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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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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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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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William Delaney | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 24, 2013 at 4:18 PM (Answer #10)

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The witches themselves are foul in all respects. They are ugly and have foul tastes, dispositions, and motives. To such creatures whatever is fair would seem ugly and bad, while whatever was ugly and foul like themselves would seem good. They are filled with hatred and enjoy doing wicked things, as is illustrated in the scene in which one witch says she has been killing swine and another tells about what she is going to do to the husband of the young woman who refused to give her chestnuts (Act I, Scene 3). A statement comparable to "Fair is foul and foul is fair" is to be found in Shakespeare's King Lear in Act IV, Scene 2, where Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany are quarreling. He tells her:

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile;
Filths savour but themselves.

This truth is observable in contemporary life. Birds of a feather flock together. Criminals and other immoral types tend to like each other and to dislike those who are different from themselves. Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest is another good example.




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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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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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jalden | College Teacher | eNoter

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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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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