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

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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...

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