In Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era play, Macbeth, the paradox of “fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Shakespeare, 1.1.12) is a recurring theme that eventually leads to the downfall of the protagonist, Macbeth. He, who is the thane of Glamis, is faced with a difficult choice; killing Duncan in order to become king or, let himself be “crowned … without [his] stir” (1.4.158-159)
This passage suggests that characters are not always as they seem and that those reading or watching the play must constantly examine the inner details of the actions and thoughts of the characters. This enigma is also used to foreshadow the scenes to come, such as the equivocation of the witches, that despite seeming great, lead only to failure. Shakespeare uses the characters in Macbeth to develop the theme of fair and foul into a major contributor to the plot and progression of the play.
The dominant theme of fair and foul is first introduced in the opening scene of the play as three witches chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair; hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-13). The introduction of this theme so early indicates that it will be a recurring topic throughout the play. The witches’ initial appearance sets the mood for the entire play and their prophecies contribute to the chain of events that eventually leads to the rise and fall of Macbeth.
As Macbeth and Banquo come up to the witches, they cannot help but notice that they are ugly and disfigured to a point where Macbeth asks, “Live you? … You should be women and yet your beards forbid to interpret that you are so” (1.3.43-49). Their appearances along with their actions, such as causing a woman’s pilot husband to “sleep … neither night nor day” (1.3.20) for an incredible eighty-one weeks all because this lady would not share her chestnuts, point to the idea that these women “cannot be good” (1.3.144). Yet, because of the theme that Shakespeare inserts into the play, Macbeth believes that these women “Cannot be ill” (1.3.144).
In the traditional Shakespearean tragedy, the hero is often driven by his tragic flaw, which may seem good at first, but will eventually lead to their downfall. For Macbeth, this is his ambition, and the witches are the veritable first “spur to prick … [Macbeth’s] vaulting ambition” (1.7.25). After hearing of the witches’ Glamis, Cawdor, and King prophecies, Macbeth tells the audience in an aside, of the dreams that he has been having in which he kills the king to gain control of the throne.
This shows that he already had thoughts of doing the deed but did not wish to act on them. Throughout the play, Macbeth refers to the witches as the “Werd Sisters” (1.3.33). The word weïrd means fateful. This leads the audience to understand that Macbeth believes that the witches are agents of fate and not, as Banquo calls them “instruments of darkness” (1.3.136).
As Macbeth’s train of thought progresses, especially as “Malcolm [is named] the Prince of Cumberland” (1.4.44) he firmly believes that there is now one path that he must follow, based on the so-called “honest trifles” (1.3.137) given to him by the witches. Macbeth has no reason to believe what the witches have said, yet because they appeal to his ambition and seemed to coincide with what he wanted, he accepts them as a true statement.
He is sent down the self-destructive path that the play revolves around, based upon his false belief in the witches and his own motivation. As the play progresses to the murder of Duncan, which becomes certain as Macbeth makes his tragic choice after which he hopes “false face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.95-96). In this, he wishes that he may deceive others and allow them to see Duncan’s “Valiant cousin” (1.2.26) and not the “Black Macbeth” (4.3.63) that he is destined to become.
Even though Macbeth himself is prepared for what he plans on executing, there is one more loose-end he wishes to tie up. Banquo is Macbeth’s best friend and if possible, he would like for the two of them to share the glory Macbeth gets after he kills Duncan. Macbeth is a smart man and knows that he cannot directly ask Banquo if he wants to help in the killing of Duncan.
This is an example of an instance where Macbeth uses a technique called equivocation, in which he tells the truth yet either lies or means something else within the same sentence. He tells Banquo that “If you shall cleave to my consent, when t’is, It shall make honor for you” (2.1.34-35). As both men were present at the time of the witches’ prophecies, Macbeth knows that he must understand the position that Banquo has on the matter.
In Banquo’s response, he states that he is willing to support Macbeth as long as his “bosom [is] franchised and allegiance clear” (2.2.38). This response has a sort of double understanding to it as well. From one point of view, one may say that he simply means that he is loyal to the king as long as the king is a proper, rightful king and not one who has cheated to get there. On the other side, it could be argued that Banquo is somewhat aware of what Macbeth is insinuating, as he too responds in a similar way, in equivocation.
Another character who gets caught up in the theme of fair and foul is Macbeth’s “Dearest partner of greatness” (1.5.11), also known as Lady Macbeth. When the audience is introduced to her the first thing she says is, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be what thou art promised” (1.5.15-16). Instantly, any reader would realize that this is witchy talk.
This automatically inserts her into their category and for good reason. Shakespeare depicts Lady Macbeth as a cold-hearted, logical-thinking counterpart to her husband who is the complete opposite. He lets his emotions dictate his actions and second-guesses many things. She would not hesitate to “[dash] the brains out” (1.7.66) of an infant who was being fed.
