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In Macbeth what does "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" really mean?

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krdl | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 7, 2009 at 1:14 AM via web

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In Macbeth what does "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" really mean?

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted January 7, 2009 at 1:35 AM (Answer #1)

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I wish I could answer that as straightforwardly as you ask it!

What the line points to is the play's concern with the discrepancy between appearance and reality: that is, the difference between how someone seems and how someone is. It is a central concern of Shakespeare's, and obviously one that fits well with the medium of theatre, which relies on actors seeming to be something that they most definitely aren't.

Macbeth, when he - almost - quotes the line on his first entrance, turns it into a remark which juxtaposes his victory with the weather:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

The weather is "foul" - bad - but the day (meaning "the outcome of the battle": hence "the day is yours") is "fair" - good, because they have won. The day is foul and fair at once.

That said, none of that is really any help to us with the witches' enigmatic line, which says simply that bad is good, and good bad. It's rather like when Macbeth says that "nothing is, but what is not" - a difficult, knotty idea that, in the world of this play, nothing is the only something. Foul is fair. Fair is foul. It's a world where nothing is what it seems. It's a world where you're never sure whether it's a real dagger or an apparition, a mirage, or the ghost of Banquo. It's a world where you can't trust anyone. Not even the witches.

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dbrooks22 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted January 7, 2009 at 1:31 AM (Answer #2)

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This is one of the last lines in Act 1 Scene 1 when the witches are foreshadowing events to come in the play. With these words, they are predicting the evil that will cloud Macbeth's judgments and that those judgments will appear to Macbeth as fair and just. This line also could refer to the witches believing that things most men consider to be foul and ugly are just and beautiful to them because they embody evil. This gives the reader insight into what actions the witches are going to encourage from Macbeth.

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salimj | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted July 9, 2012 at 6:08 AM (Answer #64)

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The chant "fair is foul an foul is fair" is indeed the theme of the play Macbeth. I believe the entire play revolves around this chant. That may be the reason Shakespeare introduces this in the very beginning of the play. It simply means that whatever is fair to the common man is foul to the witches and to the people related to them. And whatever is foul to the common man is fair to them. We have to recall from the story that Macbeth does whatever he formerly considered as foul. This is in contact with the above chant. Once again we have to remember one thing which happens at the end of the play where the witches speak about the walking of the wood and a man who is not born from woman etc.

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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 30, 2012 at 12:56 PM (Answer #72)

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There is no reason to think that the witches are telling the truth. There is no reason to think that they know the truth. There is no reason to attach much importance to their statement that "Fair is foul and foul is fair." The truth is probably that fair is fair, but they find it foul because they hate everything that is fair and good. They would find a beautiful woman ugly because she puts them to shame and probably find an ugly woman beautiful because she would resemble themselves. Everything that is fair is foul--to them, and everything that is foul is fair--to them. They are horrible creatures in their physical appearances, and they have equally horrible minds. They delight in doing wicked things. Bad is good to them, and good to them is bad. This is not a description of reality but an expression of their opinion. In King Lear the Duke of Albany tells his wicked wife Goneril, "Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile / Filths savour but themselves."

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vanessa0918 | Student | eNoter

Posted May 28, 2012 at 10:38 AM (Answer #58)

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  • to the witches --> fair and foul are the same.  It's a paradox
  • the witches --> the agents of evil and foul in the play
  • Macbeth --> a study in evil and darkness
  • the thing that we think is good (fair), the witches think that it's bad (foul)
  • the thing that we think is bad (foul), the witches think that it's good (fair)
  • the witches are foul but they give fair advice
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mysteriousxx | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:12 AM (Answer #3)

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It is basically trying to say that fair and foul can be different in different prespectives. Like a foul for one can be fair for the other. especially in the wars lost for one would give victory to others. It also connects to theme of appearnce vs reality as what seems to be fair can be foul. It is a paradox that signifies that there is no significance of good and bad things as their role can be reversed. It also develops the wicked and evil character of the witches.

 

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jjrichardson | Student, College Freshman | Valedictorian

Posted August 20, 2012 at 11:11 PM (Answer #68)

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"the wayward rhythm" of their songs, all help to prepare us for a drama in which a human soul succumbs to the supernatural suggestions of evil and ranges itself along with the witches on the devil's side.

We hear of a battle that is even now being fought, we hear of the trysting-place of the witches at the conclusion of the fray, and last of all we hear the name of the man they are planning to meet. No sooner has the name "Macbeth" been uttered than the calls of the attendant spirits are heard and the witches hurry off. The action of the scene is over with the naming of the man against whose soul these ministers of darkness are plotting.

