Notes on Appearance vs Reality in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The contradiction between appearance and reality is repeated throughout the play. In the very first scene, the three witches utter together that fair is foul and foul is fair.

The fact that it is one of the thematic concerns of the play is emphasised when Macbeth’s first dialogue in the play is but the repetition of what the three witches said earlier, “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.” In Act I, Scene 4, King Duncan helplessly expresses that “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

The play blurs the distinction between what situations and individuals look like and what they really are. The tragedy in the play functions from such dichotomies.

In his own words, “false face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Unlike Banquo, Macbeth doesn’t want to recognise the three witches as evil forces. 

The three witches are different for Macbeth from who they really are. It is Macbeth whom they manipulate because he is not what he appears to be. In reality, he nurtures destabilising ambition.

At the beginning of the play, he is a glorious, brave, victorious general who is respected by everyone unquestionably but he is not what he seems to be.

The very first differing degree of appearance and reality is spilt by the three witches. Whatever they predict isn’t what it sounds like. Their half-truth deceives Macbeth.

They don’t act, they only speak and their words activate whatever dormant in the listener and that’s when a character reveals what it really is rather than what it may appear as.

Lady Macbeth complains Macbeth of his transparent appearance. She delivers the formula that “to beguile the time, look like the time.” She asks him to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” Macbeth imbibes it very well.

From then he successfully hides what he really is. Unlike what Lady Macbeth accuses him of, his face is no more a book on which one can read the inner thoughts.

When King Duncan arrives at the castle of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth literally acts so deceptively it is impossible to know that she is also plotting to get him murdered that very night.

Towards the end of the play, it becomes clear that the tragedy is coming from this flaw of not being able to see the true realities. Macbeth is falsely lured by the second round of misleading predictions made by the three witches when they show him three apparitions.

From what it appears as Macbeth is unable to know the realities of those half-truths and slips into a false assurance regarding his invincibility. From appearance alone, Macduff looks like someone who cowardly abandons his family but, in the end, he is the one who avenges and the order return to the hands of Malcolm.

The whole play is slowly furthered on the deceptive appearances and wrong perceptions. Vital appearances are always contradicting to their reality.