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Shakespeare 450
Duality & deceit in Macbeth
Some points to consider
• It is very difficult at times in the play to know what is real and what only
appears to be real. There is a great deal of duplicity, deceit
misunderstanding in the play and much of it is deliberate. In many ways
“Macbeth” is about the conflict between illusion and reality.
• The play’s most obvious example of the disparity between what is real
and what is not is provided by its supernatural elements. We immediately
are confronted with the notion of deception when we meet the witches.
These are duplicitous creatures who speak in paradox, “when the battle’s
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lost and won,” lesser than Macbeth yet greater” etc. They cast spells, and
appear and disappear at will. Their incantation, “fair is foul and foul is fair”
begins the play, is echoed by Macbeth and hovers thickly throughout. They
are “equivocating fiends that lie like truth”.
“There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
• The problem of distinguishing what is real is also seen through
characters. The “merciless Macdonwald” is a traitor who has worked in
league with the invading Norwegians. Of course, he is aided by the former
Thane of Cawdor, who is “unseamed” from the “nave to the chops” by
macbeth. There are other characters such as Banquo who’s principles seem
somewhat compromised. Even the worthy Macduff is willing to accept that
Malcolm can Convey [his] pleasures in a spacious plenty,
And yet seem cold.
And many commentators have noted that Ross appears to leave and enter
just at the right moment. In Roman Polonski’s version of the film he is cast
as a duplicitous character in league with Macbeth.
• The play presents us with many acts of deliberate deceit. Macbeth calls
on the forces of darkness to help him conceal his dark desires. Lady
Macbeth advises her husband to “look like the innocent flower, but be the
serpent under it.” He takes her advice to heart, saying later, “False face
must hide what false heart doth know and “we must make our faces vizards
to our hearts disguising what they are.
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Appearance and Reality
Obviously Shakespeare intended the theme of appearance and
reality to be central to our understanding of the play. On a political level
Scotland is rife with ‘treasonous malice’ and a great battle has just been
fought against the invading forces of the Norwegian king, Sveno. This
attempted invasion has been aided by the machinations and deception of
the thane of Cawdor and his co-conspirator Mc Donwald. The physical
appearance of the witches, their double talk and the ease with which they
deceive those who choose to believe in them underscore the importance
of this theme to the play. On a deeper level, Shakespeare examines the
way in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deceive themselves.
One of the most interesting aspects of Shakespeare’s treatment of
the theme of deception lies in his presentation of the witches. Since they
are the first creatures we see in Macbeth, since they speak the first words
we hear and since they are the authors of the paradox that the play
constantly returns to – ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ – the witches are clearly
important elements in the presentation of the theme of appearance and
reality. They are dramatic representations of the potential for evil and selfdeception within all men. In this respect, what they look like, what they say
and what they do, combine to reinforce our understanding of the theme of
deception. They are ugly; they have ‘choppy fingers’ ‘skinny lips’ and
‘beards’. In Banquo’s estimation they ‘should be women’ yet he cannot be
sure that this is the case. The paradoxical nature of their appearance is
mirrored by the words that they speak. Their prophecies appear ‘fair’ yet
pave the way for the foulest of crimes. On a deeper level, the sound, the
rhythm and the cadence of their chants are captivating and mesmerising;
yet, the content of their speeches is disgusting. The sound captivates yet
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the substance repels. Macbeth’s second and final encounter with the Weird
sisters reveals a great deal about how these creatures deceive. Hecate’s
masterful contrivance leads Macbeth ‘to his confusion’, by assuring him
security for his crimes. This is done not through outright lies but through
equivocation. A key facet of the witches’ deceptions lies in their ability to
use words that in their ordinary meaning give guarantees, while in their
unusual meaning withdrawing them. Towards the play’s end, Macbeth
senses ‘the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth’. While he
exclaims bitterly against these ‘juggling fiends’ that ‘palter with us in a
double sense’ it is too late. Their deceptions and machinations have had
their desired effect.
