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The Significance of Paradox and Equivocation in Shakespeare's Tragedy

  • Subject: Literature
  • Category: Plays
  • Essay Topic: Macbeth
  • Pages: 4.5
  • Words: 1958
  • Published: 21 May 2018
  • Downloads: 218
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The Significance of Paradox and Equivocation in Shakespeare's Tragedy essay

In the play Macbeth, some of the most significant characters rely upon their ability to equivocate, in order to hide their treacherously covetous, or purely malicious intentions. Most characters take part in these acts of subterfuge, but the three witches, the porter and above all, Macbeth are the most significant. While Macbeth employs these tactics of speech manipulation and ambiguity as the others do, he eventually falls victim to this game of trickery himself, a captive of his own inability to see the deception hidden in the witches’ words.

When Macbeth is introduced, he is undoubtedly a respected and noble Thane, with blatant loyalty to his country. It is not until the witches’ prophecies tempt him with the possibility of a future kingship that he becomes the deceptive, dishonest murderer that plagues Scotland in the later acts of the play. Macbeth’s skill at deception is first put to the test after his murder of Duncan, when, with the intent of appearing innocent, he attempted to mislead Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm, and the other nobles into believing he was nothing more then his king’s loyal subject. He strived to appear just as appalled and surprised as they were by this brutal and unforeseen murder. In an effort to further his innocence, Macbeth says, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.” In saying this, Macbeth attempts to justify his seemingly impulsive action of killing the guards who were supposed to have protected Duncan. He states that in a moment of such emotional intensity, no man can be expected to behave rationally. By stating this however, Macbeth establishes himself as a master equivocator by having slyly contradicted his own proclamation. While he declares that man’s actions during a time of strife is typically to be irrational, he in fact, acted very rationally. His actions were based concisely upon a very well thought out plan. Overall, Macbeth’s intent with this statement was to create a veil that shrouded his murderous intent.

Despite all of his efforts towards protecting himself and his future kingship, Macbeth left himself vulnerable to the witches’ underlying intentions, cleverly woven into their gnomic prophecies. Because the witches’ equivocations involve Macbeth almost primarily, they are the most significant, as well as the most havoc wreaking statements of the play. In Act I, Scene III, the three witches began their equivocal prophecies by greeting Macbeth with a title of which he has not yet received. Banquo, irritated by their apparent favoring of Macbeth, requests that the witches address him as well. Frank Kermode, Author of “Shakespeare’s Language”, recognizes this meeting as the initiation of the witches’ equivocations. In his essay he writes of the ambiguity of the scene:

The scene in which Macbeth and Banquo encounter the Sisters fully exhibits the new and peculiar ambiguous, doubling manner. Are these figures inhabitants of the earth or not? Men or women? Alive or not? They reply with their prophecy: He is already Glamis, will be Cawdor, will be King. Banquo answers with questions to Macbeth, why does he fear what seems so fair? Then he addresses the sisters:

“Are ye fantastical, or that indeed/which outwardly ye show? Are you what you appear to be, or mere apparitions? Why do you speak to him and not to me? If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow, and which will not, speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favors nor your hate.”

Here the rhythms reinforce the return to the original question: What can be learned of the future in the present? Him/me, grow/not grow, be/fear, favors/hate, even when they are not, as it were, necessary, part of the substance, the oppositions and alternatives sounds on continually.

Kermode states that the witches emanate ambiguity not only in the positive/negative attributes of their speech but also in a physical sense. This point is proven by Banquo’s statement, “You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret you so” (3.1.20)

Furthermore, in response to Banquo’s request, the witches hail him by saying, “Lesser than Macbeth, and Greater” (3.1.19) and “Not so happy, yet much happier.” (3.1.19) After hearing these words, Banquo immediately responds with “Stay, you imperfect speakers” (3.1.19) demonstrating his feeling of uncertainty regarding the witches words, proving that due to their indiscernible nature, these words are, by definition, an equivocation. As far as the meaning of these statements, it is revealed that these prophecies, as well as all other prophecies made by the witches, prove to be true and are foreshadowing what is bound to transpire further on in the play. The quote, “Lesser than Macbeth, and Greater” refers to the nobility and moral issues of both Banquo and Macbeth. Banquo will never acquire the highest title of king, as Macbeth will, making him of lesser nobility in society than Macbeth. However, Banquo is greater than Macbeth by moral standards because while both characters were offered the possibility of great power by the witches’ prophecies, Banquo did not bloody his hands as Macbeth did by resorting to murder in order to secure an illegitimate fate. The second quote, “Not so happy, yet much happier”, also compares Banquo and Macbeth, this time by the upcoming emotional conflicts they will be experiencing. Banquo, who will soon be murdered, won’t be as fortunate as Macbeth, who by that time will have become King. However, as guilt and the fear of mutiny weigh heavily on Macbeth, his life becomes a living hell even despite his now present kingship, and it is Banquo, now at peace in heaven, who is having the last laugh.

