Discuss the theme of appearance and reality in Shakespeare's play, Macbeth.

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, appearance vs reality is a theme that is seen throughout the play.

Macbeth is respected by everyone, but Macbeth only seems honorable; at heart he is a man who will do anything to be king. He hides his intent from Duncan with fine words, while he is planning his murder. Macbeth says:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know. (I.vii.93)

Appearance vs reality is also seen in the beginning of the play when the witches introduce the quotation, "fair is foul, and foul is fair," or what seems good is really bad—Macbeth; and what seems bad is really good—Malcolm flees Scotland when his father dies and looks guilty, but he is only trying to protect himself.

When the witches deliver their predictions to Macbeth, he sees only the possibility of being king, and loses sight of the true nature of the witches: they are evil, even if they seem to bring good tidings. Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan with all due respect, but she, too, is hoping to kill him so she can be queen.

Macbeth reminds Banquo about the banquet—"hoping" he'll come, but he is already planning not only Banquo's death, but that of his son, Fleance, as well. Macbeth convinces the murderers that Banquo is to blame for the bad fortune they have recently experienced—that it wasn't Macbeth as they men had believed. He says:

That it was [Banquo], in the times past, which held you
So under fortune, which you thought had been
Our innocent self? (III.i.81-84)

Banquo is not the cause; Macbeth says it to turn the men against Banquo.

The witches' second set of predictions promise Macbeth a long reign. They tell half-truths to give him a "false sense of security." Though the first prediction is true ("Beware Macduff"), the other two predictions make Macbeth believe he can't be killed. The appearance of the predictions lures him, and the reality behind them destroys Macbeth.

When Macduff meets with Malcolm in England, Malcolm believes that Macduff is working for Macbeth; in that Macduff has left his family alone, and they have been safe from Macbeth, causes Malcolm to be suspicious of Macduff. The truth is that Macduff has come to ask for for Malcolm's help to defeat Macbeth.

During this same scene, Malcolm tests Macduff by saying that if Malcolm ever becomes king, he will bring more evil to Scotland than Macbeth. He says he is lustful and greedy, but Macduff believes there are more than enough women to satisfy Malcolm, and enough wealth as well. However, when Malcolm says that all he wants to do is destroy Scotland, causing war and discord, Macduff starts to mourn Scotland's imminent destruction.

These evils thou repeat'st upon thyself
Have banish'd me from Scotland. (IV.iii.126-127)

In reality, none of this is true. When Malcolm knows that Macduff cares so much for Scotland, he is sure he can trust Macduff.

At the play's end, appearance vs reality is found in what the witches have told Macbeth regarding his future success, and the actual manner in which the predictions come to pass. Because all men have mothers, Macbeth is sure he is in no danger—but Macduff was a C-section baby; and Birnam wood cannot actually move to Dunsinane hill, but it appears that way. He knows the witches have lied:

And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope. The predictions which bring Macbeth great comfort actually lead him to his death. (V.viii.23-26)

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sourodip | Student, Grade 9 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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In the first scenes we are introduced to a battlefield where we hear of the cowardice and treason of the Thane of Cawdor on which King Duncan comments: “There is no art/to find the man’s construction in the face/He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust”. When Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches on the moor, Banquo comments that they don’t seem “inhabitants o’ the earth” although they are on it. When Macbeth meets Duncan, he seems happy but he admits he has “black and deep desires”. When Lady Macbeth learns of the prophecies, without hesitation, she encourages Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower/but be the serpent under’t”. Finally Macbeth resolves to murder Duncan and says: “False face must hide what false heart doth know”. Macbeth is going to be a hypocrite.

Duncan is murdered and so Malcolm and Donalbain agree to fly to England and Ireland respectively, as Donalbain says “there’s daggers in men’s smiles”. This means that although people may seem to be grieving for the death of their father, they might be the murderers. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth flatter Banquo and try to seem friendly whereas in reality they consider him their chiefest enemy: “Here’s our chief guest”. Macbeth says to the murderers “but wail to his fall/Who I myself struck down”. Macbeth must pretend to be sorry for Banquo when he’s murdered although he himself ordered him to be killed. Lady Macbeth knows the importance of the banquet and so advises Macbeth to “be bright and jovial among your guests/tonight”. Even though he’s worried and desperate he has to appear friendly and happy.

The witches trick Macbeth by creating illusions which are not real but deceive him and make him feel over-confident (“by the strength of their illusions...”). Evil works through illusions. We see Lennox and the Lords that speak in an ironic way to test each other. Lennox ironically says: “How it did grieve Macbeth!” In this play a good man with principles like Macduff may seem a traitor in the eyes of Lady Macduff and other people. Malcolm says that good people appear good but even evil and malicious people can appear good on the outside: “Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace/Yet grace must still look so”.

Throughout the play appearances, which are often deceitful, influence the whole plot of the play. It comes out mainly through the way Macbeth saw Kingship as a form of security and prestige but was then faced with even stronger feelings of insecurity and fear.

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