1. The dialogue of the witches is a sort of chant. It is thrown into a verse form, trochaic tetrameter, which Shakespeare rarely uses except for supernatural beings, witches, fairies, or the like. In order to bring out the rhyme the last syllable is dropped from the end of each line. In line 2 the rhythm is reversed and the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. In line 8 the stressed syllable in the third foot is omitted. This forces us to pause in the middle of the line and so secures additional emphasis for the closing word, "Macbeth." We may imagine the Third Witch pausing for a moment while her sisters gather round her and then shrieking out the name of the hero in an ecstasy of devilish joy.

12, 13. The couplet with which the witches take their departure is a confession of their creed. All that is good, "fair," to others is evil, "foul," to them, and vice versa. This applies to both the physical and the moral world; they revel in the "fog and filthy air," and in every sort of mischief and evil-doing from killing swine to entrapping human souls.

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lil-jake | Student | eNoter

Posted December 8, 2009 at 2:42 AM (Answer #4)

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On another matter is always good to know that the witches say that just as Macbeth enters and says the same thing.....coincidence? or shakespeare being really clever?

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tina-fay1996 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted August 6, 2011 at 12:38 PM (Answer #16)

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i think this might mean right is wrong and wrong is right, that is what my teacher explained it to us as.

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chaudhurimr | College Teacher | Honors

Posted February 22, 2012 at 3:39 AM (Answer #45)

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This chiastic (adjective form of 'chiasmus') expression 'fair is foul, foul is fair' has the penetration to foreground the confusing and complex nature of human existence, microcosmically epitomised in the character of Macbeth. If Macbeth is a study in evil and and how it works in the human level, the opening scene takes the readers into the very heart of it where the moral disorder and degradation of Macbeth is foreshadowed well in advance. The reversal of syntactic structure in this statement correlates with the theme of ironic reversal of values to be examined in the drama. This enigmatic and paradoxical aphorism is the Satanic and anarchical formula that the witches utter here is interestingly linked with the opening utterance of Macbeth: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” - an expression of confusion to be continued and intensified in the later actions in the play. This connection connotes the consequences of a truly heroic spirit embracing evil.

Following Alan Sinfield (1986) we can interpret the political ideology and ethical considerations of the play through this expression which indirectly stresses the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil. Macbeth becomes the 'Bellona's bridegroom' when he cuts Duncan's enemies to pieces with his 'brandished steel, and 'memorise another Golgatha' as it is in the service of the prevailing power. But when the same Macbeth murders Duncan to satisfy his own Renaissance desire, he becomes the disease of the society representing evil because it disrupts established power. The delicate distance between good and evil, the bewildering demarcation between conception and misconception, the perplexing distinction between temptation and morality have been blurred at the drama progresses. And from the dramatic point of view this expression is an apt exposition of the main theme of the play as it shocks the audience with a paradox at the start who are to witness an immediate and violent jolt in the drama.

 

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iamme23 | Student | eNoter

Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:20 AM (Answer #69)

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It is a dialogue said by the three withches. It is their opinion. They being evil is good thing but being and good person is a very bad or evil thing, and that is the meaning of "Fari is foul and foul is fair"

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drsuman | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted October 30, 2012 at 7:10 AM (Answer #73)

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The binary between fair and foul to normal people with socially acceptable code of conducts, makes the Witches' statement an enigma and a paradox. To the normal human world what is foul cannot be fair. But what Shakerspeare suggests is that the Witches's invert and subvert the morality and ethics of the human world. There is no foul/fair binary in the witches's world.

metaphorically, the witches's statement is also a commentary on appearence and reality. What might appear to be fair may be foul in reality. Thus Macbeth, the 'valour's minion' and 'Bellona's bridegroom' commits a most ignoble act of murdering Duncan, who sees Macbeth as an embodiment of good and trustwothiness. Similar instances of the dichotomy between appearence and reality abound in the play.

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sat2010 | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted February 27, 2013 at 3:10 PM (Answer #75)

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The couplet with which the witches take their departure is a confession of their creed. All that is good, "fair," to others is evil, "foul," to them, and vice versa. This applies to both the physical and the moral world; they revel in the "fog and filthy air," and in every sort of mischief and evil-doing from killing swine to entrapping human souls.

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bcalkin | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:13 AM (Answer #76)

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It's a paradox, and a very clever play-on-words elucidating a major theme in MacBeth, the corruptive power of greed, as well as the fact that the seemingly foul can be quite "fair" when dishing out MacBeth's fate, and vice versa, as the seemingly great warrior leader MacBeth becomes fouled by his avariciousness.  It was not so easy to kill King Duncan, even for his crown, as both his and his wife's guilty consciouses quickly reveal.

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gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 15, 2007 at 2:13 AM (Answer #1)

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On the most basic level, it means that things are reversed.

To expand on that a little bit, it means two related things in general. First, it means that things that are good will become bad and things that are bad will become good. Second, it means things that look pretty ("fair") will become ugly ("foul") and things that are ugly will become beautiful.

The witches are referring first to themselves. They look ugly, but the predictions they offer are beautiful to Macbeth.

