The theme of appearance versus reality is central to the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Macbeth. It is a play full of ambition, betrayal, madness, and the supernatural. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must hide their true thoughts in order to prevent others from knowing what they have done while different characters comment on the difficulty of knowing what a person is truly thinking.
Indeed, Macbeth is full of the struggles of seeing what is real and what is not. Throughout Macbeth, elements of the supernatural, hallucinations brought on by guilt-driven madness, and statements by the differing characters depict the theme of appearance versus reality.
Something Shakespeare often does is give important lines to minor or insignificant characters. Even though King Duncan dies in the first act of the play, one of his lines underscores the theme of appearance versus reality almost perfectly.
He states, “There’s no art to finding the mind’s construction in the face” (Shakespeare, 1.4.12-13). Duncan says this line about the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, who betrayed Scotland to Norway. He means that a person’s face can hide anything, and it is impossible to tell what someone is thinking.
Ironically, as a reward for his bravery and loyalty, Duncan gives the Thane of Cawdor’s title to Macbeth, who kills him to obtain his throne. Duncan recognizes that people can hide what they are truly thinking, but he still trusts Macbeth completely. When Duncan goes to Macbeth’s castle Inverness, he states “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (1.6.1), but this statement is again ironic because Inverness is the place where Macbeth murders him. The castle’s agreeable appearance fools Duncan, and he is murdered in his sleep that very night.
Like their father, Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain recognize that not all men are as they seem. Donalbain states that “There are daggers in men’s smiles” (2.3.138), meaning that despite a person’s friendly appearance, danger lurks beneath their façade. Unlike their father, however, they are better at discerning honest men from false men.
When Macduff tries to convince Malcolm, Duncan’s older son and heir to the throne, to come back to Scotland and challenge Macbeth, Malcolm lies about what sort of person he is in order to see if Macduff actually wants Malcolm to come back or if he is just another spy from Macbeth trying to lure him into a trap.
Malcolm insists that he is a lustful, greedy liar who is unfit to rule by saying “…your wives, your daughters, Your matrons, your maids could not fill up The cistern of my lust…” (4.3.62-63), and “…I should forge Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal. Destroying them for wealth” (4.3.82-84). Macduff despairs when Malcolm asks if he would be fit to govern, stating “Fit to govern? No, not to live” (4.3.103-104). Malcolm is not actually like what he says, however.
He changes his appearance in order to discover what Macduff’s true intentions are. If Macduff only wanted Malcolm to come back so that Macbeth could kill him, he would have insisted that Malcolm is fit to rule and would be a good king despite his faults.
Malcolm also changes his appearance during the final act when he and Macduff return to Scotland to fight Macbeth for the throne. The three witches, the ones who originally prophesied to Macbeth that he would become king of Scotland, gave Macbeth multiple prophesies, one of which states, “…none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80-81).
Since all men are born of women, he automatically assumes that no one can kill him. However, this prophecy is more than it seems. Macbeth was also warned by the witches to “Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife” (4.1.70-1), but because he believes he cannot be killed, he assumes he has little cause to worry, although he does have Macduff’s family killed to be certain.
When he meets Macduff on the battlefield, Macduff informs him that he “…was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripped” (5.7.45-46), which means that Macduff was not technically ever born. The prophecy tricked Macbeth and caused him to be overconfident, and he was beheaded by Macduff in battle. The prophecy’s wording caused Macbeth to be unable to see the reality that he could still be killed.
Macbeth also receives a prophecy from the witches that say, “Macbeth shall never be vanquished until Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” (4.1.91-93). Because trees cannot just get up and walk, Macbeth believes that he will never be vanquished. This assumption does not turn out to be true, however.
Macduff and Malcolm’s men take limbs from the trees and camouflage themselves, making it look as if the Great Birnam Wood is moving up Dunsinane Hill. The prophecy was different than Macbeth expected, and he paid the price for it. Once Malcolm and his men get close enough to Macbeth’s army he says, “Now near enough. Your leafy screens throw down And show like those you are” (5.6.1-2). Malcolm and his men hid their true appearance in order to defeat Macbeth.
By doing so, they are also causing the prophecy the witches gave Macbeth to come true, but not in a literal fashion. All aspects of the prophecies came true, but the confusing manner in which they were stated caused them to play out differently than Macbeth expected.
The three witches who gave these misleading prophecies also stated one of the most prominent examples of appearance differing from reality. The words “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (1.1.11) are uttered by the three witches before the audience is introduced to the title character Macbeth.
This oxymoron immediately sets the stage for the idea that not everything is as it seems. Significantly, Macbeth’s first line of play is “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.39). This line “…is noteworthy not only because it reiterates a paradoxical statement, but because it refers back to the beginning of the play…” (Kranz 1). By doing so, Shakespeare subtly hints at a connection between the supernatural and Macbeth even before he meets the witches.
When Macbeth does meet the witches, they greet him with three titles, the last of them stating, “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Shakespeare, 1.3.51) When Macbeth hears their proclamation, he does not seem happy. Banquo questions his reaction saying, “Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear Things that do sound so fair?” (Shakespeare, 1.3.52-53).
This question harkens once again to the “fair is foul and foul is fair” phrase. Both Macbeth and Banquo are unaware of the consequences of these prophecies. While the idea of being king is a wonderful notion, the price Macbeth pays is far more foul than fair. He must murder his way to the top, and then he must murder again to prevent anyone from discovering his crimes.