She considers the traits that Macbeth has, to be foul, and those that she has, to be fair. After the killing of Duncan, Macbeth is having a panic attack and blowing many things out of proportion, saying that “all great Neptune’s oceans” (2.2.78) could not wash the blood from his hands, whereas Lady Macbeth states that “a little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.86) and bids him to think of “these deeds … it will make us mad.” (2.2.45). Ironically, congruent with the ongoing theme of fair and foul, in the end, it is Lady Macbeth, not the thane himself, who goes mad.
This fits into the theme, because as previously mentioned, Lady Macbeth considered her husband’s traits to be foul, yet she is ultimately the one who dies with those traits. One of the best examples of this is her screaming of “Out damned spot, out I say!” (5.1.37). She is now the one struggling to come to terms with what she and her husband have done.
The final character that has a major implication within the theme of fair and foul is none other than the “King, Cawdor [and] Glamis” (3.1.1), Macbeth. As he is mentioned a lot within the examples given for many of the other characters, it is evident that he is a very important part of this theme. To start, the very first line that Macbeth has is in Act One Scene Three is a poetic echo of what the witches say in the opening scene of the play. He tells Banquo “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” (1.3.39).
This, much like the first lines of his wife, immediately inserts him into the likes of the witches, the first evidence of the theme of fair and foul. Once he receives his prophecies from the witches, Banquo realizes that he “starts and seems to fear things that do seem so fair.” (1.3.54-55). Macbeth is obviously startled as he believes that these women have read his thoughts because he has been thinking of how he could, quite literally be king one day, perhaps even after Duncan.
After Macbeth “Hath murdered sleep” (2.2.55) and everyone has discovered the body of Duncan, Malcolm and Donalbain are talking as they prepare to leave for England and Ireland respectively. They are both suspicious of the “daggers in men’s smiles” (2.3.165) meaning that although it may seem that this could just be a murder, they believe that it is likely someone close and that “the near in blood, the nearer bloody” (2.3.165-166) and that there are people using “borrowed robes” (1.3.115) to hide their true thoughts. Knowing that Macbeth is Malcolm’s cousin insinuates that their main suspicion falls on that man.
As the suspicion towards Macbeth grows, Macduff has left for England in search of the rightful king, Malcolm. As they are talking, and Malcolm is testing to see whether Macduff is loyal to Scotland, they speak of Macbeth saying that “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell … all things foul wear the brows of grace, yet grace must still look so” (4.3.28-31). Macbeth has caused others to be misinterpreted as being foul, although they, such as MacDuff, are fair.
Macbeth, who was once the “worthy Cawdor” (1.4.54) and loyal subject to his king, similar to many other thanes, is compared to Lucifer, the angel who fell and became Satan. In this, there is the confusion created as it is not reasonable for the fair to be considered foul, while those who are foul seek to resemble the fair. Macbeth continues into greater confusion and unclear thoughts and motives, firstly because it needs to happen in the scheme of the Shakespearean tragedy, and secondly, in the case of this play, because of Macbeth’s confusion of what’s right and wrong.
As the play nears its end, Macbeth is clearly losing control of his situation. He has relied too eagerly on the witches’ prophecies including those of “Birnam wood” (4.1.106) and that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.91-92). At first, Macbeth is lead to believe quite easily these equivocations to be true, yet there are hidden double meanings within them.
“Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (5.8.19-20) and Malcolm tells “Let every soldier hew him down a bough And bear ‘t before him.” (5.4.6-7). Everything that Macbeth believed to be fair is now suddenly morphing into foul things and his confidence is completely lost. Another example is that he leaves the security of Dunsinane Castle, one that “will laugh a siege to scorn” (5.5.3), as soon as he realizes that “Birnam wood [has come] to Dunsinane” (5.2.2).
He leaves logical thought behind as his progression further and further into confusion becomes more and more apparent. Finally, as Macbeth prepares to enter his final battle, he begins to reflect on what he has in life now, he has things such as “Curses … mouth-honor, breath” (5.3.31), rather than what is realistically important such “as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends” (5.3.29). What methods he used to acquire what he seemed fair, were the foul things that Macbeth describes, yet now, not having what seems good to him, it is now opposite, now that he is on the receiving end of the bargain.
Many characters are entangled in the theme of fair and foul in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and he uses these people to develop it. As Macbeth states, “Nothing is but what is not” (1.3.155), this statement insinuates confusion and unclear meanings throughout the play. Shakespeare uses this to envision the rise and fall of Macbeth, along with the effect that this has on those around him. Fair and foul is what gives Macbeth an underlying theme of misunderstanding and compels the reader to look deeper into what is truly being said at any given time in the play.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Werstine, Paul. 2013 paperback ed., The Folger Shakespeare Library.