They are then referring to the entire world of the play. If you look at Duncan's first lines, at the start of scene 2 in Act I, the normal humans are operating in a world where appearances honestly and accurately represent reality. Likewise, Macbeth is tagged as praiseworthy by the soldier's report—and he deserves it.

However, as soon as Macbeth meets the witches, everything changes. He hears great predictions, but they lead him to evil actions. He starts lying and deceiving, and no longer can anyone trust anyone else's face to reveal his or her character.

Greg

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aquabrunette | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted December 9, 2010 at 7:40 AM (Answer #5)

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Thank you so much robertwilliam! Your answer saved my life fo the enlish essay i had to write! thank you so much!

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drrb | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted May 29, 2011 at 1:44 AM (Answer #3)

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Macbeth according to Wilson Knight is a study in evil and darkness. The witches are the agents of evil and foul in the play. To the witches fair and foul are same. As Satan in Milton regarded ‘Evil’ as his ‘Good’, the witches too regarded ‘foul’ is their ‘fair’. This is riddle and the witches speak in riddles and paradoxes as they are mysterious beings of the universe. In the very opening of the play the witches appear in storm and rain and plan to have the rendezvous with Macbeth. As the three witches  leave, they chant a witchly chant: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air" (1.1.11-12). As creatures of the night and the devil, they like whatever is "foul" and hate the "fair." So they will "hover" in the fog, and in the dust and dirt of battle, waiting for the chance to do evil. Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair" is a paradox, a statement that appears to be contadictory but actually expresses the truth. The witches are foul, but they give fair advice. Macbeth seems like a hero, but he is a plotter and dastard. It is quite interesting to note that the words of the witches will have an echo  in Macbeth’s  “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. Macbeth utters these words at the very first time he enters the stage. This shows the evil connection between Macbeth and the witches. This is suggestive of the psychological depravity of Macbeth who means that the day is foul because it is stormy and fair because he has won the battle against King of Norway and Thane of Cawdor. In the use of the language of witches, Shakespeare shows a great mastery. The witches speak in Trochaic meter and Macbeth speaks in the Iambic.

Witches : Fair is/ foul and/ foul is/ fair  - Trochaic tetrameter catalectic

Macbeth : So foul /and fair /a day /I have/ not seen- Iambic pentameter

This is how the language of the witches is differentiated from that of  Macbeth.

Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee , Dum Dum Motijheel College

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k4rlo10 | Student, Grade 10 | Honors

Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:19 AM (Answer #4)

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In the act I of macbeth play the "fair is foul, and foul is fair" means the All that is good is turning to bad and all bad delights them. that's what I think.

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pmkobilke | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted June 5, 2011 at 2:24 PM (Answer #5)

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I beleive the Witches(weird sisters) are referring to how fair weather and good deeds(when they are to meet Macbeth, the weather is fair, and he has just completed good deeds[the battle]) are foul, and only foul things are beautiful to the Witches.

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jgonz071 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted June 6, 2011 at 2:07 PM (Answer #6)

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the chant means that anything is fair regardless of how you do something as long as you get what you want.

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gms711 | Student, College Freshman | Honors

Posted June 11, 2011 at 1:01 PM (Answer #7)

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In my own words, I would say that it means that things (and people) are not as they seem. Those who seem fair are foul and those who seem foul are fair.

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pnil10swa | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted June 26, 2011 at 10:00 PM (Answer #9)

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THAT  IS FAIR WHICH IS FOUL TO HUMAN AND THAT IS FOUL WHICH IS FAIR TO HUMAN BECAUSE THESE ARE TWO SIDES OF ONE COIN.

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j35bib4 | Student, Grade 11 | Honors

Posted July 1, 2011 at 12:34 PM (Answer #10)

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"Fair is foul and foul is fair" is the satanic principle of "evil be thou my good".In the play,the weather itself is foul due to the presence of the three witches,the evil characters.These words reflect perversion of values throughout the play.Whatever is good is regarded as foul or wicked,and whatever is foul is regarded as fair by the three witches.In the play.the hero,Macbeth,turns into a villain and commits the most foulest deeds.thus,these words describe the atmosphere in which the play takes place.

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tpritam | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted July 3, 2011 at 3:24 PM (Answer #11)

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Fair and Foul are two controversial and opposite words. In this play they signify the goodness, prosperity, and the pleasurous life of the chief hero Macbeth. on the other plane they signify the darker side of his would-be life.In a highly literal way the senntence holds a mirrior to the plot of the play. moreover, it is a epitome of the play fully signifing the theme. 

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tpritam | College Teacher | eNoter

Posted July 3, 2011 at 3:29 PM (Answer #12)

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The line is very synonymous with the proverb "All that glitters is not gold." It means the future is unpredictable. it may be dark/bright. It will take continous turns of  pleasure and fright. It entirely depends upon the protagonist how he takes and reacts with the situation. 

