“Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air”
One of the main themes rampant in Macbeth is that of deception. There is a disconnect between appearance and reality. Hypocrisy is everywhere and what is good for one person may be bad for others in the play.
The first scene of the play highlights this. We are introduced to the witches, who speak in ambiguous equivocations. The quote “Fair is foul…filthy air” portrays that what is ‘fair’ or good or wholesome for humans is ‘foul’ or unwholesome for the witched and vice-versa. ‘Filthy air’, an atmosphere that humans would shun, is the kind that the witches enjoy. Their morality is absolutely opposite to ours.
The original Thane of Cawdor is introduced to us in Act I Scene ii through the technique of elision. We learn that in appearance, he was a very close friend of King Duncan, but the reality was that he had deceived Duncan and plotted against him with the traitor, Macdonwald, and the Norwegian King, Sveno. In this scene, Duncan’s quote “There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face” exemplifies this theme as well. A man’s face and heart may speak very different things. His face might appear to be what his heart is not. When Macbeth is to be given the title of the Thane of Cawdor, the appearance id that Macbeth is getting a very honorable title – “What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won” However, it is actually the traitorous part of the Thane of Cawdor’s personality that Macbeth is inheriting along with the name.
In Act I Scene iii, when Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches, their appearances defy reality as Banquo notices they are women, but they have beards. He cannot decide whether they are real or just hallucinations caused by eating hemlock, a root that causes insanity. This scene shows the true reality in Macbeth and Banquo’s characters through their reactions to the witches’ prophecy. Banquo is cool, calm and collected. Macbeth already has murderous thoughts but he hides these by appearing to be lost in forgotten thought.
With these murderous thoughts in mind, Macbeth meets Duncan with unadulterated flattery, completely deceiving him. His hypocrisy comes to light, as he talks about serving Duncan is his duty in life. Thus again, the appearances differ from the reality of the situation.
When Lady Macbeth meets her husband and gets the news that Duncan was to stay at their castle at Inverness that night, she arranges for his murder, but keeps flattering and praising him. In addition, she clearly tells Macbeth that his face must hide the evil thoughts in his mind and he must keep up the appearance of a loyal subject. He must look like a ‘flower’, but in reality, be the ‘serpent’ that hides under it. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth use their appearances as convenient masks to suit the occasion and hide the reality of their plans.
On entering Macbeth’s castle, Banquo remarks to Duncan on the presence of a bird (“temple-haunting martlet”) that usually nests and breeds in temples. He feels that the castle must be very welcoming, if the martlet has a nest there. But for Duncan, The castle is a horror-filled place from where he will not come out alive.
After killing Duncan, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth act as if they are most disturbed and shocked by his death. Macbeth gives elaborate speeches on how he wished he died before Duncan because now there was nothing of worth left in this world – a very blatant case of appearances being deceiving.
The next day, darkness reigns. This unnatural appearance of darkness strangles the reality of day.
In Act III Scene I, we see Banquo in a hypocritical role similar to the one Macbeth was in. Although a morally strong man, his words about duty to Macbeth echo of Macbeth’s earlier words about duty to Duncan. However, when alone, his heartfelt suspicions and dislike of Macbeth surface. For his part, Macbeth flatters Banquo as well, appearing to highly value his presence, while at the same time plotting his murder.
During the Banquet Scene, Macbeth starts seeing Banquo’s ghost, which is in reality just a manifestation of his guilt. To his wife and other guests, he appears to be talking to thin air; while in reality he is going crazy shouting at what he believes is a ghost.
When Macbeth meets the apparitions, he takes their prophecies at face value and believes them to be assurances. However, they are actually warnings that he fails to see under their appearance of reassurances. At the end of the scene, the witches leave, and Macbeth curses them ‘ “Infected be the air upon which they ride.” This may appear to be a curse, but in the witches’ muddled morality (in which ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’), this is actually a blessing since the witches thrive in this ‘infected’ or ‘filthy’ air.
When Malcolm meets Macduff in England, he is initially wary of him. To test his integrity, Malcolm pretends to have very low and base moral values and pretends to be a womanizer, greedy, and ignoble. But it reality, Malcolm is just the opposite.
Even in the very end of the play, when it appears to be Macbeth’s army fighting against Malcolm’s army, Macbeth’s army is actually defecting and fighting on Malcolm’s side.
Thus, Macbeth has an exceedingly large share of deceiving appearances and muddled moralities. Many characters are hypocrites and most people seem to mean a different thing than what they say. The inclusion of the supernatural element of the witches adds to this because their reality is completely opposite to ours.