Equivocation and Double Meanings in Macbeth
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Equivocation and Double Meanings in Macbeth
Shakespeare uses equivocation not to confuse but to either get across multiple meanings or to leave dialogue and events in the play open ended. Equivocation can be seen with the witches and whenever they talk. The witches are themselves a vague set of characters who talk in a puzzling riddle-like manner. For instance when Macbeth goes to see them for the second time they are very vague about predicting his future, intentionally confusing him and making him overly confident. An example of this riddled dialogue goes like this:
All (three witches): Listen, but speak not to't.
Apparition: Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until;
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
Macbeth: That will never be:
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
That excerpt shows how the witches twist and play with Macbeth's mind and feelings. By the end of the Apparition's lines, Macbeth is convinced he can not be killed by anyone, and so grows in confidence till seething and almost rupturing with it. It also shows Shakespeare's use of equivocation and how, unless certain lines are studied, their true, if vague, meaning cannot be seen or understood.
The quoted phrase, “fair is foul and foul is fair” is used frequently, the phrase itself is an oxymoron. Early in the play the reader sees Macbeth as the hero because he has saved all of Scotland from the Norwegians. Duncan, honoring Macbeth, says, “More is thy due than more than all can pay.” (Act 1, Scene ) Towards the middle of the play the reader suddenly begins to pity Macbeth, slowly realizing his encroaching insanity for what it is, a downward spiral of death and increased mistakes. Finally, at the end of the play, the reader's opinion of Macbeth moves more towards hate and a feeling that Macbeth is unmistakably evil. As the second witch said:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes:
(-Act 4, Scene 1)
Such is Macbeth's fair to foul story in a flash. There is also Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Malcolm, and Donalbain, and perhaps even Banquo. Each of these character's development follows the “fair is foul and foul is fair” format.
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Meanings Macbeth Multiple Meanings Downward Spiral Three Witches Excerpt Riddle Feeling
In the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth shows a beautiful face, yet what she says in private is evil. In fact in Act 1, Scene 5, she says:
“Art not without ambition; but without
The illness that should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou'dst have, great Glamis...
She is saying that Macbeth is ambitious but lacks the brutality of character (the illness) to carryout any evil deeds through. After this Lady Macbeth continues on, trying to convince Macbeth to murder Duncan and eventually succeeds. From the end of the first Act through the 2nd, Lady Macbeth has shown her “innocent-self” perfectly capable of committing heinous deeds. Yet eventually the “illness” gets the better of her, as it did Macbeth, and she kills herself unable to stand living with her burdens.
On the other side of the “fair is foul and foul is fair” phrase there is Malcolm and his loyal followers. Malcolm and Donalbain were seen as traitorous murders as they fled their fathers' murder. Because of Lord and Lady Macbeth's craftiness, there were seen as traitors along with the grooms. For the people at Macbeth's Inverness castle their fleeing only confirmed suspicions. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff says, “... Malcolm, and Donalbain, the king's two sons, are stol'n away and fled, which puts upon them suspicion of the deed.” In the end Malcolm comes back with an army in tow to avenge the wrong done against him and his country men. As Macduff stated:
Hail, king! For so thou art: behold, where stands
The usurper's cursed head: the time is free:
I see thee compass'd with thy kingdom's pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds;
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine:
Hail, king of Scotland!
As for Macduff himself, he was also thought a traitor half way through the play. Being distrustful and disgruntled with Macbeth he runs to England to join Malcolm. Later though, after being tested by Malcolm to find out where his loyalties lie, Macduff finds out that Macbeth has slain his family. Wrapped in a shroud of vengeance he returns with Malcolm to take Scotland back. Like Malcolm and Donalbain, Macduff goes from “foul to fair.”
Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
- (Act 1, Scene 1)
“Fair is foul and foul is fair” is necessary for the development of certain characters in Macbeth, such as Macbeth. The statement itself is vague enough so that the audience will never know what the change from fair to foul will. The quote also suggests that the audience and the characters in the play shouldn't trust anyone because the characters may not be what they seem to be. This famous quote is the epitome of the play's subtleties and double meanings.
Equivocation is the practice of deliberately deceiving a listener without explicitly lying, either by using ambiguously misleading language or by withholding crucial information. What is the significance of equivocation in Macbeth?
Macbeth is a play about subterfuge and trickery. Macbeth, his wife, and the three Weird Sisters are linked in their mutual refusal to come right out and say things directly. Instead, they rely on implications, riddles, and ambiguity to evade the truth. Macbeth’s ability to manipulate his language and his public image in order to hide his foul crimes makes him a very modern-seeming politician. However, his inability to see past the witches’ equivocations—even as he utilizes the practice himself—ultimately leads to his downfall.
Sometimes, equivocations in Macbeth are meant kindly, as when Ross tries to spare Macduff’s feelings by telling him that his wife and son are “well.” Macduff initially takes this to mean that his family is alive and healthy, but Ross means that they are dead and in heaven. More often than not, though, such ambiguous statements lead to harm. The witches’ deceptive prophecies are perhaps the most destructive instances of equivocation. They tell Macbeth that he can never be harmed by anyone “of woman born,” but they neglect to tell him that Macduff was surgically removed from his mother’s womb and therefore doesn’t fall into that category. Similarly, they tell Macbeth that he can’t be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, but they don’t alert him to the possibility that the opposing army might advance on his castle under cover of branches cut from Birnam trees.
Macbeth ignores several signs that might have alerted him to the witches’ deceptive capabilities. Banquo warns Macbeth to be wary of their predictions, since evil creatures will sometimes win people’s confidence with “honest trifles”—small truths—only to betray them more deeply in the future. Indeed, the witches promise Macbeth fame and honor while withholding important information about the consequences that will follow. If Macbeth had been listening closely to the witches’ language, he might have picked up on the their potential for trickery himself. The three Weird Sisters greet Banquo with a series of riddling titles, hailing him as “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater” and “Not so happy, yet much happier.” The phrases sound like nonsense, but in reality both assertions in each statement are true. Banquo will have a lesser title than Macbeth, but is the greater (i.e., more moral) man. He will not be as fortunate as Macbeth in the short term, as he will soon be assassinated, but will ultimately be much more fortunate because he won’t be made to suffer the everlasting torments of hell. At no point do the witches lie to Macbeth—he simply hears what he wants to hear and ignores the rest.
It is ironic that Macbeth falls for the witches’ equivocations, because Macbeth and his wife are master equivocators themselves. Duncan laments that there’s no method with which one may find “the mind’s construction in the face,” meaning that it is impossible to know what a person is truly thinking just from his or her outward appearance. Lady Macbeth mimics this language when she directs her husband to look like an “innocent flower” in order to hide the “serpent” that truly lurks in his heart. The Macbeths know how to use imagery and appearance to conceal the truth, and sometimes they even use those skills on themselves. Macbeth asks the stars to extinguish their light so that his “eye” cannot see what his “hand” does. Similarly, Lady Macbeth asks the night to grow as dark as the “smoke of hell” so that her knife cannot see itself slash its victim. The Macbeths know that their acts are wicked, so they try to hide the knowledge of their deeds from their own consciousness. In a sense, they wish to equivocate to themselves.
Just before Macduff kills him, Macbeth swears that he will never again believe those “juggling fiends” that manipulate words and speak “in a double sense.” However, it’s possible that the three Weird Sisters are not “fiends,” or demons, at all, but rather agents of morality who bring Macbeth to justice by trapping him with his own tricks. The drunken porter, imagining himself the keeper of hell’s gates, pretends to admit “an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” One can imagine Macbeth receiving a similar welcome from the true porter of hell’s gates.
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