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sanskritibookbound | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted July 23, 2011 at 12:07 PM (Answer #13)

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"fair is foul and foul is fair." is the theme on which the whole book is based..... from the very first act we could sense that from then on fair would be foul and foul would be fair........ which means that things would not be natural.... there will be chaos and utter confusion... and there will be a lot of foul deeds (duncan's murder) which would be made to be fair........

 

and which is exactly what happens......

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raginiarora | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted July 27, 2011 at 7:49 PM (Answer #14)

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These words were said by the three witches, as they were evil thus the world was potrayed evil to them.

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englishteacherlady | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted July 30, 2011 at 12:05 PM (Answer #15)

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This is essentially a paradox and a prophesy.  This statement lets the reader know that the characters in the play will change, just as the statement itself is a twisting of things.  This is not immediately clear and does cause the reader to ponder on this statement while continuing through the play, in which it does become more clear.  Further Macbeth himself uses the words foul and fair to describe the day (found in scene 3).  These words are complete opposites of one another, causing the reader to see that things are not always simple and easy, not always black and white, but sometimes complex and not immediately visible.

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unknowngirl08 | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted August 28, 2011 at 12:02 AM (Answer #17)

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This line in the first act refers to the theme of the play. At the beginning Macbeth is seen as a hero. He wins war against the rebel and invaders and proves himself to be a loyal soldier of Duncan. But after the predictions of the witches Macbeth's latent ambition to be the king becomes his only purpose which turns him into a villain. Thus good(fair) becomes evil(foul).

Again in the course of the play, to achieve his purpose Macbeth commits a number of murders. This murders are cruel and evil but to Macbeth they serve the purpose of a stair to kingship and power. Thus here what seems to be wrong to the audience or the readers is fair for Macbeth as it fulfils his wishes.

So, fair becomes foul & foul becomes fair.

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sunnyk | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted September 3, 2011 at 4:37 PM (Answer #18)

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I find this quotes forshadows the unstructured future. In this chant it is also indicate the witches violation of the natural order. '' when the battles lost and won'' predict the withches or weird sisters, it shows that all battles are lost by one side and won by another, this relates to the two sided ''fair is foul'' quote.

I see the ''fair is foul'' chant not only predicting the upturn events ahead, but also Macbeths short time of victory for the battle for his soul. This reflects the theme of ambition and also the idea that balance will always correct itself.

This is just the way i understood it from reading the play.

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snowy8991 | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted September 16, 2011 at 4:29 AM (Answer #19)

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it is metioned by macbeth several times showing a deep link with the witches.

It also means that something what was nice turns sour and what was sour turns nice. As in Macbeth was thane of Cawdor (like a duke, thane of cawdor was the highest 'duke') but then he became king and was murdered. Yet banquo was told he wouldn't be king but ened up living a happy life as well as his children being kings.(James I claimed to be directly related to banquo)

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smartypants911 | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted September 17, 2011 at 2:48 PM (Answer #20)

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I think this quote is trying to tell us that appearances are deceptive. In othere words what appears to be good (for e.g macbeth) turns out to be bad, and what is meant to be bad (e.g. the english forces led by malcom to defeat macbeth is good, or the guards charged with the murder of king duncan) are actually good.

 

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sarahkhan1 | Student, Undergraduate | Honors

Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:59 PM (Answer #21)

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This is one of the last lines in Act 1 Scene 1 when the witches are foreshadowing events to come in the play. With these words, they are predicting the evil that will cloud Macbeth's judgments and that those judgments will appear to Macbeth as fair and just. This line also could refer to the witches believing that things most men consider to be foul and ugly are just and beautiful to them because they embody evil. This gives the reader insight into what actions the witches are going to encourage from Macbeth.

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arham97 | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted October 2, 2011 at 10:57 PM (Answer #22)

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These lines highlight the main theme of the play, appearance vs. reality. They tell us that what appears to be good is actually bad and what appears to be bad is actually good.

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londonk | Student | eNoter

Posted October 4, 2011 at 3:31 PM (Answer #23)

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I believe that the lines show the contradiction between reality and appearence. This is evident as macbeth's appearence is contradictory to reallity, because he appeaers to be a good person but as evil deeds take over his mind, he soon changes to being a bad person.

 

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defuniak1 | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted October 9, 2011 at 9:43 AM (Answer #24)

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Throughout the play, Macbeth, there is the problem of knowing what is true and what is false.  In simple terms it sets the stage for the false face that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will have to present on their way to gaining power in Scotland.  "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" can be defined as what is good is bad, and what is bad is good.  Adding that to the witches' plan later in the play to "foo" Macbeth into a false sense of security, and you have a play in which truth and good can be easily confused with lies and evil.

