The Shakespearean play Macbeth, is full of paradoxes and things are seldom what they seem. The theme of ambiguity and double meaning is played upon throughout the play, starting with the witch s prophecies. Many characters in the play also show good and evil qualities that become more evident as the play progresses. In addition, the theme of what is appearance and what is reality is also used throughout the play. These areas combined clearly reinforce the theme of good vs. evil and show that things are rarely what they seem to be.
The witches prophecies are paradoxes and have double meanings. This is clearly evident when Banquo receives the three predictions from the witches. In act 1 scene 3, the witches tell Banquo that he will be Lesser than Macbeth, and greater / Not so happy, yet much happier / Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none (I, iii, 68-70). The witches prophecies are contradictions with each other and have double meanings. For example, Banquo won t be king but he will father a long line of kings and Macbeth as king should be far happier than Banquo but Banquo is inwardly happier than Macbeth because he has a free conscience. These paradoxes are just the beginning of the paradoxical nature of the play.
After the appearance of Banquo s ghost, Macbeth seeks the witches for a second encounter which again is full of paradoxical predictions. The second apparition informs him that for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth. (IV, I, 86-87) and the third apparition informs him that Macbeth shall never vanquish d be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him (IV, I, 100-102). Macbeth believes that he is invincible but the paradox of the first apparition is that Macduff isn t technically born of
a woman; he was from his mother s womb / Untimely ripp d. (V, viii, 15-16). Therefore, he can bring harm to Macbeth. The third apparition is again misleading. The prediction seems to say that Macbeth will never be defeated because it is impossible for the woods to move but the witches actually mean that the English troops will camouflage themselves with tree branches and march towards the castle. All of these paradoxes fill Macbeth with confusion because he does not understand the true meaning behind them, which is the witches true intent.
Many characters in the play have fair appearances that hide foul intentions. A good example of this is Macbeth s character. In the beginning, Macbeth is described as being valiant (I,ii,26) noble (I, ii,77)and brave (I, ii, 6) but soon he becomes dishonorable and murders the king in order to become king himself. A quote that Illustrates this well is Away, and mock the time with fairest show / False face must hide what the false heart doth know (I, vii, 91-92). Macbeth means that they should go to the castle and
pretend to be the kings loving subjects, even though they plan to kill him that night. Macbeth s character is a good example that sometimes appearance does not reflect reality.
The theme of what is appearance and what is reality is played upon throughout the play. This idea is first used with the witches fair is foul, and foul is fair (I, i, 11) chant where they imply that something s outside appearance is inwardly the opposite. This is an obvious reference to Macbeth s character which we see changes from a noble one to a dishonourable one. Macbeth was on the turning point of having a fair life by becoming the Thane of Cawdor; but instead he chose to have a foul life by killing the king, Banquo and the family of Macduff. A quote that illustrates the deceptive qualities in Macbeth is when he says: False face must hide what the false heart doth know (I, v, 66). Macbeth s moral deterioration is the opposite that would naturally be expected. Thus, this reinforces the theme of the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality.
Sometimes appearance doesn t reflect reality and what appears to be good is actually rotten to the core. This is specifically raised in the Macbeths secret plan to kill the king. Lady Macbeth urges her husband to: Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under t (I, v, 65-66). This quote shows that Macbeth s wife wants him to look fair, to better hide his foul intentions. This is one example out of many that relates to the uncertainty of things
The witches are master of deception and enjoy being devious. Macbeth believes the witches are helping him but in actuality they are leading him on. Just after he has been named Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is wondering if he can believe the rest of the witches prophecies, and Banquo remarks: oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betrays / In deepest consequence (I, iii, 123-126). Banquo is warning Macbeth that the witches could lure him to great evil by telling him small truths. The witches are very misleading and prove that appearances can be deceiving.
Throughout the whole play, fair appearances hide foul realities. King Duncan put it best when he said There s no art to find the mind s construction in the face (I, iv, 11-12). In addition, the theme of paradox and ambiguity were used numerous times, specifically in the characters and the witches prophecies. In conclusion, the idea of fair is foul, and foul is fair has many possible meanings and can be analyzed forever, but one thing is for certain and that is paradoxes add confusion, uncertainty and mystery to this masterpiece.