Deception in Shakespeare’s MacBeth
‘Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.’ (Shakespeare 1.5. 64-66) Throughout Shakespeare’s Macbeth, things are not always as they seem. Deception in this play is always present, especially with the main characters – Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the most skilled at persuading others, especially her husband, into believe things that are not true. The above quote, spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, shows exactly how manipulative and deceiving she can be.
She is telling Macbeth to look and act pure, but to be evil inside. Macbeth, evidently led by his wife, but also by his own ambitions, is likewise guilty of deception.
He deceives his best friend Banquo, King Duncan, as well as his public. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth also try to use denial and rationalization to deceive themselves. This self-deception leads to grave circumstances for them both. Macbeth is forced into further and further lies, making life difficult and unbearable.
Lady Macbeth is also caught in the depths of deception and eventually kills herself. Therefore, it is obvious that the main characters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth are all negatively affected by the recurring theme of deception.
Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth uses her ability to mislead others in many ways. First of all, she decides to use deception to push her husband’s ambition to be king.
…Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear, and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the golden round…(1.5.25-28)
Lady Macbeth believes that, to be successful in his ambitions, Macbeth must rise above his goodness and accept her evil ways. She knows that the process of making her husband believe what she wants may not be easy. Lady Macbeth has to be cunning, and she is up for the challenge. The thought of being in power – the King and Queen of Scotland – drives her and she cannot be stopped. Lady Macbeth often has to reinforce her immoral beliefs to her husband, giving him a boost.
Was the hope drunk, wherein you dressed yourself? hath it slept since, and wakes it now, to look so green and pale at what it did so freely? From this time such I account thy love. Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour, as thou art desire? Wouldst thous have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’ Like the poor cat I’the adage?'(1.7.35-42)
Lady Macbeth implies that Macbeth is being cowardly by not going after what he wants. She preys upon her husband’s pride to remind him of his ambitions. Once she has schooled her husband in the art of deception, she must help him uphold this image and the lies. This deceit always results in hazardous outcomes.
Although Lady Macbeth is the most talented deceiver, Macbeth is also lead into committing his own deceptions. He begins to learn from his wife, and, in turn, proceeds to deceive many others. Deceiving his friends becomes a frequent habit, and Macbeth is forced to continue his lies and stories.
Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends; I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing to those that know me. Come, love and health to all; then I’ll sit down. – Give me some wine: fill full: – I drink to the general joy of the whole table, and to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss; would he were here. (3.4.84-91)
This falsehood is evident, as Macbeth is trying to fool his dinner guests about the reasons for his strange behaviour. Pretending that everything is fine eventually does not work, and as the play continues, so does the deception on many different levels.
Deceiving others may seem difficult, but deceiving oneself leads to even bigger problems. Lady Macbeth is so occupied with trying to mislead others, while rationalizing the deception to herself and her husband, that she does not notice how much the guilt is building. She finally gets so caught up in the deception game, that she cannot take it anymore. Lady Macbeth’s worry that people are no longer falling for their deceptive ways, comes out in one of her mad ramblings in front of the doctor: ‘…What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?'(5.1.35-37).
Though she is trying to be bold, saying that she does not care who knows what they have done, the statement proves that she does fear being detected. In the end, Lady Macbeth’s guilt over all of the lies gets the better of her. She goes mad, sleepwalking and rambling about the murders. ‘Wash your hands, put on your night-gown; look not so pale. – I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried: he cannot come out on’s grave.'(5.1.58-60) The deception that Lady Macbeth once prided herself on, lead to the self-deception, which then lead to her death when she committed suicide.
Macbeth is also in over his head, and his mind starts to play tricks on him on more than one occasion:
Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.(2.1.33-36)
…art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?(2.1.37-39)
Macbeth’s state of mind is not that of a normal man. He is trying so hard to go against his nature, convincing himself that deception is the only way to be King. The deceit does take its toll: ‘O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!'(3.2.36) Macbeth becomes imprisoned by his illusions caused by the build up of denial and self-deception. Banquo’s ghost is an example of these illusions. ‘…Take any shape but that [Banquo’s] and my firm nerves shall never tremble: or , be alive again…'(3.4.103-104) Macbeth’s inner struggle is coming out and, because his mind is in such a state, he can no longer control his behavior. Like his wife, Macbeth’s own inner deception has made him crazy. Macbeth goes from being a noble warrior with honest ambition, to someone that cannot even control his own thoughts anymore, due to all of the deception.
From the end results of the play, we can clearly see how deception ruins lives. Shakespeare shows the audience that misleading others – and oneself, is not honorable nor the way to get ahead. Lady Macbeth’s ability to seduce her husband into having immoral thoughts, leading to immoral actions to gain power, does not pay off. Macbeth’s learned evilness and deception also affects him negatively, and the quest to be king is tragic. Self-deception is the worst kind of deceit, as we can see that the guilt becomes overwhelming, causing insanity. Evil deception of any kind is clearly harmful and a valid moral lesson can be taken from this play.
Shakespeare, William. MACBETH. England: Longman Group UK Limited, 1986.
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