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

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

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

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

Banquo and also the contradictory Witches

We will start with the very first interaction in between Macbeth and the witches. What are Banquo’s an initial words as soon as he watch the witches? They space a question: “What are these, / for this reason wither’d and so wild in their attire, / the look not prefer th’inhabitants o’th’earth, / and yet space on’t?”

We’re see contraries, opposites, at occupational here. Banquo claims the witches don’t look choose “inhabitants of the earth”, however he must admit that they are undoubtedly “on” the earth. This opens up up a large theme in this play, really among its great questions: What are these witches?

They can’t simply be illusions, since Banquo watch them, too. Execute they cause Macbeth to kill Duncan, his king? If so, how? carry out they wield miracle power? Or is it much more a malevolent, emotional influence? If lock don’t reason the events, perform they foretell them? are they somehow privy to what the future holds?

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The 3 Witches suspect Macbeth’s Greatness

What if we use this tool to the first words the witches speak to Macbeth? lock exclaim that he is “Thane that Glamis”—a location he just received—“Thane the Cawdor”—a location he does not yet have—and “King hereafter,” definitely a location he walk not and ought not to hold.

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Macbeth’s an initial reaction to the witches is just one of alarm and also maybe fear. (Image: Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

Macbeth responds to these apparently optimistic statements by mirroring fear, together Banquo observes: “Good sir, why perform you start, and also seem to are afraid / things that carry out sound so fair?” Well, our tool serves united state well here: we watch that this apparently good news is also really evil—Macbeth will certainly be moved to accomplish these prophecies by murdering his own king. Fair is foul.

This, of course, is the error make by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, that is for this reason pleased with Macbeth’s valor top top the battlefield that he honors the mr by security the night in his castle. Together he approaches the castle, Duncan remarks, “This lock hath a pleasant seat; the waiting / Nimbly and also sweetly recommends itself / unto our gentle senses.”

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

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Duncan’s Misplaced trust in the Thanes the Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although portrayed as a very virtuous king, is rather lacking in the capacity to check out his politics rivals accurately. Once Duncan learns the his reportedly loyal lord, the Thane the Cawdor, has led the rebellion versus him, that is amazed.

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

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Personal and Political Foul and also Fair


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

Armed through our ‘fair is foul’ tool, we can see the dynamic that betrayal occurring in the beforehand scenes that the play. In fact, this is the an extremely dynamic the Lady Macbeth will rely upon as their strategy to success in killing Duncan: “bear welcome in your eye, / your hand, her tongue” she tells her husband. “Look prefer th’innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t.”

In Macbeth, this dynamic has its politics dimension, too. In the 4th act that the play, the step shifts come England, where Duncan’s son, Malcolm, speaks to Macduff, among the Scottish thanes. Malcolm is wiser 보다 his father, in this respect at least: he knows not to trust Macduff just since Macduff shows up to be loyal and friendly. “All points foul would certainly wear the brows the grace,” Malcolm states, and also we watch that the understands the ‘fair is foul’ an equipment quite well.

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

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

So this device helps us to see into a recurring dynamic in the play, yes; but also if we keep noticing the prevalence of this dynamic, us realize the the world of Macbeth is at some point a human being where nothing is certain: the supposedly foul is actually fair, yet that fair can easily and also rapidly change to foul when again.

Nothing is known, no one is to be trusted. The a radically unconvinced world, a depiction of humankind in its many fallen state, as much from clear ethical goodness as any representation in Shakespeare.

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


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

To start with, because that Banquo, the three witches appear other-wordly, yet are also plainly present ~ above the earth. Similarly, despite the witches explain apparently good news to Macbeth, he reacts with are afraid rather 보다 joy.


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

The beat tells us that King Duncan is a poor judge that character. To begin with, Duncan is surprised in ~ the disloyalty of the earlier Thane that Cawdor. Duncan displays that really same gullibility once he expresses his to trust in Macbeth as the next Thane of Cawdor.

See more: Explain How To Use Slide Headers And Where Do Slide Headers Appear, If Used?


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

When advising Macbeth on what he have to do, Lady Macbeth states “bear welcome in her eye, / her hand, her tongue”. She speak Macbeth come “Look favor th’innocent flower, / yet be the serpent under’t.”


Q: exactly 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 also that is as soon as Malcolm reveals the he had only been pretending.


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