He also struggles with the inability to sleep because of a guilty conscience that constantly plagues him until he goes a little mad and then succumbs to his evil nature. In addition, his wife Lady Macbeth goes completely mad with guilt and kills herself to free herself from it.
The three witches also introduce the idea of the supernatural in the play, and it is continued through the images of nature turning on itself. Horses eat each other, the days turn dark, and the birds behave oddly. Nature reflects the destabilization of the government Macbeth created when he murdered Duncan, and this causes the question of what is a true reality to arise.
Indeed, one of the most prominent references to the supernatural is during the scene when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost during his banquet. Macbeth is the only one who can see the ghost, creating the question of the ghost’s reality. It could be just a figment of Macbeth’s imagination caused by his guilt for having Banquo murdered or a result of Macbeth’s growing madness.
It could also be a real apparition and Banquo has chosen to haunt only Macbeth. The ghost’s reality is in question and Macbeth struggles to see the difference between what is real and what is not.
The banquet scene is also a turning point in the play. Up until this scene, Macbeth still believes he is in control of his own fate. He knows that the witches understand what will come to pass, but he still believes that everything he chooses is his choice. After seeing Banquo’s ghost, however, “…it is clearly indicated that Macbeth is not what he was when the play began; in a sense, the initiative has passed out of his hands” (Dyson 370).
He understands that he has fooled himself into believing something that is not true. Macbeth recognizes that he is wrong and that he must now ride out the course he has set himself on. After his wife calms him, he stops getting fits of guilt that he had before Banquo’s murder. Indeed, two scenes before the banquet scene he complains of sleeplessness and states, “Oh full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” (Shakespeare, 3.2.35). Now, however, it is as if he accepts his doomed fate and damnation.
He believes because he decided to kill Duncan and become king, he is the one in charge of his fate, when in reality there are outside forces, such as the witches and Lady Macbeth, causing him to do these things.
Macbeth is plagued by guilt not only after he murders Duncan but also while he and his wife are scheming. He is very worried that he and his wife will be discovered, but she belittles him by questioning his masculinity stating, “What beast was’t then, That made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then you were a man;” (1.7.48-50), and convinces him that no one will discover them because of the evidence with which they plan to frame Duncan’s guards.
Macbeth then dismisses her saying, “Away, and mock the time with fairest show. False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.81-82). The two of them must hide what they are thinking in order to prevent any suspicion from falling on them. While Macbeth is only telling his wife to put on this façade while people are in their home, in reality, they must continue this “false face” for the remainder of Macbeth’s reign if they want to keep what they did a secret.
Another aspect of Macbeth that contributes to the theme of appearance versus reality can be found in the hallucinations that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience. Right before killing Duncan, Macbeth sees the image of a dagger before him. According to Abraham Stoll, “Macbeth’s preoccupation is whether the dagger he sees is really there, or if it is a product of his mind” (136).
Macbeth proceeds to reject the dagger as being a supernatural object and recognizes it as a hallucination when he cannot touch it (136). Lady Macbeth also hallucinates because of a guilty conscience. She begins to sleep walk and see things that are not there. One of her maids and her doctor watch her sleep walk and hear her say, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” (Shakespeare, 5.1.30).
She tries to scrub the blood off her hands, but there is nothing on her hands. Lady Macbeth, however, insists that there is blood on her hands and that it will not come off. She can clear neither her hands nor her conscience.
Despite her guilt driving her to madness, Lady Macbeth is the original motivator of Macbeth’s actions. She tells him to “Look like th’ innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t” (1.5.63-64). She wants him to hide his true ambitions and act like the noble person most believe him to be. She herself does her best to convince all that she is just as innocent as her husband pretends to be.
After Duncan’s murder, the other noblemen in Macbeth’s home are questioning as to who the perpetrator really is, and Macbeth begins to nervously and guiltily ramble. In order to draw attention away from him, Lady Macbeth pretends to faint. She causes the men to think of her as a weak woman, changing their perception of her and creating a distraction.
Lady Macbeth’s statement of “Look like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” can easily be interpreted as an allusion to the Bible. Herbert R. Coursen Jr. says that the serpent is Satan in the garden tempting Eve to eat the fruit (37). In this case, Lady Macbeth is the serpent, Macbeth is Eve, and the throne of Scotland is the fruit.
Lady Macbeth convinces him to take the fruit, or throne, because being king will give him power and wealth. Like Adam and Eve achieving the promised knowledge of good and evil, Macbeth also achieves his goal. The fruit of his labors was rotten, however, and he loses his goodness, part of his sanity, his wife, and in the end, his life. The idea of being king was appealing, but it did not turn out how he expected.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tragic play full of lies and deceit. Characters are constantly lying about who they are and commenting on their inability to trust other people’s words and outward appearance.
The three witches and their misleading prophecies show how everything is not as it seems, and the hallucinations that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have because of their guilt also display how reality and illusion can become indiscernible. Through the use of the supernatural, hallucinations, and statements by differing characters, Shakespeare displays the theme of appearance versus reality.
Coursen Jr., Herbert R. “In Deepest Consequence: Macbeth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 18.4 (1967): 375-88. Web.
Dyson, J.P. “The Structural Function of the Banquet Scene in Macbeth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14.4 (1963): 369-73. Web.
Kranz, David L. “The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth.” Studies in Philology 100.3 (2003): 346. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: 1539. Norton Critical editions: 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
Stoll, Abraham. “Macbeth’s Equivocal Conscience.” Macbeth: New Critical Essays, New York, 2008. Google Scholar. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.