Illusion and Reality in Macbeth

Illusion and Reality

Illusion as a corollary of reality seems to be a favourite theme for Shakespeare. The theater itself is a world of illusion and Shakespeare talks endlessly about it. The news from the new world and the flood of Greek and Roman literature also would have influenced Shakespeare to explore this aspect of life.

When the witches say ‘fair is foul and foul is fair‘, we are told of how the world is seen differently by people depending on what they are. Evil operates through deception. Macbeth’s mind has an inkling of the deeper water he is led to when he says,

So fair and foul a day I have not seen.

Duncan refers to Macbeth as a worthy gentleman and pays with his life for his inability to see through Macbeth’s outward appearance. Macbeth is called noble and also a valiant cousin. But in reality Macbeth is a potential traitor. Duncan trusted the earlier Thane of Cawdor. Now he trusts Macbeth and makes him the new Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is happy when Duncan plans to visit his castle but Duncan fails to see why Macbeth is so happy about the visit. Both Duncan and Banquo find the atmosphere at the castle wholesome and welcoming. They don’t know about the serpents that reside there.

Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan very politely and expresses her desire to serve him very effectively. But we know that she has already made up her mind to kill the king. She herself refers to the occasion as the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements. She tells her husband to don a pleasant appearance to hoodwink the others. She says,

Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it,

She tells him that ‘to beguile the time he has to look like the time’. Macbeth more than echoes her words when he says later,

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

He later gives her a taste of her own medicine when he says,

Let your remembrance apply to Banquo:

Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue


Macbeth is presented as a great warrior who vanquishes all his enemies.  But his main enemy is within himself. He says the he has given his soul to man’s eternal enemy. He fails to see that the enemy is within himself in the form of ‘vaulting ambition that overleaps itself’. His courage and determination fail when he confronts Lady Macbeth. He is not powerful than his enemies in anyway. But she is able to work on him by fanning his own desires. We hear her counsel Macbeth and persuade him with diabolical cogency.

Appearance and reality becomes very clear when Banquo’s ghost appears. Hallucinations are used very effectively to reinforce this theme. The witches give Macbeth some false promises which he considers as protection against his downfall. But he fails to see the double meaning in their words. He is killed not by a man born of a woman. He is killed by a man who was brought into this world by ripping open his mother. The foerst which is thought not to move, finally moves toward Macbeth’s castle in the form of branches held by his enemy soldiers. This kind of cheating makes Macbeth call the witches ‘these juggling fiends’.

When Malcolm meets Macduff in England, he suspects Macduff is a spy. Malcolm pretends to be unfit to be king and fools Macduff. In effect, they both misunderstand each other. Later Macduff is found to be a trustworthy person and Malcolm is found to be a man of integrity. There several instances of life considered as a drama and the world as theater, both examples of reality and illusion. The supernatural also is made use of to reiterate this aspect of the world.

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