While the witches are the most obvious symbols of deception in the
play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth also represent interesting aspects of
Shakespeare’s treatment of this theme. Very early on, both characters
recognise the need to deceive in order to culminate their plans. Following,
Malcolm’s investiture as the prince of Cumberland, Macbeth dispels any
notion of ‘chance’ crowning him King. He is now acutely aware of the need
to force the issue. However, he also realises that if he is to seize the throne
he will need to shroud his actions by deceiving those around them:
[... ] Stars hide your fires
Let not light see my black and deep desires
Interestingly, Lady Macbeth echoes Macbeth’s desire to conceal their
intended crime in darkness. She calls on ‘thick night to pall [her] in the
dunnest smoke of hell’. The rationale behind her deception is clear. She
wishes to obscure her ‘keen knife’ so that no one will see the ‘wound it
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makes’. In Lady Macbeth’s imagination, this deception will reach so far as
to mislead heaven itself:
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark to
cry Hold, hold.
When the couple first meets, Lady Macbeth is eager to stress the
importance of deception to the success of any attempt on Duncan’s life.
She urges her husband to look like the ‘th’innocent flower | But be the
serpent under it’. The need to ‘look up clear’ and equivocate while
harbouring ill intent is paramount to the fulfilment of their ambition.
It is difficult to ignore the fact that much of the play, Macbeth and
Lady Macbeth are successful in their deception. In order to emphasise this
Shakespeare employs an interesting metaphor. In act one, scene six
Macbeth’s castle at Inverness becomes symbolic of the people that inhabit
it. On his arrival at the castle Duncan comments that “it ‘hath a pleasant
seat”. He goes on, to point out that ‘the air’ surrounding Inverness ‘nimbly
and sweetly recommends itself unto [his] gentle senses’. Given that
Duncan has been wrong in the past, it is possible to question his
judgement. However, Banquo is also deceived by the atmosphere
surrounding Macbeth’s castle. To his mind, Inverness is a ‘procreant cradle’
that houses the ‘guest of summer | The temple haunting martlet’.
Shakespeare has juxtaposed this with the previous scene, where we
witnessed Lady Macbeth employ bird imagery of an altogether different
kind. She speaks of the ‘raven’ that is ‘hoarse’ from croaking the ‘fatal
entrance of Duncan under [her] battlements’. This is one of the clearest
presentations of the theme of deception in the play.
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For much of the play, the idea of equivocation is closely linked to the
theme of deception. This aspect of appearance and reality is best
exemplified by the ‘equivocation of the fiend | That lies like truth' or the
‘juggling fiends’ 'That keep the word of promise to our ear | And break it
to our hope'. Of course, on a more subtle level the audience bears witness
Macbeth’s own equivocation and eventual self deception following the
discovery of Duncan’s body. In a very interesting speech he tells us that had
he died before the death of Ducan he would have:
liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant, There's nothing
serious in mortality— All is but toys; renown and grace is
dead […]
Macbeth's intention is to avert suspicion from himself by following his
wife's advice to make their 'griefs and clamour roar upon' Duncan's death.
But, as he speaks the words, the audience knows that he has unwittingly
spoken the truth. Instead of lying like truth, he has told the truth while
intending to deceive. His words achieve a tragic resonance in the final
moments of the play. As he expresses it later, when full realisation has
come to him, life has become meaningless, a succession of empty
tomorrows, 'a tale told by an idiot.'
“Macbeth” is a complex study of deception and its corrupting
influence on humanity. A key aspect of this exploration is Shakespeare’s
exploration of deception. The play teaches us that if evil is to thrive it must
by necessity conceal its true self. However, perhaps the most fascinating
aspect of Shakespeare’s presentation of this theme is to be found in
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s self deception. In the end, the futility of the
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life they have created makes it clear to us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
have deceived themselves.
