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The theme of appearance versus reality in Macbeth

Summary:

The theme of appearance versus reality in Macbeth is central to the play. Characters frequently deceive others by presenting false appearances. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hide their true intentions behind a façade of loyalty, while the witches’ prophecies appear straightforward but are misleading. This theme highlights the discrepancy between what seems to be true and what actually is.

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How does plot development in Macbeth illustrate the theme of appearance versus reality?

Appearance versus reality is a dominant theme in this play. It is best illustrated in the words of the witches at the beginning of the play: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." These words foreshadow that things will not turn out to be the way they seem to be. And this becomes the truth very quickly. If we take a look at the character of Macbeth, we notice that everyone sees him for his bravery and loyalty. Yet, in his soliloquies, we see that he harbors an unrestrained ambition to kill the King of Scotland and become the king himself. He keeps up the facade of being a good and loyal cousin of Duncan until he murders him cold-bloodedly.

Another example of this theme is when Duncan approaches Macbeth's home, saying it is quiet pleasant, utterly unaware that this will be the place where he will be ruthlessly murdered:

 This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
 Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
 Unto our gentle senses.

In the world of Macbeth, good is bad, and bad is good. Nothing is as it seems.

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How do Light and Dark motifs in Macbeth reflect the theme of appearance versus reality?

Let's first think about Light and Dark, essentially good and evil, but we also have to consider the geography and climate when it comes to these motifs. Think about Macbeth and how he goes about his business or when crucial moments come about. The day is dark when he first meets the "weird sisters" in Act 1: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (I.3.38). The day is "fair" since he has survived his battle against the Norweyans, but it is "foul" in that the weather is dark, the "thunder, lightening...rain" the witches refer to in Scene 1. Macbeth also kills Duncan in the middle of the night; he has Banquo killed by the three murderers at night (Banquo and Fleance need a torch as Banquo calls for "a light"). 

Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth) must put up appearances, a facade and false and loyal nature, in broad daylight, in times when everyone notices. They must pretend to be innocent when in public (the light), when at a dinner or banquet or receiving the King in their home. However, it is at times of night or foul weather (darkness) when their true colors, the real Macbeths appear. They are sinister and murderous and dangerous; or it is these moments of darkness when they receive information that sets them down an evil path. 

In the light of day, they appear as a stable and noble and virtuous couple; by night, their real ambitions and treachery manifest themselves. Later, the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson would write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, truly exploring this idea of light and dark in man.

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How does appearance versus reality in Macbeth reflect its historical context?

Macbeth was a play written especially for James I and although, historically, the "real" Macbeth was nothing like Shakespeare's Macbeth, there were some similarities with the King of Scotland and James I could trace his line back to Banquo.  Shakespeare was fully aware of his obligations towards his king

keenly aware of his audience and his political responsibilities.

From the first time we meet Macbeth, appearance and reality are already causing confusion. "So foul and fair a day I have not seen,"(I.iii.38) says Macbeth which already foreshadows what is to come as "foul" becomes "fair" and vice versa.

Appearance and reality is a common literary theme of the time and Macbeth has it in abundance as times were hard and a chance to escape reality was welcomed. Furthermore, there were many for whom appearance and reputation controlled all their actions, belying what lay beneath the surface.

 "nothing is / But what it is not" (I.iii.141-142).

Macbeth needs Lady Macbeth at the beginning to give him the apparent "manliness" he lacks. Unfortunately, he ultimately withdraws from Lady Macbeth as the more he 

 pursues his ideal understanding of manliness—.....- the less humane he becomes

Macbeth's impatience and his need (and that of Lady Macbeth) to ensure the fulfillment of the prophesies, prevent the normal passage of time during which the prophesies could have been expected to come true.

Typical of the era, Macbeth will finally become a tragic hero as he cannot fight the forces of evil and his fatal flaw, his "vaulting" ambition provide the opening for sympathy towards him. The play will close with order restored and the rightful heir in place.

