By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and also Lee University

The ‘fair and foul’ tool refers to sudden contraries, or reversal: something appears fair and then is revealed to be foul, or something seems foul and then us realize that fair. Let’s put this tool right into practice by spring at numerous of the most renowned moments in Macbeth.

You are watching: Fair is foul and foul is fair meaning

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Banquo and Macbeth are confronted by the witches. Banquo expresses amazement in ~ the figure of the witches. (Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith./Library the Congress/Public domain)

Banquo and also the contrary Witches

We will start with the first interaction between Macbeth and the witches. What room Banquo’s very first words as soon as he sees the witches? They space a question: “What room these, / therefore wither’d and so wild in your attire, / that look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth, / and also yet space on’t?”

We’re seeing contraries, opposites, at occupational here. Banquo says the witches don’t look prefer “inhabitants the the earth”, yet he should admit the they are certainly “on” the earth. This opens up a substantial theme in this play, really among its good questions: What space these witches?

They can’t simply be illusions, because Banquo sees them, too. Do they reason Macbeth to kill Duncan, his king? If so, how? do they wield wonder power? Or is it much more a malevolent, psychological influence? If they don’t cause the events, execute they foretell them? room they in which method privy to what the future holds?

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The three Witches predict Macbeth’s Greatness

What if we use this tool to the very first words the witches speak come Macbeth? castle exclaim that he is “Thane the Glamis”—a title he just received—“Thane the Cawdor”—a location he does no yet have—and “King hereafter,” definitely a location he does not and ought not to hold.

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Macbeth’s very first reaction to the witches is among alarm and maybe fear. (Image: Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

Macbeth responds to these apparently optimistic statements by reflecting fear, as Banquo observes: “Good sir, why execute you start, and also seem to are afraid / things that carry out sound therefore fair?” Well, our tool serves us well here: we watch that this apparently great news is also an extremely evil—Macbeth will be driven to fulfill these prophecies by murdering his own king. Same is foul.

This, that course, is the error made by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, that is for this reason pleased through Macbeth’s valor top top the battlefield the he honors the mr by safety the night in his castle. As he philosophies the castle, Duncan remarks, “This castle hath a satisfied seat; the waiting / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / depend our tenderness senses.”

Macbeth’s castle shows up to Duncan to be a fair place indeed—but we know, armed with the ‘fair is foul’ tool, that in truth it will be the ar of his death that very night.

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Duncan’s Misplaced to trust in the Thanes the Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although depicted as a very virtuous king, is rather doing not have in the ability to read his politics rivals accurately. Once Duncan learns the his reportedly loyal lord, the Thane the Cawdor, has actually led the rebellion against him, the is amazed.

“There’s no art,” he states, “To find the mind’s building in the face: / He to be a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust—” and also before Duncan can finish his sentence, Macbeth appears, and also Duncan exclaims, “O worthiest cousin!” He climate bestows ~ above Macbeth the title just relinquished through the traitor, Thane the Cawdor.

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Personal and also Political Foul and also Fair


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Lady Macbeth, illustrated by Ellen terry in this painting by man Sargent, persuades Macbeth to show up fair while gift the serpent.(Image: man Singer Sargent/Public domain)

Armed through our ‘fair is foul’ tool, we can see the dynamic the betrayal arising in the early scenes the the play. In fact, this is the very dynamic that Lady Macbeth will depend upon together their strategy to succeed in death Duncan: “bear welcome in your eye, / her hand, your tongue” she tells her husband. “Look prefer th’innocent flower, / however be the serpent under’t.”

In Macbeth, this dynamic has actually its political dimension, too. In the 4th act the the play, the scene shifts to England, whereby Duncan’s son, Malcolm, speak to Macduff, among the Scottish thanes. Malcolm is wiser than his father, in this respect in ~ least: that knows no to trust Macduff just because Macduff shows up to it is in loyal and friendly. “All things foul would certainly wear the brows the grace,” Malcolm states, and we see that that understands the ‘fair is foul’ maker quite well.

Indeed, the proceeds to check Macduff’s commitment by pretending that he self is corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, also tyrannical, in spite of his same appearance. In disgust, Macduff prepares to leave Malcolm’s presence—but we know that yes a twisted coming: ‘fair is foul’, however also, ‘foul is fair’—Malcolm pretends to be foul, however is actually fair within.

He admits to Macduff that he just wanted to be details of Macduff’s commitment to Scotland, and he’s confirmed in this by Macduff’s refusal to support Malcolm if Malcolm were indeed so wicked.

So this tool helps us to see right into a repeated dynamic in the play, yes; but likewise if we store noticing the pervasiveness of this dynamic, we realize the the human being of Macbeth is ultimately a people where naught is certain: the apparently foul is actually fair, however that fair deserve to easily and also rapidly shift to foul once again.

Nothing is known, nobody is to be trusted. It’s a radically unconvinced world, a depiction of mankind in its many fallen state, as much from clear ethical goodness as any type of representation in Shakespeare.

Common Questions around ‘Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair’ in Macbeth


Q: In what way do the three witches in Macbeth present contrasts?

To start with, for Banquo, the 3 witches appear other-wordly, however are also clearly present ~ above the earth. Similarly, despite the witches explain apparently great news to Macbeth, he reacts with are afraid rather 보다 joy.


Q: What does the play tell us about Duncan’s assessment of people?

The beat tells united state that King Duncan is a negative judge that character. To begin with, Duncan is surprised at the disloyalty the the previously Thane the Cawdor. Duncan screens that really same gullibility as soon as he expresses his to trust in Macbeth as the following Thane of Cawdor.

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Q: how is the ‘Foul is Fair’ dynamic supplied by Lady Macbeth?

When advising Macbeth top top what he must do, Lady Macbeth claims “bear welcome in her eye, / her hand, your tongue”. She tells Macbeth to “Look prefer th’innocent flower, / yet be the serpent under’t.”


Q: exactly how does Malcolm test Macduff’s loyalty?

Malcolm pretends to it is in corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, even tyrannical, despite his same appearance. Macduff is disgusted by this, and that is once Malcolm reveals the he had only been pretending.


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