What Statements Do The Witches And Macbeth Make About Foul And Fair

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, provide some statements by the witches and Macbeth reflecting the theme "Fair is foul..." Please explain the statements.

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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the theme "Fair is foul and foul is fair" is expressed throughout the play's five acts.

The Weird Sisters (the witches) introduce the theme in the very first scene:

ALL:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (I.i.11-12)

At the play's beginning, the audience cannot be certain of the quote's meaning. We can assume that since witches are evil (something the Elizabethan audience believed completely), and they're preparing to meet with Macbeth, their words do not bode well. 

As Macbeth and Banquo come upon the scene, Macbeth refers to the fairness and foulness of the day: something that at first seems to refer to an impossible situation—for how can a day be fair (good) and foul (bad)?

MACBETH:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (I.iii.39)

The audience can infer that Macbeth is referring to the greatness ("fair") of the day because they have beaten the Norwegians in battle; when he comments that the day is "foul," he could be referring to the terrible weather or perhaps more likely, the many lives lost in the battle.

Soon after the witches deliver their predictions to Macbeth and Banquo, Macbeth receives the title of Thane of Cawdor, as the witches had predicted. Macbeth (at this point in the play) has sense enough to question what is happening.

MACBETH:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. (141-142)

This comment appears to echo the "fair is foul..." theme: how can it be bad to be named the Thane of Cawdor (a gift from the king for Macbeth's valor on the field of battle)? At the same time, how can it be good in that the witches are involved? Nothing associated with witches is anything but evil.

In Act One, scene five, Lady Macbeth repeats the theme when she tells Macbeth to offer a "welcome" to Duncan in his speech and manner, but hide his true and deadly intent from sight. In other words, be as beguiling as a lovely flower, but as deadly as the snake that hides beneath it.

LADY MACBETH:

...bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't. (I.v.69-71)

In this way, Lady Macbeth warns Macbeth not to give any clue to anyone that they are plotting Duncan's murder.

The theme remains throughout the play. In Act Four, scene one, the witches tell Macbeth that he will be safe until the woods move to the hills, and that no man born of a woman can harm him. Macbeth erroneously believes that what will prove to be empty promises are actually guarantees of his success. The predictions appear "fair" (good).

However, in Act Five, scene four, when Malcolm's soldiers use branches from Birnam Wood to camouflage themselves as they move to Dunsinane Hill, it appears as if the woods are moving—the once seemingly impossible situation by which Macbeth can be vanquished.

In Act Five, scene five, facing Macduff, Macbeth believes he cannot be beaten because all men are born of a woman; this "fair" (positive) fact gives Macbeth a false sense of security. However, when he discovers that Macduff was born by Caesarean section (C-section), which is not a natural birth, he realizes the promises the witches made were lies ("foul").

In the end, Macbeth is undone by his belief that things that appear bad (e.g., the witches) can really be good, and that things that appear good (being impossibly invincible) can really be bad. Macbeth loses sight of what is honorable ("fair") in the world and, instead, believes in things that are not only illusions, but also evil and dishonorable ("foul").

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mvmaurno's profile pic

mvmaurno | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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"Fair is foul and foul is fair" also refers to Macbeth's quest to be king. In order to be "fair" to Macbeth's talents and potential, he must have the opportunity to become king, at least according to Lady Macbeth and, later, Macbeth.  However, the murderous methods employed are a "foul" means to this goal.  In addition, the battle takes place in Dunsinane is "foul" as is all violence; however, in order to bring justice ("fair"), a battle must ensue to strip Macbeth of his tyrannical, murderous reign.

meowmix's profile pic

meowmix | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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In the first act, the witches declare "Fair is foul and foul is fair" (Act 1, scene 1)and Macbeth remarks how the weather is "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (Act 1, scene 3).  The witches are telling the audience that whatever good is bad and whatever bad is good.  This would set the tone for the rest of the play.  As for Macbeth's line, this is a example of foreshadowing.  He says this line before he and Banquo sees the witches and echoes what the witches say.  Also this line reminds us how the weather can mirror what is happening on stage.  In various parts of the play, characters will remark on the weather and it often reflects the state of the character or Scotland.

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