Audiences of the day could go home satisfied that good triumphs over evil and having the rightful king in his seat shows that justice does prevail.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

There is much involved in the theme of appearances vs. reality.  Macbeth and Banquo begin by saying, "So fair and foul a day I haven't seen" which is the appearance of a horrible slaughter but the reality of a victory for the home team.  It continues with the witches who appear out of nowhere and who have beards, so are they women or men?  Are they real or imaginary?  The dagger also "appears" to Macbeth, but does it really? Is he seeing things?  Lady Macbeth continues the ruse when she says to her husband, "Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it."  In addition, the ghost of Banquo wreaks havoc with Macbeth's psyche as well as the apparitions. 

Further, the prophecies are not what they appear to be.  "Fear MacDuff" is obvious, but the other two are not so clearly defined and interpreted.  "No one born of woman can harm Macbeth" is clearly not what is seems.  Macbeth is not safe from someone born of a C-section.  "Macbeth will not fall until Birnam Wood marches to Dunsinane" is equally tricky--the soldiers tear down boughs to protect themselves and therefore "appear" to be part of the forest marching up the hill.

There is much in this play that does not seem true or real.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

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:

Know
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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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

Appearance versus reality is a strong theme in Shakespeare's Macbeth, as the play involves a misty landscape, witches, a ghost, a goddess, mental illness, and self-deception. From the outset of the play, it is clear that something unusual is going on, since three witches are conversing.

Their conversation, which revolves mostly around a spell they plan to cast on a seaman, begins with the famous quote, "Fair is foul and foul is fair," which implies that not all will be as it seems. If the witches disappeared after this initial scene, the sense of unreality might fade, but they reappear regularly and are a major force in decision-making by Macbeth and, by proxy, Lady Macbeth.

The witches make predictions, and one of their initial prophecies comes true. Because they are accurate once, Macbeth believes them and uses their counsel from then on. If he cannot understand what they mean, as they often speak in riddles, he takes it on faith that the result will work in his favor, or he simply misinterprets the meaning.

In effect, Macbeth is self-deluded because he is taking vague, unsound advice not only from the witches but also from his wife. He doesn't carry much self-reliance and believes those he should suspect while scoffing at those who are loyal to him (e.g. Banquo and King Duncan).

Macbeth has trouble, as well, keeping a grip on reality—especially after he murders the king, who slept as a guest in his own house. The blood, the guilt, and the regret play on his mind, and Macbeth begins to develop paranoia about another prophecy by the witches: that Banquo will "get kings" but be none himself. Macbeth therefore decides to murder Banquo and his son, Felance. In act 3, scene 3, three murderers have been hired, and Banquo is killed.

A banquet follows shortly thereafter (act 3, scene 4), and Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost as well as a vision of eight kings. He is unnerved and says to his guests, "I have a strange infirmity which is nothing / To those who know me" to make excuses. The ghost reappears, shaking Macbeth up, but he manages to keep up appearances.

In the next scene, the witches are meeting with Hecate, the goddess of spells and sorcery. This expands the unreal setting of witchcraft, as now the audience knows there is a whole world in which the witches, too, seek counsel. Thus there are multiple unreal players, including witches who roam free and speak to humans, a world of ghosts, and a world of gods and goddesses.

In addition, as the play progresses, Lady Macbeth becomes more and more unhinged, as she cannot unsee all the blood that has been spilled. She begins to go mad, and Macbeth must call for a doctor to try and cure her.

The reality of the play is that Macbeth is driving events in his own life by making decisions but using superstition to choose violence. On the surface, it is a story of an ambitious man who decides to kill his boss (King Duncan) to get ahead, but to meet his goals he keeps having to use murder, and he becomes an example of one who "lives by the sword, and dies by the sword."

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

The theme of appearance versus reality can be seen in many ways. One obvious aspect is when Lady Macbeth greets Duncan at his arrival to their home. She states how anxious she has been for him to arrive. The appearance is that of a gracious and humble hostess greeting the king in an appropriate manner. The reality is that she and her husband are anxious to put their plot to kill him into effect.