 

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suvini | Student | Valedictorian

Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:24 PM (Answer #6)

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This quote literally mean that bad looks good and good looks bad

but we can get a different impression and to make it more seem true we could say that good and evil are mixed

so we come to the fact of appearance vs. reality this is what i know

 

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ceege95 | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted May 14, 2012 at 4:42 PM (Answer #7)

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Nothing is as it seems is the simplest way to put this paradoxical theme.

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nicoledesilva | Student, Grade 9 | Salutatorian

Posted August 19, 2012 at 8:57 AM (Answer #8)

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Umm, its actually a paradox. It means that things that appear beautiful, could be bad and that the things that appear ugly and bad, could actually turn out to be good.

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trayducateng14 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted December 2, 2012 at 2:24 AM (Answer #74)

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This statement by the apparitions reminds me of a statement in the Bible where it states, not a direct quote, good becomes bad and bad becomes good. As was already mentioned, something may be the morally right thing to do and you do it or you decide to do contrary to what you know is right. In many cases, it can be because of the current standards around you or because of a degredation of ones own standards of morality. We saw this with MacBeth as he gradually went away from what reasonable, discerning people would, hopefully, know to be wrong; excessive pride, greed, untamed power, etc.

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jalden | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:02 AM (Answer #11)

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This line is, above all else, an incantattion. It is an affirmation. The Witches are affirming the reversal of "Good" and "Evil." You can debate about the meaning forever, but it is simply an affirmation of Evil as dominant, by the creatures who serve it.

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acompanioninthetardis | Student, Undergraduate | Valedictorian

Posted June 1, 2014 at 12:00 AM (Answer #81)

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The chant means that what appears to be fair to society is acutally bad and what is percived as bad by society is actually fair for all. The witches used that to justify their way of life.

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cathyluv | Student, Grade 12 | eNoter

Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:43 PM (Answer #82)

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Witches are supernatural creatures which were considered to be evil in Shakespeare's time, so much so that the 3 witches are sometimes referred to as the weird sisters. Witches were beyond comprehension so in Macbeth they are portrayed as beings who view life from an opposite perspective. To them, what is good is bad and what is bad is good.

From the beginning of the play, (with the help of the eerie ambient but most importantly through the witches) Shakespeare is trying to imply that witchcraft turns the world upside down however it is in this very scene that we are given hints  (or better yet warnings) about what is yet to come and that things to follow are not what they might seem.

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auchius | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted October 25, 2011 at 10:20 PM (Answer #25)

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It basically means appearances can be deceptive, which is the theme of the play

 

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franzo | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted November 7, 2011 at 5:48 AM (Answer #26)

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I think it is actually what witches apprehend about future that the conditions which would seem to be peaceful n comforted would be actually the worst ones and viceversa. it is like people with "Personas", i-e., hard to figure out and distinguish between right and wrong. 

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mjroxy882 | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted November 19, 2011 at 11:26 AM (Answer #27)

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Fair is foul. Foul is fair. Is a paradoxical. Which is when you put something in contrast to opossing things. In this case fair means opposite of foul. And foul means something bad , and that u can't trust what you see. Meaning looks can be deceiving.

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khewlett | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted November 22, 2011 at 6:31 AM (Answer #28)

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it is for shadowing that they will screw Macbeth up and that they take pleasure in it.

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runnningwild | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted November 27, 2011 at 12:24 AM (Answer #29)

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It's a crucial theme in the book, which symbolizes that a lot of things going on or that will go on with Macbeth have a dual nature. Particularly this regards with the witches' prophecies, but also the way in which acts are eventually carried out. Dual nature means that there is a hidden meaning behind what it said and is comprehended on the surface.
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imperfectlaura | Student, College Freshman | eNoter

Posted November 29, 2011 at 1:27 PM (Answer #30)

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This line sets up who the witches are and on a grander scale what the play is about.  In a way, this line is the refrain for the play.  It means that perception is not reality which is proven time and again throughout the play.  This is also a pretty powerful way to start off the play.  It appears to be oxymoronic, and the whole play proves that it's not.

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ashanti-bruhh | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted December 1, 2011 at 2:28 PM (Answer #31)

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It very simply means that:

"fair is foul" - everything that normal people see as morally good is bad to them

and

"foul is fair" - everything that normal people see as morally bad is good to them.

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regulas | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted December 3, 2011 at 11:27 PM (Answer #32)

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I think the witches are making a prophesy for the entire act of the play. Throughout the play things relate to that sentence, for instance, before the murder Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth to go and be beautiful in front of Duncan and his guards, but to hide her "foul" heart.  Another is the first time you see Macbeth he says "So foul and fair a day I have not seen".

