“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” chant the witches in the opening scene of Macbeth. With this apparent contradiction a seed is sown for the examination of what is indeed a major theme of the play. False appearance and apparition recur regularly throughout the story. The audience and even the characters themselves are often unsure of the distinction between what appears to be real and what actually is. Shakespeare makes a great statement through the play of how easily one can deceive and be deceived. It is full of rumours and fears, vague knowledge, uncertainties, riddles and half-truths.
The aforementioned witches are the embodiment of evil and equivocation. They clearly have the power to make good look evil and make evil look good. They play a huge role in Macbeth’s fate by introducing doubt and malignant ambition into his mind. Their mixing of appearance and reality is crucial to the development of the plot. Macbeth, a character previously valiant, falls into the trap of interpreting what the witches say. To Banquo they say: “Thou shalt get kings though thou be non.” He is clear in his understanding that what the witches are saying has little to do with reality: “The instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles to betray in deepest consequence.”
However, Macbeth is led by this appearance of royalty that the witches got into his head, ultimately leading to a tragic fate for Scotland and his downfall. He develops a strong connection with the witches. There comes a stage when he is dependent on the witches and confused what is reality and what is merely appearance: “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” It is wishful thinking at best, but to Macbeth it is an absolute truth. He believes he will ever be vanquished unless an impossible natural occurrence (“Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come”) takes place… and most ironically it does! Even from looking at the witches we know that there is a mix up here of appearance and reality. Banquo notes: “Thou should be women… and yet thy beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” So equivocation is in the very nature of these “midnight hags.” One may even argue the most obvious point: aren’t witches only characters in children’s books? How can you even discuss reality and make reference to witches? Clearly, Shakespeare’s masterpiece is designed to blur the boundary between appearance and reality.
Another way in which Shakespeare develops this theme is through Macbeth’s rise to power and particularly the role of Lady Macbeth in it. Macbeth kills the King of Scotland and makes sure to appear innocent and cover up reality. He seems worthy of becoming king but the reader knows the dark truth. Lady Macbeth is crucial in the development of the deceitful plot to frame the guards by encouraging Macbeth to be a “serpent underneath” while looking “like the innocent flower.” Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are skilful at swapping reality for false appearance. Macbeth’s castle becomes symbolic of the conflict between reality and appearance. It seems like a beautiful welcoming place and yet it is the motherland of regicide, treachery and disintegration. Duncan comments that “this castle hath a pleasant seat” never to see daylight again. The Porter nicely alleviates the horror of the murder. However, even his humorous remarks contain a reference to what this castle has become – he welcomes those knocking on the door… to hell.
He welcomes sinners and equivocators and describes their ambiguous and contradictory actions. His reference to alcohol heightens the theme of what we think should be and what turns out to be true. Shakespeare attributes more to this theme by showing Malcolm, the honest and innocent son of Duncan who ironically falls under suspicion, another example of the contrast between appearance and reality. In Act 4 Scene 3 deceives Macduff but does but does it to elicit the truth about his appearance versus his intentions, paradoxically: “my poor country shall have more vices that it had before.” And illustrates it with limitless voluptuousness, “your wives, your daughters, your matrons and your maids” and insatiable greed: “I will cut off the nobles from their lands”. Here we see a double twist on the theme of appearance versus reality proving just how deeply it is explored here. Overall, there are multiple examples of the conflict between the truth and what we perceive. It is shown through symbols such as witches and the castle, Macbeth’s confusion between apparitions and common sense, Lady Macbeth’s evil plot versus Malcolm’s strategic and benevolent lies. “There’s daggers in men’s smiles”