Discuss how doubles and duplicity play a significant role in Macbeth.

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is, in many ways, organized around the idea of duplicity. The witches make this clear from the beginning of the play when they chant "what's fair is foul/what's foul is fair." This suggests to the audience that things in the play are not necessarily what they seem.

The witches, of course, are acting in a duplicitous way with Macbeth, providing him with prophecies that guide him into one horrific deed after another. They even suggest to him that he is essentially indestructible, by saying that no one "of woman born" can harm him. Macduff, born by Caesarian section, is not technically of woman born, as Macbeth learns to his horror at the end of the play.

There are many other examples of duplicity as well. Lady Macbeth convinces Duncan that she is a friendly hostess as he arrives at their palace for his ill-fated visit. Malcolm tests Macduff's authenticity by pretending to be a lecherous coward. Macbeth treacherously has Banquo murdered. So, duplicity, and the conflict between appearance and reality, is a major theme in Macbeth.  

As for doubles, the Macbeths themselves are a truly powerful example. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is ambitious and flawed, but appears to be an essentially decent man. His wife, on the other hand, is cold and ruthless, determined to do whatever it takes to elevate her husband to the throne and to fulfill the prophecy of the witches. That they love and care for each other at this point in the play is beyond question.

After the murder of Banquo, however, Macbeth loses whatever sense of decency he had. The manifestations of his guilt begin to disappear, for example, after he sends assassins to kill the Macduff family. His wife, then, seems to assume his guilt, and she rapidly loses her grip on reality. By the end of the play, she is a shell of her former self, pacing about trying to wash imagined blood from her hands. So, the partnership between the Macbeths is one of the play's most compelling aspects.

mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare is a master at doubling, duality, and duplicity in characters, themes, and imagery.  For nearly every major character, there is a double (a foil or doppelganger).  The biggest duality is Macbeth himself; he is the prototypical hero turned villain.  His doppelganger (ghostly twin) is Banquo.  Nearly everyone is his foil.  His nemesis is Macduff.  The play is a series of revenges: man vs. man, man vs. supernatural, man vs. self, even nature vs. man.

Here's a rough list of them:

Macbeth vs. self (hero turned villain)

Macbeth vs. McDonwald (honorable vs. traitorous)

Macbeth vs. Banquo (two heroic thanes who differ in response to witches' prophecies)

Macbeth vs. Duncan (the honorable vs. the soon to be dishonorable)

Macbeth vs. Lady Macbeth (murderous hosts; unnatural; childless)

Macbeth vs. Macduff (villain vs. hero)

Macbeth vs. Banquo's ghost (man vs. spirit)

Macbeth vs. Malcolm (evil may give way to evil)

the Macbeths vs. the Macduffs (unnatural, childless family vs. natural, child)


dagger vs. imaginary dagger

madness vs. sanity

natural vs. unnatural vs. supernatural

light vs. dark

child vs. childless

bloody vs. clean (water)

appearance vs. reality

nature (Birnham Wood) vs. man (Macbeth)


kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Duplicity of character and motive are most evident in those captivated by the witches' prophesies: ie. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As the witches incantation at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 tells us-

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Good becomes bad - as 'brave Macbeth' descends into mindless slaughter.

Macbeth and Banquo are bewildered by the words of the witches, and when Macbeth muses upon them, he is still confused

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good.

Once made aware of the prophesies, Lady Macbeth decides that both her and her husband will need to hide their true motives and ambitions for them to succeed -

 look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't

The Macbeth's work under the shadows of duplicity and deception even when Macbeth has the throne. The irony is in the duplicity that the witches have duped Macbeth with in the form of the prophesies. Birnam Wood does indeed move to Dunsinane Hill as the soldiers disguise themselves to storm the castle. Macduff, not of woman born, is able to slay Macbeth as he is of Caesarian birth.

What seemed a 'fair' future for the Macbeths becomes most 'foul' by the end of the play.