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

The ‘fair and foul’ tool refers to sudden contraries, or reversal: something seems fair and then is revealed to it is in foul, or something appears foul and then us realize it’s fair. Let’s put this tool into practice by feather at several of the most famous moments in Macbeth.

You are watching: What does fair is foul and foul is fair mean

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Banquo and also Macbeth are faced 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 the contradictory Witches

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

We’re seeing contraries, opposites, at work here. Banquo states the witches nothing look choose “inhabitants of the earth”, yet he have to admit the they are indeed “on” the earth. This opens up a vast theme in this play, really one of its great questions: What room these witches?

They can’t just be illusions, due to the fact that Banquo look at them, too. Carry out they reason Macbeth to death Duncan, his king? If so, how? do they wield wonder power? Or is it more a malevolent, emotional influence? If lock don’t reason the events, perform 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 device to the an initial words the witches speak come Macbeth? lock exclaim that he is “Thane the Glamis”—a title he simply received—“Thane of Cawdor”—a title he does no yet have—and “King hereafter,” absolutely a location he go not and also ought no to hold.

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

Macbeth responds to this apparently confident statements by reflecting fear, together Banquo observes: “Good sir, why perform you start, and also seem to are afraid / points that do sound for this reason fair?” Well, our device serves us well here: we view that this apparently great news is also very evil—Macbeth will certainly be propelled to accomplish these prophecies by murdering his very own king. Fair is foul.

This, the course, is the error made by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, who is therefore pleased v Macbeth’s valor on the battlefield the he honors the lord by safety the night in his castle. Together he ideologies the castle, Duncan remarks, “This lock hath a satisfied seat; the wait / Nimbly and sweetly recommends chin / depend our gentle senses.”

Macbeth’s castle appears to Duncan to be a fair place indeed—but us know, equipped 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 to trust in the Thanes that Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although illustrated as a highly virtuous king, is rather lacking in the ability to read his politics rivals accurately. When Duncan learns the his supposedly 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 and construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust—” and before Duncan can end up his sentence, Macbeth appears, and Duncan exclaims, “O worthiest cousin!” He then bestows upon Macbeth the title simply relinquished through the traitor, Thane of Cawdor.

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Personal and also Political Foul and also Fair


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

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

In Macbeth, this dynamic has actually its political dimension, too. In the fourth act of the play, the scene shifts come England, wherein Duncan’s son, Malcolm, speak to Macduff, one of the Scottish thanes. Malcolm is wiser than his father, in this respect in ~ least: he knows not to to trust Macduff just since Macduff appears to be loyal and friendly. “All points foul would certainly wear the brows that grace,” Malcolm states, and we watch that that 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, also tyrannical, in spite of his fair appearance. In disgust, Macduff prepares to leaving Malcolm’s presence—but we recognize that there’s a twist coming: ‘fair is foul’, yet also, ‘foul is fair’—Malcolm pretends to it is in foul, but is actually fair within.

He admits come Macduff the he just wanted to be certain of Macduff’s commitment to Scotland, and also he’s confirmed in this through Macduff’s refuse to support Malcolm if Malcolm were indeed so wicked.

So this tool helps us to see into a repeated dynamic in the play, yes; but also if we keep noticing the pervasiveness of this dynamic, we realize the the world of Macbeth is at some point a civilization where naught is certain: the apparently foul is in reality fair, but that fair can easily and rapidly change to foul once again.

Nothing is known, nobody is to be trusted. The a radically unconvinced world, a depiction of humanity in its many fallen state, as far from clear moral goodness as any representation in Shakespeare.

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


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

To begin with, because that Banquo, the three witches appear other-wordly, but are also plainly present on the earth. Similarly, despite the witches explain apparently good news come Macbeth, he reacts with fear rather than joy.


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

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

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

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


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

Malcolm pretends to be corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, also tyrannical, despite his fair appearance. Macduff is dislike by this, and also that is when Malcolm reveals the he had only been pretending.


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