Another example of this theme is in the guilt both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth experience. Macbeth "sees" a bloody dagger floating in the air towards the king's room as he is preparing to kill Duncan. The reality is that the appearance of the dagger is most likely a manifestation of the guilt he feels.

Lady Macbeth believes her hands are covered in blood, yet the reality is that her guilt will not let her forget that she has helped commit murder.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

The theme of appearance versus reality is central to Macbeth. It pertains to Macbeth himself as he is first introduced as a nobleman, a fearless warrior who renders worthy service to his king – yet this same man is then revealed to have murderous thoughts in his heart, capable of plotting against his king and usurping the throne.  On the outside, he presents an impeccable face to the world, so that no-one suspects, but when alone, or meeting privately with his wife – who actively encourages him in his murderous ambitions – we see the reality behind his public façade. Lady Macbeth counsels him to ‘look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it’(I.v.62-63) when the time comes to kill Duncan, and, at first, he does this rather too well. Similarly, his castle presents a deceptively positive aspect to Duncan when he goes there at Macbeth’s invitation ‘ This castle hath a pleasant seat’(I.vi.1) – he has no inklings at all, seemingly, of the evil that awaits him inside.

The whole world of the play is profoundly unsettled with the murder of Duncan, which is presented not just as a foul but also wholly unnatural event, coming as it does at the hands of his kinsman and when he has done nothing to deserve such a fate. But even before this, and indeed in the very first scene of the play, a note of equivocation, of things being not as they seem, is introduced along with the witches. Among their first words are: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (I.i.10) which strikes the note of ambivalence; and significantly, Macbeth’s first line echoes this: ‘So fair and foul a day I have not seen’.(I.iii.38). The witches introduce a supernatural element to the play which has a certain de-stabilizing effect, leading to the questioning of what is actually real, as opposed to mere appearances, imaginings, or delusions. However, the witches’ prediction of Macbeth’s kingship strikes a real enough note with him; it corresponds to his secret ambitions, and helps to propel him forward into the main tragic action of the play.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

Duncan also says he can't find the mind's construction in the face, meaning he can't tell what people are truly like from what he sees on the outside.

In contrast to their father's inability to see the potential for danger beneath the surface, Malcolm and Donalbain say that where they are there are "daggers in men's smiles"--meaning, that they see smiles on the outside but they know that danger is beneath the apparently friendly appearance.

Also, Duncan says, "This castle hath a pleasant seat" upon arriving at Macbeth's castle, and, of course, as pleasant and restful as the castle looks on the outside, it is anything but that on the inside.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

Banquo and Macbeth can't really trust their eyes when they encounter the witches... "You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so." Macbeth also says he doesn't know if he imagines them or not since they just melt into the wind.

Again, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to "look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it" when it comes time to kill Duncan. Their house appears warm and inviting, but they intend to kill him and they succeed.

Lady Macbeth appears to be a tough and callous woman--immune to all guilt and feeling, but we see her fall apart after Duncan's murder. She sleepwalks and is apparently not at all what she first seemed.

Of course, there are also the witches' prophecies. Macbeth doesn't realize the prophecies can mean anything other than how he interprets them. Of course, Macduff was born by c-section, so he was not technically born of woman. The armies advance up the hill from Birnam Wood with tree branches before them which makes it appear the wood is walking up the hill.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

Sure. There are lots of such moments in Macbeth. Start with the first scene, in which the witches say, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."

This tells us that throughout the play, there will be a gap between appearance and reality.

This continues throughout. Look at the start of scene 2: "What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt
The newest state."

Duncan's words indicate that a man's appearance should relate to what he's been through and his level of knowledge. There should be a reality-appearance link...but it is disrupted.

Of course, some of the biggest examples are the visions Macbeth and Lady Macbeth see; are these ghosts or are they mad?

