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Essay: Distinctions between illusion and reality in The Tempest and Macbeth

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Shakespeare was an expert at making people and things appear to be what they aren’t. Whether it be women disguised as men, characters posing as friends and family whilst planning to commit deceit, and characters being driven mad; identities are consistently blurred and misguided. In many cases, the idea of appearance and reality is the basis of the main plot. The Tempest focuses largely on the distinction between what is real and what isn’t, while Macbeth focuses on this idea in two ways, in the form of deceit and treachery, as well as the way some characters appear to the audience versus how they appear to other characters in the work.

The distinctions made between illusion and reality in The Tempest largely rely on character perspective. Being that the island is riddled with magic mainly under the manipulation of Prospero, it constantly inhibits the ability of the new arrivals to differentiate between reality and the mirages Ariel creates. For Example, in Act One, Ariel stops Antonio and Sebastian’s plot to kill Gonzalo and usurp the crown while they were supposedly guarding the remainder of the sleeping survivors. When everyone is awakened and sees their swords have been drawn, Sebastian leads Antonio in devising an elaborate lie saying they ‘heard a hollow burst of bellowing / Like bulls, or rather lions’ (2.1.28-29). When in fact it was Ariel who had awoken Gonzalo, saving his life and inciting him to wake the others:

ARIEL. (to GONZALO) My master through his art foresees the danger

That you, his friend, are, and sends me forth—

For else his project dies—to keep them living.

(sings in GONZALO ’s ear)

While you here do snoring lie,

Open-eyed conspiracy

His time doth take.

If of life you keep a care,

Shake off slumber and beware.

Awake, awake! (2.1.313-321)

Reality is also mitigated by the individual perspectives of the characters. With his magic giving him the ability to manipulate the characters and environment around him, Prospero carefully orchestrates the events of the play with ease. This almost omniscient power presented in Prospero’s character urges the audience to question what is reality and what is delusion. The audience is not directly involved in the play’s plot, and thus cannot be swayed by Prospero’s abilities, allowing for an objective perspective of what occurs throughout the play. These contrasting perceptions can also be applied to other characters. Gonzalo is uncompromisingly positive and so sees the island only in its beauty, and Ariel, who is also a native, relishes in the naturalness of the island. Sebastian and Antonio, on the other hand, see it as an inhospitable location due to their negative outlooks on their situation. Reality is consistently obscured by magic, and this duality is furthered by the impact of personal perspective over each individual’s perceptions.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the dispute of appearance and reality is shown in the form of deception. The three witches set the scene for chaos and deceit in the play. They deliberately managed to mislead, cheat, and incite evil throughout Scotland via their ambiguous language. In Scene One of Act One, the witches introduce the quote, “fair is foul and foul is fair,” meaning things that seem to be good are bad Macbeth, and things that seem to be bad are actually good Malcolm, who flees Scotland in the event of his father’s death to protect himself but looks guilty instead. The witches provide Macbeth with half-truths in their prophecies convincing Macbeth that he will be king and cannot be killed. Macbeth disregards what he knows to be the true nature of the witches and allows the appearance of their prophecies to lure him, when the reality behind them is the very source of his demise. The equivocations of the witches give Macbeth a false sense of security and superiority, making him very susceptible to being overthrown. Lady Macbeth is the foremost example of deceit in this play. Inwardly, she is consumed with a lust for the crown, while outwardly conserving the facade of the subservient wife. She is more ambitious and ruthless than her male counterpart and seems to be well of aware of the fact that she will have to persuade Macbeth to commit murder. She quite effectively manipulates her husband, superseding all objections; when he hesitates to commit to the murders, she repeatedly questions his manhood to the point where he feels obligated to murder another human being to prove himself to his wife. Though Lady Macbeth’s strength of sheer will keep her strong through the murder of the king, she began to quickly deteriorate mentally following the event. By the end of the play, Lady Macbeth was sleepwalking through the castle desperately attempting to wash away invisible bloodstains, revealing that just as she was more affected by the greed and ambition for the thrown more strongly than Macbeth prior to their crimes, so does the guilt plague her more strongly following the crimes.

These plays represent two ways in which the theme of appearance versus reality is explored in Shakespearean works, through deceit occurring among characters as well as differences in perspective or reality. In both plays, Shakespeare remains consistent in developing this theme in that there is always a form of deception whether it be intentional manipulation or characters simply deceiving themselves and others about who they truly are and who they want to be. However, The Tempest is focused on a group of male survivors that develop the theme for the ultimate purpose of avenging a wrong that was done to Prospero by his brothers. Prospero utilizes his control over the island’s resources to drive the men to repent for their transgressions. It isn’t until Caliban says he would have sympathy for the survivors, who have at this point become prisoners, if he were human that Prospero himself shows them sympathy by ordering Caliban to release them as they had suffered enough. This masculine cast perpetuates the extremely popular notion of Shakespeare’s time that power, ambition and violence are linked to masculinity. Dissimilarly, Shakespeare utilizes Lady Macbeth and the witches as the forefront of treachery and manipulation, undercutting this notion and implying that women, in fact, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, though several social constraints deny them the means to pursue such ambitions on their own.


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