Macbeth Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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

This line is part of a speech that Lady Macbeth makes in act 1, scene 5. She advising Macbeth on how to go about killing King Duncan. She encourages him to appear innocent and play the welcoming host to the king so that no one will suspect his true intention: murder.

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In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth advises her husband to "look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." By this, she means that he should appear to be innocent to belie his devious and murderous plans. Yet, despite assuming an innocent appearance, he must remain as murderous or venomous as a serpent. By telling Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower,” she wants him to seem unthreatening and harmless to put his intended victim at ease so that his plot will come as a surprise and others will not suspect him. After all, who would be afraid of a flower?

However, under that deceptive cloak of innocence, he should be ready to strike Duncan as “the serpent under it [the flower]” would. This line is similar to the concept that "looks can be deceptive" or "don’t judge a book by its cover." In fact, Lady Macbeth even says to her husband in that same scene, as she goads him to commit murder in order to attain the throne,

Your face betrays strange feelings, my lord, and people will be able to read it like a book. In order to deceive them, you must appear the way they expect you to look.

Thus, essentially what she means by “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it” is that Macbeth must deceive people—most importantly Duncan—into believing that he is innocent of murderous thoughts. Lady Macbeth is ambitious. She aspires to share the throne once her husband has killed Duncan and so she coaches him. She continues with:

Greet the king with a welcoming expression in your eyes, your hands, and your words. You should look like an innocent flower, but be like the snake that hides underneath the flower.

Lady Macbeth is chilling in her advice to her husband. Having thus instructed him, the stage is set, so to speak, for Macbeth to kill the king and afterwards appear to have had nothing to do with his assassination.

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Lady Macbeth is urging Macbeth to hide his feelings, saying that his facial expressions are too much like a "book" where others can read "strange matters." In other words, Macbeth looks as if he has something to hide.

Since she and Macbeth are planning to murder Duncan that night while the king is a guest in their home, it is imperative that nobody suspect anything. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to

Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue.
In other words, Macbeth has to look as if nothing is wrong. He must act as if he is delighted to see Duncan. To drive her point home, she repeats it by saying Macbeth needs to look as innocent as a flower. By then urging him to be the "serpent," Lady Macbeth is reminding Macbeth he must be like Satan—all smiles on the outside but secretly prepared to strike treacherously. The serpent is linked to treachery because Satan invaded the garden of Eden in the guise of a snake and, while pretending to offer kindness, beguiled Eve into eating the forbidden fruit.

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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.

Further Reading:

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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.

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