Furthermore, Shakespeare created a character in Macbeth for the purpose of comical relief, ironic for such a dark and dramatic play. This character’s ulterior purpose however, was not to provide a splash of lightheartedness to an incredibly intense play, but instead to further enunciate the influence that equivocal language has on every aspect of the play. The porter, is a paradox himself, appearing as a drunken jokester in a play that is clearly very serious. He then goes on to speak in completely convoluted, paradoxical language:

“Lechery sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him. Makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion equivocates him in a sleep and, giving him the lie, leaves him.” (2.3.63)

In this particular passage, the porter is referring to alcohol as a brutal equivocator due to it’s characteristic of emboldening men to stand forth, then stripping them of their ability to act upon it thereafter. This undulating effect that alcohol bestows on men relates directly to Macbeth’s ferocity and cowardliness as king. When he murders men he is ruthless and resolute, and yet when the ghosts of those men fill his thoughts, his once emboldened fortitude shatters, leaving him a cowering mess under the gaze of his now apprehensive nobles.

One of the witches’ prophecies on which Macbeth founded his own emboldened fortitude was “Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”(4.1.127). Upon hearing this, Macbeth reacted by saying, “Then live Macduff; what need I fear of thee?” (4.1.128). Macbeth implied that the meaning of this phrase was that he is untouchable by any human, Macduff included. Therefore, why should he fear the revenge of a man that cannot harm him? Because this misinterpretation was the witches’ intention, Macbeth has fallen for their equivocation, which effectively lulls him into a false sense of security, provoking him to let down his guard. This vulnerability ultimately leads to his demise at the place where “Great Birnam Wood” meets “High Dunsinane Hill”.

Moreover, The other witches’ prophecy to which Macbeth’s resilience and blind courage can be attributed to is: “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care who chafes, who frets, or where conspirators are. Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” (4.1.127). As he had done so before, Macbeth falls for the witches’ trickery by failing to see the paradoxical nature of their words. This prophecy was a paradox because it can easily be misinterpreted (as proven by Macbeth) as a completely illogical statement, and as a result the statement loses relevance due to its sheer improbability. Macbeth responds to this prophecy by saying, “That will never be! Who can impress the forest, bid the tree, unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good!” (4.1.127). His flaw here was interpreting this quote from a strictly logical point of view. He relies on the knowledge that an entire forest, such as “Great Birnam Wood” obviously cannot be picked up and moved as if it were a small object. He then goes even further and praises the prophecy for having cured his paranoia regarding the security of his crown. However, the prophecy does prove true when the attacking army led by Macduff literally carries “ Great Birnam Wood” to “high Dunsinane Hill”, where Macbeth and his castle, both about to come under siege, are located.

According to the view Maureen Mcfeely, Author of “Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair”: The Paradoxes of Macbeth, The most significant paradox of Macbeth is:

“The one at the play’s center: the relationship between Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and murder.” On hearing of the weird sisters’ prediction that her husband will be king, Lady Macbeth’s mind races immediately to murder. Her greatest fear is that “the milk of human kindness” flows too strongly in Macbeth’s veins to permit him to do the deed”(Mcfeely 7)

To reconcile for Macbeth’s supposed inadequacy, Lady Macbeth prays to the “murdering ministers” to “take her milk for gall”, therefore initiating what Mcfeely identifies as “a ritual sex change” (Mcfeely 7). The great paradox lies in the fact that despite this initial attempt of Lady Macbeth’s to fill herself with gall, and Macbeth’s onset of paranoia upon killing Duncan, both characters gradually develop into portraying the cliché male or female role. Lady Macbeth, even with her attempt at becoming masculine enough to handle murder, eventually caves in to the great anxiety of the events that have occurred, her character going from insanity to suicide. Macbeth, previously troubled by his treacherous murder, has become accustomed to it, and now proceeds in doing so without as much as a second thought. His “milk of human kindness” had in fact become the gall that Lady Macbeth believed he had most desperately lacked.

Overall, Macbeth becomes a victim of the witches’ equivocations because the illusion of fortune he finds in the witches’ prophecy proves to be too tantalizing for him to resist. His vulnerability to the temptations of power and wealth is his fatal flaw because it blinds him to the witches’ true intentions. He is so ready to accept that he could be king, and in light of that he lowers his guard as well as his morals. Despite Banquo’s warnings, he allows the temptations of the prophecies to gain complete control over him, leading him to murder the two people he was most loyal to, King Duncan, and his closest friend, Banquo. All the while believing that his disgraceful actions would balance out in the end, when the crown was upon his head. Instead, Macbeth only continues to lose the things he cares about. Despite being so skilled at equivocation himself, his greed blinds him from seeing it in the witches’ words. His death is the price of being beaten at his own game.

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The Significance of Paradox and Equivocation in Shakespeare’s Tragedy. (2018, May 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from
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