite clearly. The Oxford definition of equivocation is: ‘use of ambiguity to conceal the truth’. Macbeth’s voluntary misinterpretation of the ambiguity and equivocation of the witches relates to the play’s theme. After the first of the witches’ prophecies comes true, Macbeth begins to believe in their truth. However, he also believes that the prophecies must all lead to his enrichment and empowerment. The use of equivocation in Macbeth also incorporates a sub-theme of appearance versus reality and the powers of evil. In the end, he twists the witches’ words to fit his own purposes, ignoring the possibility that the prophecies might have other, less fortunate meanings (equivocation). This voluntary misinterpretation, committed in pursuit of power and ambition, leads Macbeth to perform certain actions which result in the death of the king, his own friends, Lady Macbeth’s madness and suicide and eventually his own death.
From the beginning of the play, Macbeth desires great power. After he is made Thane of Cawdor after his ‘heroic loyalty to the king and his country’, he realizes that the predictions made by the witches were right, “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane Of Glamis! / All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane Of Cawdor! / All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” He immediately begins to consider the other part of their prophecy and what is meant by it. “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…” Macbeth also contemplates the predictions made about Banquo, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. / Not so happy, yet much happier. / Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” and immediately, his attitude towards his best friend changes as he has become somewhat of a threat to him. This change of attitude shows the effects of the equivocate predictions which are made.
Equivocation in MacBeth
“There’s a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons, and reasons that sound good.” This quote by columnist, Burton Hillis, describes the conflict many face when expecting straightforwardness. Logical fallacies, with their double meaning and ambiguity, cause confusion and, in the case of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, utter demise. In the play Macbeth visits with three witches after experiencing fortune from their previous premonition. They, the weird sisters, offer him more prophecies that are, in fact, fallacies that he believes to be true. The equivocation of the witches enhances the play by including dramatic irony and securing the inevitable doom of Macbeth without his knowledge.
Macbeth: The Theme of Equivocation
According to the Oxford Dictionary equivocation is “a way of behaving or speaking that is not clear or definite and is intended to avoid or hide the truth”. In other words saying parts of the truth and leaving out others. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth the theme of equivocation is portrayed through the witches, the characters, and the apparitions.
In the play Macbeth, the witches introduce early on the theme of equivocation through their prophecies. This is illustrated when the witches say: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, /Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-13). This also connects to the reversal theme that good is evil and evil is good. All is not as it may appear to be. Also the witches use equivocation to perform their evil deeds: “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis. /All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor. / All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.46-48). Soon after his prophecy Macbeth hears news of his new title (Thane of Cawdor). This assures him that the witch were true in their words. He then begins about the prophecy of becoming king, which then led to thoughts of murder. Thus, the witches use that act of equivocation to their advantage.
Different characters in Macbeth use equivocation and most often it is one that has a double meaning. One in particular is when Lady Macbeth states:
“In every point twice done and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honors deep and broad wherewith
Your majesty loads our house. For those of old,
And the late dignities heap’d up to them,
We rest your hermits”. (1.6.16-21)
Lady Macbeth expresses her happiness towards Duncan. Initially one would think that she happy because she is honored to be in the presence of the king. It is soon realized that the true cause of her joy is what she and her husband have planned for Duncan (his murder).
Equivocation and Paradox in Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth is a play of ambiguity, equivocation, and a shifting with regards to what words mean: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Throughout the play we are in the shifting world of relativism. The play opens with the three witches accompanied with “Thunder and Lightning”. They open the play by speaking in riddles and a promise to “meet with Macbeth”.
Macbeth is introduced to the audience in Scene 3. The first words that he utters in the play are significant: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” echoing the Witches’ chant in Scene 1 and giving the audience the impression that the witches already have a grip on Macbeth’s mind.
During the first meeting with the witches Macbeth is greeted as Thane of Glamis, which he is, and then reach into what seems like an impossible future when they greet him successively as Thane of Cawdor and then king. On Banquo’s request for more information the witches indulge in ambiguity and equivocation by addressing Banquo “lesser than Macbeth, and greater … Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”.
Banquo seems to doubt not only their words but their very existence. Banquo tends from the beginning to dismiss the veracity of the witches’ statements but Macbeth seems to take the vision of their statements very seriously. The witches hit Macbeth where he is most vulnerable because they feed his ambition.
Macbeth’s thoughts are drawn from Glamis to Cawdor and to the prophecy that he will become king hereafter. Turning to Banquo he asks “Do you not hope your children shall be kings?” However, Banquo is not so willing to place his trust in the agents of wickedness:
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequences.
The paradoxes of the witches’ prophecies and of this curse are soon reflected in nature after the king’s murder. Nature is so disgusted with this regicide that the disasters in nature match the horrors on earth. The basic distinction of day and night, light and darkness are confused. Nature is taken over by reversals: an owl killed a hawk and it is said that Duncan’s horses ate each other.
During Macbeth’s second meeting with the witches, they feed him on ambiguities. The Witches conjure three apparitions. The first apparition is “an armed Head” that warns him to “beware Macduff”. The second apparition is “a bloody Child”, who seems to contradict the warning of the first. Macbeth has no need to fear “for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth”. The third apparition is that a child carrying a tree in his hand and the threat of blood is replaced by the triumph of the crown.
Macbeth feels reassured who finds hope in the words that he can never be vanquished until Birnam Wood moves towards his castle at Dunsinane. But he soon discovers that he was duped by the witches’ paradoxes when the English army advances to Macbeth’s castle by camouflaging themselves with branches cut from Birnam Wood.
I pull in resolution and begin
To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth.
In spite of the fact that Macbeth was fooled in the matter of Birnam Wood, Macbeth still clings to the claim that no man of a woman born shall harm him. Meeting Macduff he soon learns that his “charmed life” is another lie since Macduff was born by Caesarean section and “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped”. The revelation destroys Macbeth’s confidence and he is forced to recognise that he has been duped and mocked by the witches’ prophecies.
Equivocation is an important motif in Macbeth. There is no absolute truth but relative truth. Of course, the devil is the major equivocator who prepares the trap which leads one to destruction.