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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.