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

The theme of appearances versus reality runs deep in Shakespeare's Macbeth. When examining this topic, you could examine any of the following ideas:

1. The witches' prophesies: Throughout the play, Macbeth is guided by promises made to him via the witches. From their initial promises until the end of the play, Macbeth's sense of power and destiny hinges on their visions. Consider especially the beginning of act 4, when Macbeth is given three pieces of advice:

  1. "Beware Macduff."
  2. "Laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth."
  3. "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him."

Because the witches' predictions have always worked in his favor before, he doesn't even consider last two predictions a possibility. The witches have blurred the reality of the situation by making Macbeth's safety and sense of power appear to be a certainty.

2. Thanks to his wife (and the witches), Macbeth believes that becoming king of Scotland is his destiny, so he doesn't mind helping destiny out a little. He therefore kills King Duncan and plants evidence on Duncan's guards to incriminate them. The reality is that Macbeth is a murderer. But it appears (even if some believe that the situation looks suspicious) as if Duncan's guards have killed their own king.

3. Lady Macbeth is a real force guiding the action of the play. Macbeth isn't quite as quick to act as his wife would like, and she goads him in one of the most cutting ways—by questioning his manhood. When he tells her that "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none," his wife responds, "What beast was't, then, / That made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man" (act 1, scene 7). So while Macbeth appears to be the one actively making murderous decisions, in reality it is Lady Macbeth who is the true mastermind of the plot.

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What is the theme of Appearance vs. Reality in Macbeth?

The audience learns that things will not always be what they seem in Macbeth in the first scene, when the witches chant "Fair is foul, Foul is fair" as they go off to meet Macbeth. The title character himself refers to the day's action, followed by the encounter with the witches, as a "fair and foul" day. Once he learns the prophecy, he is not certain whether it will be good or bad for him. Clearly, he is pleased that he will become king. This is apparently a good thing. Yet the audience is always aware (as indeed is Macbeth, early on) that bad things will happen as the prophecy is fulfilled. Another instance of appearance and reality has to do with meaning. Macbeth is reassured by the witches that he cannot be killed except by someone not "of woman born," and is remarkably overconfident as a result of this conviction. Yet in his climactic duel with Macduff, we discover that Macbeth misconstrued the meaning of the prophecy. Macduff was born by caesarian section, not, strictly speaking, "of woman born." Shakespeare also juxtaposes appearance and reality to great effect in the person of Lady Macbeth, whose hearty and warm greeting of Duncan is positively revolting in view of the fact that she is already beginning to plot against him:

All our service 
In every point twice done, and then done double, 
Were poor and single business to contend 
Against those honors deep and broad wherewith 
Your Majesty loads our house. For those of old, 
And the late dignities heap'd up to them, 
We rest your hermits.

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What does the theme "appearance and reality" have to do with Macbeth, and how does he show this in his soliloquies?

The theme of appearance vs. reality shows up throughout Macbeth. One of the earliest references to this is when Macbeth and Banquo encounter the weird sisters (three witches) at the very beginning of Act I. They are unsure of what they see and are wondering if they could be dreaming or imagining their presence in front of them. One of the most striking depictions of this theme would be the banquet scene in which Macbeth believes that the ghost of Banquo has taken a seat at the table, taunting (or at least, reminding Macbeth of his bloody deeds) Macbeth. Finally, as the play comes to a close, Birnam wood is actually marching...or is it? The soldiers are disguised with branches and leaves and it appears as though the prophecy is coming true! There are countless references to things not being what them seem throughout Macbeth. This includes friendships...

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What does the theme "appearance and reality" have to do with Macbeth, and how does he show this in his soliloquies?

“Nothing is / But what is not” (1.3. 131) seems to be one of the most direct statements of Macbeth concerning the theme of appearance vs. reality. Macbeth says this as an aside in trying to figure out what the witches mean by their predictions, and this follows his (near) repetition of the witches’ chant concerning “fair and foul” that equivocates the meaning of those otherwise contrasting words. He immediately fears the evil that he might do to become King (“why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair”).  What he fears at this moment is what he might do, not what he has done—he hasn’t killed Duncan (appearances) but secretly knows the guilt of doing so (reality).

