Appearances and reality

Banquo's ghost appearing in front of Macbeth
Banquo's ghost appearing in front of Macbeth

In Macbeth, things are never quite what they seem. Characters say one thing yet mean something else and use euphemisms to hide reality. Wicked and violent acts such as murder are covered up or the blame is shifted onto someone else. The Witches mislead Macbeth, or they at least make suggestions which allow him to mislead himself. Ghosts, visions and apparitions occur regularly. All of these things contribute to the many contrasts which exist in the play; almost nothing is as it should be.

How is this shown in the play?

In Macbeth, Shakespeare examines how appearances can be deceptive and that the reality behind them is often unpleasant. Some of the key aspects are:

  • seeing things
  • sleep and dreams
  • fake hospitality

How does Shakespeare show this?EvidenceAnalysis
Seeing thingsThe play is full of spirits, ghosts, optical illusions and visions. While some of these are conjured up by the Witches, others are as a result of a guilty conscience following acts of wickedness. This is why Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are particularly affected. It is difficult for them to admit to others (or even each other) what is happening - this might mean they would be suspected of madness.Mine eyes are made the fools o'th'other senses, / Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before. There's no such thing: / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes. (Act 2 Scene 1) In one of the most famous scenes in the play, Macbeth sees a vision of a dagger just like the one he is about to use to kill king Duncan. Blood is covering the blade and the dudgeon (handle). Lady Macbeth thinks her hands are covered in blood. Even though Macbeth cannot believe his eyes ('Mine eyes are made the fools o'th'other senses') and in reality realises he is having an hallucination ('There's no such thing') he is still fascinated by the dagger's appearance.
Sleep and dreamsAfter the murder of Duncan has taken place, both Macbeth and his wife have trouble sleeping and are tormented by guilty dreams. Lady Macbeth regularly sleepwalks and replays events in her mind as she tries to wipe away the memory of what she has done. Eventually she goes mad and she dies, probably by committing suicide.LADY MACBETH: The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean? No more o'that, my lord, no more o'that. You mar all with this starting. DOCTOR: Go to, go to; You have known what you should not. GENTLEWOMAN: She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that. Heaven knows what she has known. (Act 5 Scene 1) The Doctor and one of the ladies-in waiting observe Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks and goes over events in her mind. She is thinking about the murders of Macduff's wife and of King Duncan and how Macbeth reacted when he saw Banquo's ghost. These events all become muddled together in one continuous speech which suggests that Lady Macbeth is losing her reason. The blood on her hands is, of course, not real but in her highly charged emotional state she imagines that it is ('What, will these hands ne'er be clean?'). Her unconscious words and actions give her away to the people watching.
HospitalityKing Duncan is a guest in the Macbeth's home when they decide to murder him. Rather than look after him as good hosts should do they send him to his grave. Later in the play the Macbeths host a banquet for the other Thanes. They are not just being generous - their hidden agenda is to get the other nobles to support them.MACBETH: You know your own degrees, sit down; at first and last, the hearty welcome. [The LORDS sit] LORDS: Thanks to your majesty. MACBETH: Our self will mingle with society and play the humble host; our hostess keeps her state, but in best time we will require her welcome. LADY MACBETH: Pronounce it for me, sir, to all our friends for my heart speaks, they are welcome. (Act 3 Scene 4) Macbeth subtly reminds his guests that they all have a particular rank ('you know your own degrees') and that he is at the top as King. Cleverly he pretends to 'play the humble host' to make them less suspicious of his motives. The Macbeths appear to be putting on a show of solidarity for the Thanes. In fact Macbeth has just ordered the murder of one of them (Banquo) and has refused to tell his wife what he has been doing. Their words are very polite and apparently warm. The word 'welcome' appears three times which is almost overdoing it!

Analysing the evidence


How is the theme of appearances and reality presented in the play?

  • Through characters' language - Many of the words the characters use have double meanings, are twisted for a particular purpose or are used to highlight contrasts (eg "So foul and fair a day I have not seen")
  • Through characters' thoughts - The Macbeths have evil intentions and even when they seem friendly and welcoming are often actually plotting how they can hold onto their power (eg when Duncan is welcomed into their castle as an honoured guest)
  • Through characters' actions - Acts of pure evil are presented as though they are somehow beneficial to others (eg when Macbeth orders Banquo's death, he suggests to the hired murderers that it will be of benefit to them)