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james1ggg | Student, Grade 10 | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 11, 2011 at 9:47 PM (Answer #33)

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fair is foul means although something may look fair inside it could be foul

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misti029 | Student, Graduate | eNoter

Posted December 12, 2011 at 4:11 PM (Answer #34)

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  1. "Fair is foul & foul is fair",is the central key note of the whole play.this shows shakespeare's ability to foretale the future of the play's protagonist,as well as of the whole earthly world.this tells us about the reality,that nothing can be concidered as fair,which seems so,&vice-versa.this is a very minute & critical illaboration by the great author,who is still now concidered as a very diplomatic play-write..That's my view about the question you've asked.......
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maggiekb | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted December 14, 2011 at 10:45 PM (Answer #35)

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The witches' chant shows that they want to confuse MacBeth and cloud the waters so that he will not make clear, thought-through moral decisions. They want him to confuse what is good and what his real goals are, with lesser goals and harmful things. A major theme in MacBeth concerns what goes in to making a responsible moral decisions, and what prevents one from making an ethical decision.

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hadijaved | Student | Honors

Posted December 17, 2011 at 8:54 PM (Answer #36)

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the quote describes the main theme of the play: nothing is what it seems. For instance, the witches speak in code in Act IV, deceivng Macbeth into thinking he is invincible. Lady Macbeth is viewed as a "gentle lady" (stated in Act II), but she is really the mastermind behind Duncan's murder. Banquo, in the beginning, appears to be right-hand man to Macbeth, but we soon find he refuses to support Macbeth should something go wrong (although he is unaware of the meaning behind Macbeth's request for advocacy).

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englishfailer94 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted December 29, 2011 at 5:42 AM (Answer #38)

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fair/foul is a motif that is recognized throughout the entire play, and basically it means that what is good is bad, and what's bad is good.

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pdugar | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted January 20, 2012 at 4:17 PM (Answer #39)

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It refers to an inversion of values.

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florine | Student, Undergraduate | Valedictorian

Posted February 2, 2012 at 8:19 AM (Answer #40)

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  I think the comment on Macbeth referred to in the first answer is probably "Macbeth is a statement of evil" by a critic called L.C. Knights and not Wilson Knight. The Fates are the great equivocator. We must bear in mind that equivocation (see the porter in Macbeth too) was considered evil. Another instance of such an ambivalent formula in the play, one which is less apparent than "fair is foul and foul is fair" is the pun on God and dog (cf the scene in which Macbeth has engaged in conversation with the two murderers), a palindrome which also epitomizes this inversion of values.

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etotheeyepi | Student, Undergraduate | Valedictorian

Posted February 10, 2012 at 12:45 AM (Answer #41)

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I think that “fair is foul and foul is fair” refers to the idea that human understanding cannot find the whole truth of a thing.

In Macbeth, Duncan knew not the truth of either Thane of Cawdor.

Shakespeare may have found this idea in 1 Samuel 16:7.

But the Lord said unto Samuel, Loke not on his countenance, nor on y height of his stature, because I have refused him: for God seeth not as a man seeth: for man lokest on the outward appearance, but the lord beholdeth the heart.

http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/detail/FOLGERCM1~6~6~306201~124137?qvq=q:Call_Number=%22STC+2106%22+;sort:Call_Number,MPSORTORDER1,CD_Title,Imprint;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6&mi=140&trs=745

If Duncan had been able to look past Macbeth’s countenance, he might have survived his stay at Macbeth’s castle.

 

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cooz | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted February 14, 2012 at 9:07 PM (Answer #42)

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as explained by my teacher this is the theme which goes through the whole play  it means that outer appearances are often deceptive as macbeth and his lady both at several times seem as innocent flower but are the serpent under it and their false face hides what the false heart knows

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arthurdeng1568 | Student | Honors

Posted February 16, 2012 at 5:46 AM (Answer #43)

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Fair is foul, foul is fair
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arthurdeng1568 | Student | Honors

Posted February 16, 2012 at 5:46 AM (Answer #44)

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Fair is foul , foul is fair
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chaudhurimr | College Teacher | Honors

Posted February 22, 2012 at 5:00 AM (Answer #46)

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Though some critics consider the opening scene of Macbeth as interpolation, it is very much organic as it strikes the keynote of the play and functions as an appropriate exposition and the chanting of witches are its instruments to unveil the prevailing confusion of the play. Shakespeare's excellent understanding of human nature is manifested in the final utterance of the witches where the note of dilemma expressed is to permeate the whole play. These demonic and malevolent evil forces symbolize the growing darkness within Macbeth himself. This enigmatic expression denotes the puzzling confusion inherent in human existence and to which the sensitive and imaginative Macbeth will soon become a prey.

