Look Like The Innocent Flower But Be The Serpent Under It

What does Lady Macbeth mean by the line: ''... look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it"?

 

 

Expert Answers
shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This line is part of a speech that Lady M makes in Act One, Scene five.  She is trying to convince Macbeth to become a villain and murder King Duncan. She encourages him to play the fabulous, welcoming host to the King, so that no one will suspect his true intention -- murder.

She notes that his face gives away his inside feelings:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men

May read strange matters.

This is significant in the course of the action of the play, because once Macbeth turns to a villainous course of action and begins to hide his "serpent" behaviour behind a veil of niceness and false innocence, he gets deeper and deeper into the crimes he must commit, including the murder of his friend Banquo.

It is also significant in that Lady Macbeth is the real brains behind the murder of Duncan, but Macbeth is the one that actually carries all the crimes out.  So, in his heart, was Macbeth really a villainous murderer, willing to commit any act for the power of being King?  Or, was he led astray by his wife?

You could even consider a parallel between Macbeth being swayed by Lady M and Adam being swayed by Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The mentioning of the serpent in this text is a nice reminder of who the real villain was in Eden.  If Macbeth had stopped to consider this parable, he might have realised that he was heading to his own demise.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In act one, scene five, Macbeth returns home after contemplating murdering King Duncan. When he arrives home, Lady Macbeth notices that he is visibly perturbed. She encourages him to "Look like th' innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t" (Shakespeare, 1.5.56-58). Lady Macbeth is essentially telling her husband that he should appear harmless and innocent but be prepared to strike like a deadly snake hiding behind a flower. In order for them to execute their plan flawlessly, both characters must appear to be benevolent servants of King Duncan. Macbeth must cast aside his anxious disposition and act casually around the king and his guests. Lady Macbeth's comments also correlate with the motif, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," throughout the play, which means that appearances can be deceiving. Later on in the play, Macbeth struggles to hide his emotions as he begins to hallucinate. Gradually, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth cannot hide behind their innocent appearances and ultimately suffer the consequences of their actions.

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Macbeth

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