Appearance and reality

Shakespeare was interested in the way that people often pretend to be something that they’re not, and how we sometimes fail to see situations as they really are. In this play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must pretend to be decent people so that they can get away with murder. Many of the Thanes must pretend to be loyal to Macbeth in order to survive. The Witches make promises which are often only half-truths. There are ghosts and visions which may or may not come from Macbeth’s imagination.

Analysis of appearance and reality in the play

Question

How does Shakespeare use the appearance of a dagger to demonstrate Macbeth’s mental state?

On his way to kill Duncan, Macbeth thinks he sees a dagger, but it’s not real.

Macbeth tries to grab the dagger, but realises it is an illusion. He is not sure though, whether Hecate and her evil spirits have placed the vision there for him to point the way, or whether he is just imagining the dagger because he feels so distressed about the murder he is about to commit.

On his way to kill Duncan, Macbeth says:

Macbeth
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Act 2 Scene 1
Question

How does Shakespeare use the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet to demonstrate the theme of appearance and reality?

Macbeth is terrified to see Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, but Lady Macbeth tells him:

Lady Macbeth
When all's done
You look but on a stool.
Act 3 Scene 4

The lords at the banquet think Macbeth has gone crazy. As Lady Macbeth points out, he is shouting at a stool. Macbeth is convinced that Banquo’s bloody ghost is sitting on the stool. Does Banquo haunt Macbeth for revenge? Or is Macbeth so distressed by the murder, his guilt makes him imagine that he can see his friend again?

Question

How do the Witches use appearance and reality to cause Macbeth confusion?

The Witches promise Macbeth that he will be safe from attack as long as Birnam Wood doesn’t come up the hill to his castle, Dunsinane.

Macbeth feels secure because the suggestion that a wood might move is silly! That’s what Hecate and the Witches want him to believe. The Messenger, when he sees the wood move, can’t believe his eyes. In reality though, the woods aren’t moving by themselves. The English army are using the branches and leaves as camouflage as they march up the hill to Dunsinane.

The Messenger is terrified to report:

Messenger
As I did stand my watch upon the hill
I looked toward Birnam and anon methought
The wood began to move.
Act 5 Scene 5

You can find the theme of appearance and reality in lots of plays by Shakespeare:

  • look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream for dreams, intrigue, tricks and spells
  • look at Much Ado About Nothing for misunderstandings, masques and cover-ups
  • look at Othello for the nastiest, cleverest villain who twists reality and doesn’t get found out until the very end