Sources:

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hemingwayandtea | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted February 27, 2012 at 3:37 PM (Answer #47)

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Simply put, as a classically trained actor, I can testify that "Fair is foul and foul is fair/ Hover through the fog and filthy air" means multiple things, obviously. Firstly, the witches are not necessarily evil. Manipulative, somber, eerie, dangerous, without a doubt. But not necessarily evil. This is proven in their sense of fear when encountered by Hecate, their queen. Fear is a very human emotion... Secondly, the witches are not referring to the weather- that's poop. The witches are greeting MacBeth with a paradoxical chiasmus in order to immediately reveal a possible universal theme, but principally to grab his attention. "Fair is foul and foul is fair" is also a reference to the falsity behind people. As an actor, heck, as a human, we deceive daily. Take a con man, he looks great, knows his shpiel, but in the end, he will con you. If that doesn't get the point across, take any soccer mom in their friend groups. You can be beautiful and likeable yet harboring some disgusting thing, like the devil- who according to the Bible, was the brightest star- and yet you can be awful to the eye and filled with goodness. The is also a reference to MacDuff who has continually been, for lack of a better word, ignored, yet has this amazing destiny to make things right once more; whereas MacBeth, the brightest star, brings about his own destruction. The Weird Sisters merely prophesize and change the feeling of the show with these lines.

For the record, I've been in professional renditions of MacBeth three times now. I've played Angus, a Weird Sister, understudied Lennox, and recently played Lady MacBeth.

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samiaa1 | Student, Grade 11 | Honors

Posted March 7, 2012 at 8:20 PM (Answer #48)

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The witches are foul, but they give fair advice. Macbeth seems like a hero, but he is a plotter and dastard. (I like that word!) Take it from there. But, in actual life Macbeth was a good and successful ruler who had at least as much claim to the throne as anyone else around, and he didn't murder Duncan - Duncan was killed in battle. Macbeth was secure enough on the throne to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Both Duncan and Malcolm were somewhat disastrous as rulers in comparison with Macbeth.

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cogzy | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted March 25, 2012 at 6:44 PM (Answer #49)

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"Fair is foul and foul is fair", is a reference not only to the weather but to the "foul" natures of the witches. To them, to be "foul", not only ugly to look at but ugly inside too, is a good thing and therefore, "fair". Their foulness is also linked to evil; they want to turn good to evil too. It also predicts a change around in the nature of Macbeth - he is a good man but through their intervention will become "foul", like themselves. All that is good becomes a bad thing and this, to the witches, is regarded as good; a positive outcome, if you are one of the three hags!

The wtiches are in opposition to what is natural and good; they are disordered, out of step, they are therefore odd - they want Macbeth to be as they are, as this would mean that they have exercised power over something good and turned it "foul". The witches feed off of evil, so they pursue such actions.

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jollyj123 | Student, Grade 9 | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 27, 2012 at 11:30 PM (Answer #50)

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This quote means good is evil and somethings aren't really evil. This foreshadows someone or something that is good might actually be evil or turn evil refering to Macbeth.

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suvini | Student | Valedictorian

Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:02 PM (Answer #51)

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this is one of the most important quotes you could find in the play macbeth the whole play revolves around this quote

and also this quote applys the theme of Deceit which is things are not what they seem to be.

the literal meaning of this quote is that evil and good are mixed and that we can never know from a persons face what they are thinking because it can be decit

this quote can be compared to the quote "so foul and fair a day i have not yet seen" if we wanna to analyze your quote into a deeper meaning we could relate the that the witches symbolize the macbeths inner desires and thus this quote realtes them together.

this quote mostly applies on the witches and macbeth basically beacause they are the mose evil and malevolent characters of the entire play.... and most imporatntly they are the decitful characters in the play apart from lady macbeth.

this quote can also be related to alot of other quotes in this play with the same theme of deceit. ex. " you cant find a mans construction on the face" said by duncan. in the beginning

in my perosnal opinion this is a quote that can be analyzed beyond discussion

hope u found this interesting and helpful!!!!!!!!!!

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aakashpatel | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:35 PM (Answer #52)

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All it basically means in all goods turning bad, and bad good

 

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salonibha | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted April 30, 2012 at 8:58 AM (Answer #53)

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This line reviles the motives and purpose of the three witches. They are going to turn everything that is fair and pleasant into something foul. What looks pleasant to Macbeth is actually evil and evil is fair to the witches. this contridictory statements suggest the paradox through out the play.

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harry7459 | Student, Grade 11 | Honors

Posted May 7, 2012 at 11:55 PM (Answer #54)

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Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air. 1.1. 12

‘Fog’ and ‘filthy air’ describe where the witches come from, the way they make it rhyme and create a gloomy atmosphere, shows that the witches are related to the devil and possess evil powers.

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tfallsjim | eNoter

Posted May 25, 2012 at 9:43 PM (Answer #55)

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The witches were referring to MacBeth, whose life was full of deceit. Recall how it was modernized under Lyndon Johnson, as "MacByrd"?

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tfallsjim | eNoter

Posted May 25, 2012 at 9:45 PM (Answer #56)

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The witches have no "power over" MacBeth. Every move he makes is his own. What kind of stuff is being taught in English Lit these days!?