Witches: "Fair is foul, and fair is foul," (I, I, 10)
King Duncan: "What [the Thane of Cawdor] hath lost, noble Macbeth hath
won." (I, II, 79)
Macbeth: "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." (I, III, 38)
Macbeth: "And nothing is but what is not." (I, III, 155)
Macbeth: "The service and the loyalty in doing it pays itself." (I, IV, 25-26)
Lady Macbeth: "Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent
under't." (I, V, 76-78)
Lady Macbeth: "All our service, in every point twice done and then done
double, were poor and single business to contend against those honors
deep and broad, wherewith Your Majesty loads our house." (I, VI, 18-22)
King Duncan: "And [Macbeth's] great love (sharp as his spur) hath helped
him to his home before us." (I, VI, 28-30)
Macbeth: "False face must hide what the false heart doth know." (I, VII,
95-96)
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Act II
Macbeth: "Being unprepared, / Our will became the servant to defect, /
Which else should free have wrought." (II, I, 21-23)
Macbeth: "... and withered murder, / Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf, /
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, / With Tarquin's
ravishing strides, towards his / design" (I, I, 64-68)
Lady Macbeth:
"Go carry them and smear the sleepy grooms with blood" (II, II, 63-64)
"If he do bleed, / I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal, / For it must seem
their guilt." (II, II, 71-73)
Macbeth:
"Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?" (II,
I, 44-45)
"I have thee not and yet I see thee still / Art thou not fatal vision, sensible /
To feelings as to sight?" (II, I, 47-49)
"A dagger of the mind, a false creation" (II, I, 50)
"I see thee yet, in form as palpable / As this which now I draw." (II, I, 52-53)
"Mine eyes are made the fools o'the'other senses" (II, I, 56)
"I see thee still, / And, on thy blade on dudgeon, gouts of blood, / Which
was not so before." (II, I, 57-59)
Macbeth: "Who could refrain / That had a heart of love, and in that heart /
Courage to make's love known?" (II, III, 135-137)
Act III
Macbeth:
"The table's full." (III, IV, 54)
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"Which of you have done this?" (III, IV, 59)
"Thou canst not say I did it: never shake"/"Thy Glory locks at me." (III, IV,
61-62)
Macbeth: "If I stand here, I saw him." (III, IV, 89)
Macbeth: "Avaunt, and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!" (III, IV, 113)
Act IV
Second Apparition: " None of woman born shall harm Macbeth" (IV, I,
91-92)
Macbeth: "Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee? / But yet I'll make
assurance double sure, and take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live;" (IV, I,
93-95)
Third Apparition: "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great
Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him." (I, I, 105-107)
Macbeth: "Infected be the air whereon they ride, / And damned all those
that trust them!" (IV, I, 157-159)
Lady Macduff: "When our actions do not, / Our fears do make us
traitors." (IV, II, 4-5)
Lady Macduff: "Fathered he is and yet he is fatherless" (IV, II, 31)
Sirrah: "The liars and swearers are fools ; for there / are liars and swearers
enow to beat the honest / Men and hang up them." (IV, II, 62-64)
Lady Macduff: "I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often
laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly." (IV, II, 83-85)
Malcolm: "But I have none. The king-becoming graces, / As justice, verity,
temp'rance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, /
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude, / I have no relish of them" (IV, III,
107-111)
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Act V
Gentlewoman: "It is an accustomed action with her to / seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her / continue in this a quarter of an
hour." (V, I, 30-32)
Macbeth: "And be these juggling fiends no more believed that palter with
us in a double sense, that keep the word of promise in our ear and brake it
to our hope." (V, VII, 23-25)
Malcolm: "Let every soldier hew him down a bough / And hear't before
him: thereby shall we shadow / The numbers of our host and make
discovery" (V, IV, 6-8)
Malcolm: "Now, near enough: Your leafy screens throw down / And show
like those you are" (V, VI, 1-2)
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