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

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

You are watching: Meaning of fair is foul and foul is fair

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Banquo and Macbeth are challenged by the witches. Banquo expresses amazement at the illustration of the witches. (Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith./Library of Congress/Public domain)

Banquo and also the contradictory Witches

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

We’re see contraries, opposites, at work here. Banquo claims the witches nothing look choose “inhabitants of the earth”, however he need to admit the they are certainly “on” the earth. This opens up up a huge theme in this play, really among its great questions: What space these witches?

They can’t simply be illusions, due to the fact that Banquo watch them, too. Carry out they cause Macbeth to death Duncan, his king? If so, how? perform they wield magical power? Or is it much more a malevolent, psychological influence? If they don’t reason the events, do they foretell them? are they in which method privy come what the future holds?

This is a transcript native the video seriesHow to Read and also Understand Shakespeare.Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The three Witches suspect Macbeth’s Greatness

What if we use this device to the first words the witches speak to Macbeth? they exclaim the he is “Thane the Glamis”—a location he simply received—“Thane the Cawdor”—a location he does no yet have—and “King hereafter,” definitely a title he walk not and also ought not to hold.

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

Macbeth responds to this apparently optimistic statements by reflecting fear, together Banquo observes: “Good sir, why perform you start, and also seem to fear / points that carry out sound therefore fair?” Well, our tool serves united state well here: we see that this apparently great news is also very evil—Macbeth will be driven to accomplish these prophecies through murdering his very own king. Fair is foul.

This, the course, is the error do by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, that is therefore pleased with Macbeth’s valor ~ above the battlefield the he honors the mr by safety the night in his castle. Together he philosophies the castle, Duncan remarks, “This castle hath a satisfied seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / depend our gentle senses.”

Macbeth’s castle shows up to Duncan to be a fair location indeed—but us know, equipped with the ‘fair is foul’ tool, that in fact it will certainly be the ar of his death that very night.

Learn much more aboutthe tools for a life time of Shakespeare.

Duncan’s Misplaced trust in the Thanes that Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although depicted as a extremely virtuous king, is rather doing not have in the ability to review his political rivals accurately. When Duncan learns that his apparently loyal lord, the Thane the Cawdor, has led the rebellion versus him, he is amazed.

“There’s no art,” that states, “To uncover the mind’s construction in the face: / He to be a gentleman on who I constructed / An pure trust—” and before Duncan can finish his sentence, Macbeth appears, and also Duncan exclaims, “O worthiest cousin!” He climate bestows top top Macbeth the title simply relinquished by the traitor, Thane that Cawdor.

Learn an ext about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Personal and also Political Foul and Fair


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

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

In Macbeth, this dynamic has its political dimension, too. In the 4th act of the play, the scene shifts come 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 not to to trust Macduff just because Macduff shows up to it is in loyal and friendly. “All points foul would certainly wear the brows of grace,” Malcolm states, and also we view that the understands the ‘fair is foul’ maker quite well.

Indeed, the proceeds to test Macduff’s commitment by pretending the he himself is corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, also tyrannical, regardless of his fair appearance. In disgust, Macduff prepares to leaving Malcolm’s presence—but we recognize that yes sir a twisted coming: ‘fair is foul’, yet also, ‘foul is fair’—Malcolm pretends to it is in foul, but is in reality fair within.

He admits come Macduff the he only wanted come be particular of Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, and he’s evidenced in this through Macduff’s refusal to support Malcolm if Malcolm were without doubt so wicked.

So this tool helps us to see into a recurring dynamic in the play, yes; but additionally if we store noticing the ubiquity of this dynamic, us realize the the human being of Macbeth is eventually a human being where naught is certain: the supposedly foul is actually fair, however that fair can easily and also rapidly transition to foul when again.

Nothing is known, no one is to be trusted. That a radically skeptical world, a representation of humankind in its many fallen state, as much from clear moral goodness as any type of representation in Shakespeare.

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


Q: In what method do the 3 witches in Macbeth present contrasts?

To begin with, because that Banquo, the 3 witches show up other-wordly, yet are also clearly present ~ above the earth. Similarly, though the witches explain apparently great news to Macbeth, he reacts with fear rather 보다 joy.


Q: What go the play tell us around Duncan’s assessment of people?

The beat tells us that King Duncan is a poor judge that character. To begin with, Duncan is surprised in ~ 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: exactly how is the ‘Foul is Fair’ dynamic supplied by Lady Macbeth?

When advising Macbeth on what he should do, Lady Macbeth says “bear welcome in her eye, / her hand, your tongue”. She tells Macbeth come “Look favor th’innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t.”


Q: how does Malcolm check 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 when Malcolm reveals that he had actually only been pretending.


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