The MAIN characters in ALL Shakespeare are driven internally by their own vices and desires. There is no "magic" in "MacBeth", the play. Read it.

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tfallsjim | eNoter

Posted May 25, 2012 at 9:56 PM (Answer #57)

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Try modernizing it even further: "hope and change" really means give up all hope to the one whose "fundamental changes" you've been tricked into believing will aid you. That is, destroying US Constitutional limits on government power, reneging on the "blessings of liberty" and the inalienability of rights (which pre-date any government) as extolled in the Declaration of Indepedence by the iteration of why Colonists were rebelling against all that evil promulgated by the tyrannical despotic King George III and his vast armies of extortionists). Further, that is, how Obama and HIS minions hope you don't know you've been duped into changing from free people into serfs, all to do the bidding of the UN and the elitists who think they own all property, and only lend it to you for a fee (taxes).

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ramlakshmi | High School Teacher | Honors

Posted May 31, 2012 at 4:13 PM (Answer #59)

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Through the utterances of the witches, Shakespeare probably comments on the changing social and political values of his time. Ambition, once considered to be unethical (eg.Satan's ambition to match God's stature or the ambition of the people who wanted to build a staircase to heaven ) was no more frowned upon in Shakespeare's time . When a scheming contender usurped the kingdom, it did not send shock waves. There was perfect understanding.Here 'foul' has become 'fair'.In such a scenario, the ambition shared by lady Macbeth and Macbeth may not have been considered as foul by  an audience who could  appreciate machiavelism in politics. In the same way many medieval fair values have become foul.

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shruthiblues27 | Student | Honors

Posted June 7, 2012 at 11:06 AM (Answer #60)

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"Fair is foul and foul is fair" means "good is bad and bad is good." Everything is going to be topsy-turvy.

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jesssssssspoussssssss | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 10, 2012 at 1:22 AM (Answer #61)

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It's just saying things aren't as they seem. Like, don't judge a book by it's cover.

Things that look as if they're going to be good can actually turn out to be bad. This is evident in such things as Macbeth being told he is going to be King. It seems like a great thing to be told at the time, but then it turns out to be horrible, as it causes him to kill a lot of people and then eventually go mad.

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rulzandrei | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 14, 2012 at 2:40 PM (Answer #62)

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a

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ab78 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted July 7, 2012 at 2:30 PM (Answer #63)

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"Faur is foul and foul is fair"-

This mainly deals with dual concept of real life. "fair is foul"- with the apparent fair game of the withches macbeth falls prey to his evil desires and brings his own destruction."Foul is fair" as they are regarded as witches so whatever desirable by normal human beings is not desirable by them.for example the storm-swept , desolate heath is normally not desirable by us but for the witches it becomes a matter of delight.

 This prove to the dual concept of the line.

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fcatexpert1 | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted August 18, 2012 at 7:04 PM (Answer #66)

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It means that things are not as they seem. What appears to be ok is bad,and what appears to be bad is actually okay.

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nicoledesilva | Student, Grade 9 | Salutatorian

Posted August 19, 2012 at 8:42 AM (Answer #67)

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Umm, its actually a paradox. It means that things that appear beautiful, could be bad and that the things that appear ugly and bad, could actually turn out to be good.

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leongtonglin123456 | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted September 26, 2012 at 2:29 PM (Answer #71)

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It means appearance are deceptive.

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nishu2766 | High School Teacher | Honors

Posted August 19, 2014 at 11:11 AM (Answer #83)

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The line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ has important significance to the play Macbeth. When the line comes from the witches weassume at first that they are speaking plainly, that the line means that for them, what is fair or good, for the witches is foul or evil and what is evil and foul for the witches is fair and good and that the witches delight in the confusion of the two, fair and foul. However when comparing the quote to the rest of the themes of the play, we interpret a deeper meaning in the line to the play. We know that the quote is an underlying theme that reflects through the plot of the play. We see that a similar line refers to the victory of the war that Macbeth achieves which is highlighted in the line, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ We interpret this as the day being fair in victory but foul in the lives that were lost and the dreary weather that the army experience afterwards.

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jalden | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted October 11, 2014 at 5:56 PM (Answer #12)

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I agree with most of the statements regarding this line, but there is one very important element that has been left out. Shakespeare was a dramatist first and foremost and every word he wrote connects to action. The witches are not simply observing something with that line. They are actively doing something, as must always be the case in a successful theatrical text. They are actively affirming that "fair is foul, and foul is fair." When the witch speaks this, she is affirming that this is the case, in the way we speak affirmations to produce what we want to be so. It is neither a rumination nor an observation. It is a statement of 'making.' They are creating a condition by affirming it.

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tamooney | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted January 14, 2009 at 8:44 AM (Answer #9)

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"what's right is wrong and what's wrong is right."

basically it means the words are opposite of there meaning.

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