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

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

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

We’re seeing contraries, opposites, at work-related here. Banquo claims the witches nothing look like “inhabitants the the earth”, yet he need to admit that they are certainly “on” the earth. This opens up up a substantial theme in this play, really among its good questions: What room these witches?

They can’t simply be illusions, since Banquo look at them, too. Carry out they reason Macbeth to kill Duncan, his king? If so, how? carry out they wield wonder power? Or is it more a malevolent, psychological influence? If castle don’t reason the events, execute they foretell them? are they in which method privy to what the future holds?

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

The 3 Witches guess Macbeth’s Greatness

What if we apply this tool to the first words the witches speak to Macbeth? they exclaim that he is “Thane that Glamis”—a title he simply received—“Thane that Cawdor”—a location he does not yet have—and “King hereafter,” definitely a title he go not and also ought not to hold.

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

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

This, the course, is the error make by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, who is therefore pleased v Macbeth’s valor on 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 wait / Nimbly and also sweetly recommends itself / depend our gentle senses.”

Macbeth’s castle appears to Duncan to it is in a fair ar indeed—but we know, equipped with the ‘fair is foul’ tool, that in fact it will certainly be the place of his death that an extremely night.

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

Duncan’s Misplaced to trust in the Thanes the Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although depicted as a highly virtuous king, is rather doing not have in the capability to check out his politics rivals accurately. As soon as Duncan learns that his apparently loyal lord, the Thane that Cawdor, has actually led the rebellion versus him, he is amazed.

“There’s no art,” he states, “To uncover the mind’s construction in the face: / He to be a gentleman on who I constructed / 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 Fair


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Lady Macbeth, illustrated by Ellen terry in this paint by john Sargent, persuades Macbeth to show up fair while being 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 at an early stage scenes the the play. In fact, this is the an extremely dynamic that Lady Macbeth will depend upon together their strategy to succeed in death Duncan: “bear welcome in your eye, / your 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 fourth act the the play, the scene shifts come England, whereby Duncan’s son, Malcolm, speaks to Macduff, one of the Scottish thanes. Malcolm is wiser 보다 his father, in this respect at least: the knows not to to trust Macduff just because Macduff shows up to it is in loyal and also friendly. “All points foul would certainly wear the brows that grace,” Malcolm states, and also we view that he 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, in spite of his same appearance. In disgust, Macduff prepares to leave Malcolm’s presence—but we understand that yes a twisted coming: ‘fair is foul’, but also, ‘foul is fair’—Malcolm pretends to it is in foul, but is in reality fair within.

He admits come Macduff that he just wanted come be particular of Macduff’s commitment to Scotland, and also he’s evidenced in this by Macduff’s refuse to assistance Malcolm if Malcolm were indeed so wicked.

So this tool helps united state to see right into a repetitive dynamic in the play, yes; but also if we store noticing the prevalence of this dynamic, we realize that the civilization of Macbeth is eventually a people where naught is certain: the apparently foul is in reality fair, however that fair have the right to easily and rapidly transition to foul once again.

Nothing is known, no one is to it is in trusted. That a radically unconvinced world, a representation of humankind in its most 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 three witches in Macbeth present contrasts?

To start with, because that Banquo, the three witches show up other-wordly, but are also plainly present top top the earth. Similarly, despite the witches declare apparently good news to Macbeth, he reaction with fear rather 보다 joy.


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

The pat tells us that King Duncan is a poor judge of character. To begin with, Duncan is surprised at the disloyalty the the earlier Thane of Cawdor. Duncan screens that really same gullibility once he expresses his trust in Macbeth as the following Thane of Cawdor.

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

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


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

Malcolm pretends to be corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, also tyrannical, in spite of his same appearance. Macduff is dislike by this, and that is when Malcolm reveals that he had only to be pretending.


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