Ambiguity and Equivocation in Macbeth

Ambiguity and Equivocation in Macbeth

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Ambiguity and Equivocation in Macbeth



        Macbeth's voluntary misinterpretation of the ambiguity and

equivocation of the witches relates to the play's theme, which states that

uncontrolled desire for power often leads to irregular or violent actions,

resulting in death  and or destruction. After the first of the witches'

prophecies comes true, Macbeth begins to believe in their truth.  However,

he also believes that the prophecies must all lead to his enrichment and

empowerment. To that end, he twists the witches' words to fit his own

purposes, ignoring the possibility that the prophecies might have other,

less fortunate meanings. This voluntary misinterpretation, committed in

pursuit of power, leads Macbeth to perform certain actions which result in

the death of the king, Macbeth's friends, and eventually his own death.


        From the beginning of the play, Macbeth desires great power. Lady

Macbeth's statement to Macbeth that "When you durst do it, then you were a

man;" (I.vii.55) suggests that she and Macbeth have contemplated and

possibly committed murder for the sake of advancement before. Macbeth

provides further support for this in his reaction to the witches' prophecy

that he will be king. After Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor, he realizes

that the witches were right, and immediately begins to ponder the other

part of their prophecy. "My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,"

(I.iii.153) he thinks, bringing murder to the front of his mind almost as

soon as the witches are proven right. Later in the play, Macbeth's desire

for power, encouraged by the witches, leads him to kill the king and assume

the throne.


        Macbeth and his wife use ambiguity and equivocation themselves in

pursuit of power.


        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. (


With this announcement, Lady Macbeth states that if all she could do in his

service had been done four times over, it still would not do honor to the

king. The ambiguous nature of this statement is that it is true even though

she has not done everything she could. It is true, and so she gains the

king's trust and goodwill through ambiguous honesty even though she plans

to help Macbeth murder him.  Macbeth issues a similar statement in the

king's presence; he tells him "I'll be myself the harbinger, and make

joyful the hearing of my wife with your approach;" his statement, like Lady

Macbeth's, is technically true, but bears murderous intent. He will tell

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his wife, and she will be happy, but only because then she will be able to

goad Macbeth into murdering the king. These irregular actions prove the

theme correct; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth use ambiguity to trick the king

into thinking he is safe. They abuse his trust and kill him in his sleep,

and their actions therefore lead to violence and destruction.


        At this point, Macbeth's object is to remain on the throne and

retain his newfound power by any means necessary. Remembering the words of

the witches, "Thou [Banquo] shall get kings, though thou be none,"

(I.iii.72) Macbeth decides to murder Banquo and his son Fleance. Here the

first hint of the witches' ambiguity is seen; the hags told Banquo that he

would be "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much

happier." Macbeth takes this to mean that Banquo will somehow usurp the

power that Macbeth himself has usurped, and so he kills him. The audience,

however, knows the true meaning of the prophecy: Banquo will never be king,

and so he is less than Macbeth, but he remains loyal to his king and

commits no murder, and is therefor greater than Macbeth in the eyes of

heaven. Further, Banquo is filled with doubt about whether his friend has

murdered the king, and he is murdered himself; he is not as happy as

Macbeth is when Macbeth assumes the crown. However, he is assured a place

in heaven and his family will be kings of Scotland, so he is much happier

than Macbeth, who will be despised and deposed, and who will probably end

up in hell.


        Believing that he has disposed of the current threat to the throne,

Macbeth visits the witches in an attempt to ascertain who else he should

kill in order to retain his power. By this time, Macbeth has no qualms

about murder, and his better nature has been suppressed in the pursuit of

power. Much of this is due to his voluntary misinterpretation of the

witches' prophecies. At this point the prophecies of the witches and the

apparitions which appear to Macbeth become warnings to him, but he chooses

to hear them as promises of his own immortality. He voluntarily decides to

ignore the possibility that the prophecies contain other meanings.


        Three apparitions appear to Macbeth, telling him to beware MacDuff,

that he will not die until Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, and that no man

of woman born shall ever kill him. Macbeth translates these prophecies as

meaning that he will reign as king until the day he dies of natural causes.

This can be seen in his actions; he kills MacDuff's family but leaves the

man himself alive, he enters into battles screaming that no man of woman

born shall ever harm him, and eventually his foolhardy actions lead to his

death at the hands of MacDuff. It is the equivocation of the ghosts that

lead him to this course of actions; the ghosts deliberately equivocate in

their messages to him. "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great

Birnham Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him," (IV.i.104-106)

speaks one. In his apathetic, power-hungry state, Macbeth chooses to hear

only the surface message and not the deeper warning. Nevertheless, the

ghost made it very easy for him to do this.  It used equivocation to hide

the truth. Macbeth, unable to controll his desire to keep his power,

interpreted those words in a way that would ensure his own victory, and his

resulting actions led to the death of his allies when Malcolm marched on

Dunsinane. Similarly, the ghost which told him that "none of woman born

shall harm Macbeth" (IV.i.90) ensured his death at MacDuff's hands.


        Ambiguity and equivocation are key to the fall of Macbeth. He

begins as a heroic character, and his one flaw is his desire for power. Yet

without the machinations of the witches and the apparitions, Macbeth would

have had no chance to misinterpret warnings and prophecies. Without the

hint that he could somehow effect his own placement on the throne,

Macbeth's mind would not have turned to murder at the point where he was

given the Thaneship of Cawdor. So these two elements, driven by Macbeth's

uncontrolled desire for power led  to actions which were violent and

destructive, and which eventually led to death. The placement of ambiguity

and equivocation in the play exploit Macbeth's flaw, and are necessary to

the plot of the tragedy.




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