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What does the theme "appearance and reality" have to do with Macbeth, and how does he show this in his soliloquies?

Appearance and reality is an extremely important theme from the play.  The first example we see is in Lady Macbeth's plans to murder Duncan.  She dictates to Macbeth, look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under't. (I.v.75) Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth needs instruction in how to maintain the appearance of innocence as he plots and executes Duncan's murder (she believes he has a weaker "nature" than she does); the reality of the situation is that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have murderous intents, so Macbeth may take over the crown. After the murder, Macbeth appears to be horrified and devastated by the crimes when, in reality, he is the perpetrator.  

As the play continues, Macbeth continues to maintain false appearances.  He portrays himself as a loyal friend to Banquo while he secretly plans his murder.  Most kinsmen believe Macbeth to be a strong, loyal, intelligent, virtuous ruler who has earned his titles through his merit while the reality is that Macbeth has violently and dishonestly moved up in rank after his last earned title of Thane of Cawdor. One major lesson to be learned from Macbeth: things are almost never how they appear!

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In Macbeth, how does the theme of appearance versus reality manifest in the witches?

My favorite example of this theme is in Lady Macbeth.  She 'appears' to be a strong and formidable woman.  Macbeth cautions her to "bring male children only" because she is not delicate or feminine. 

Macbeth: Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. (1.7)

She convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan and plots the way in which is will be done.  However, she has a sensitive and fearful side that she hides.  She claims that she wouldn't kill Duncan because he looked like her father as he slept.  She faints upon hearing that Macbeth killed the guards, and tries to caution him against further action before he arranges Banquo's death.  She succumbs to her guilt about the murder in the end, allowing it to consume her to the point of madness and suicide.  Clearly, she is not what she seems.

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In Macbeth, how does the theme of appearance versus reality manifest in the witches?

Their chant in the opening scene introduces the theme of how to distinguish what appears to be true from what is really true. "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" offers a paradox indicating that we cannot tell one situation from another, which is another way of suggesting the tension between appearance and reality. The witches later seem to appear out of nowhere, causing Macbeth to wonder if they were even there, as does Banquo, when he says "have we eaten on the insane root/ That takes the reason prisoner?" (1.3.88-89). Later in 1.4, as Macbeth plans the murder, he says "Stars, hide your fires; /Let not light see my black and deep desires," this time asking nature to cloak his reality (deep desire to do evil and kill Duncan) in the dark. He reiterates this difference from what appears to be true vs what is true when he says "False face must hide what the false heart doth know" (1.7.95). In all of these cases, Macbeth acts in a way that disguises what he has in his heart, and as for the witches, they repeatedly equivocate on the full truth of the future--the disaster that will happen when he kills Duncan--and in this way hide the reality of the future from him.

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In Macbeth, how does the theme of appearance versus reality manifest in the witches?

The witches appear so strange to Macbeth and Banquo that they cannot tell what they are or even whether they are alive or not. Even after speaking to them, Banquo doubts their existence:

Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?

Until they saw the witches, the two generals were apparently of one heart and mind, but the meeting on the heath sends them down separate paths, Banquo remaining loyal and honest and Macbeth adopting a policy of deception and concealment in which appearance and reality necessarily diverge. Upon Malcolm's being created Prince of Cumberland, he warns himself to hide his true nature and Lady Macbeth gives him the same warning: "look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under't."

After the murder of Duncan, the Macbeths have to pile deception on deception and murder on murder to cling on to power. Ironically, it is an apparition of the honest Banquo ("Unreal mockery," as Macbeth calls it) that forces Macbeth to reveal his real nature at the feast. It is only at the end of the play, however, that Macbeth comes to accept the unreality behind the appearance of substance in both the witches' words and life itself. When he realizes that MacDuff will kill him, he exclaims:

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.

And a little earlier, on being told of his wife's death, he cries out that even life itself is not what it appears:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

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