What does Lady Macbeth mean by "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 is 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.

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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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Essentially, Lady Macbeth is urging her husband to put on an act. To help advance his ruthless ambition he should give the impression of being completely gracious and charming, friendly and reasonable, when Duncan arrives that evening. Yet at the same time he shouldn't lose sight of their plan to have him killed.

Lady Macbeth is highly adept at the skill of dissimulation, or hiding one's true thoughts or feelings. And as she's insanely ambitious for Macbeth, she wants to pass on this vital political skill to someone for whom it doesn't come quite so naturally. In fact, Lady Macbeth tells her husband bluntly how easy it is for other people to read his facial expressions:

"Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue." (act 1 scene 5)
Macbeth must try to appear the way that other people expect him to appear. After all, Duncan is the king, even though Macbeth plans to kill him, so he should be formally treated as such upon his arrival. This will help lull him into a false sense of security, making it easier for Lady Macbeth's dastardly plot to be successfully carried out.
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This comment comes shortly after Macbeth has told Lady Macbeth that King Duncan is arriving for a visit to Inverness, their castle home, later that evening. Macbeth is hungry for power, ultimately hoping to be named and crowned as the King of Scotland, so this seems like an opportunity to remove an obstacle to the realization of his goal.

However, Lady Macbeth doesn't trust her husband to be able to conduct himself without giving away his true desires and thoughts about King Duncan. She encourages him to be a respectful and gracious host to King Duncan, taking care that his facial expressions and actions not give any indication of their plans against the king.

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters. To beguile the time, look like the time; bear welcome in your eye

She wants him to appear as innocent of any deceit or evil thought as a flower, while remembering that he is actually the poisonous serpent ready to strike behind the pose of innocence.

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Essentially, this line is Lady Macbeth's warning to her husband in how to engage in immorality to get what they both want.  She says this to him in Act I, sc. 5, when he tells her that Duncan is coming.  Lady Macbeth recognizes this as the perfect opportunity for Macbeth to kill Duncan and seize power.   In order to become King, Lady Macbeth realizes that Macbeth must kill Duncan.  She also understands that he lacks the vocabulary and full understanding to do so.  As a warrior and a fighter on the battlefield, murder is done in name of King and country and there is little duplicity involved.  The slaughter is understood.  Lady Macbeth shrewdly realizes that her husband might need some level of guidance in how to murder for personal gain.  It is in this where she advises him to "beguile time," and put on pretenses as if he is a gracious host, and devoid of any malicious intent.  The "serpent under it" is how she believes Macbeth will best understand what needs to be done in how the murder should be executed.  In this line, Lady Macbeth's initial deviousness is evident, something that will change over the course of the play.  At the same time, Macbeth's overall innocence is also evident, something that will also change over the course of the play.

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What does the quote from Macbeth, "look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under't," mean?

In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from Macbeth which describes his new position as Thane of Cawdor. Filled with conviction that Macbeth is destined to be king, she resolves to help him fulfill this destiny. She worries that her husband is "too full o' the' milk of human kindness" to seize the crown with conviction. She recognizes that Macbeth desires greatness and has ambition but doesn't have the "illness" of spirit to take a direct path to the throne. Lady Macbeth sees it as her duty to "chastise" her husband's nature until he realizes that it is his fate to become king—by whatever means necessary. She receives word that both Macbeth and Duncan are approaching the castle, and she declares that she will put aside all femininity that might hold her back so that she can be filled "from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty" (1.5.47–48).

Macbeth returns and announces that Duncan is on his way as well. Lady Macbeth asks when Duncan will leave, and Macbeth replies that he plans to leave the following morning. Lady Macbeth insists that Duncan shall never see the sun the following day and that it is important that Macbeth must change his demeanor so that Duncan is caught off guard. She then tells him to "look like th' innocent flower, / But be the serpent under 't" (1.5.74–75). Flowers attract people because they are lovely and non-threatening. People often lean into them, desiring to fill their senses with even more of the flower's innate charm. Yet snakes sometimes make their home underneath flowers, concealed from the world and hiding a very real danger. Lady Macbeth is telling her husband that in order to fulfill their murderous plans for Duncan, Macbeth must be intriguing and seem completely innocent, making Duncan trust him and not arousing any suspicions. Yet Macbeth needs to remember that he is truly the "serpent" underneath the beauty with plans for destruction and must patiently wait for the appropriate moment to strike.

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What does the quote from Macbeth, "look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under't," mean?

This quote is from Act 1, scene 5 and is spoken by Lady Macbeth after her husband's arrival. He had previously notified her by letter of his encounter with the witches and that they had predicted that he would be thane of Cawdor and "king hereafter." He also stated that their prediction had come true and that he had been awarded the treasonous Cawdor's title since he would be assassinated for his betrayal.

Lady Macbeth was overjoyed on receiving such good tidings and was ambitious that her husband should become king. She was afraid, however, that he did not have the nerve to claim the crown by foul means. She awaits his arrival so that she can encourage him to do a most horrible deed—murder the king. On his entry, she immediately gets to work. She tells Macbeth that she feels "the future in the instant." In other words, she can sense their glorious future at that exact moment. It is obvious that she has already decided that they should murder Duncan so that Macbeth can ascend to the throne in the shortest time possible.

When Macbeth tells her that Duncan is to spend the night at their castle and that he was to leave the next day as he planned, Lady Macbeth comments:

O, never
Shall sun that morrow see!

This is an explicit indication of her intent—Duncan shall never see the sun the next day, for he would be dead. She then informs her husband that his countenance is too easily read and others may read strange messages in his expression. She urges him to put on a show of friendship and conviviality; he must "look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't." She means that Macbeth must appear benign, kind and friendly, but that this must only be an act, for he must deceive the others so that they do not suspect him of any malice. This innocent and harmless appearance must camouflage his true nature and their purpose, which is to assassinate the king.

It is evident from this that Lady Macbeth is insidious and sly. She has no qualms about achieving her ambition by whatever means possible. She states that:

He that's coming
Must be provided for: and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch;
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.

She is referring to the fact that Duncan has to be taken care of, not in the normal sense, but that preparations should be made for his murder. She is so wicked that she even asks that the task of setting up the king's assassination should be left to her. This will ensure that they rule the kingdom alone.

True to her promise, Lady Macbeth acts the perfect hostess when King Duncan and his party arrive. Everyone is easily deceived by her kindness and her florid and flattering language. Macbeth follows his wife's lead and the two later manage to successfully execute their plan without an accusatory finger being pointed at them.

The king's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, flee in fear for their own safety, which makes it easy to assume that they were complicit in their father's untimely death. Furthermore, Macbeth has slain the king's two unfortunate guards, who had been driven to sleep by a potion that Lady Macbeth added to their drinks, claiming that he had been overwhelmed by rage and love for his liege when it was discovered that they were responsible for his death.

Thus begins Macbeth's tyranny, Lady Macbeth's descent into madness, and her husband's eventual doom.

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