A paradox is an apparent contradiction that reveals a truth. The witches end the first scene of Macbeth with a paradox: "fair is foul, and foul is fair." Explain the ways in which this contradiction is shown to be true in act 1.

The ways in which the contradiction of "fair is foul and foul is fair" is shown to be true in act 1 are many fold. Macbeth demonstrates loyalty to his king while entertaining thoughts of killing him, and Banquo hears and sees contradictory truths that intrigue him but don't unsettle him as much as they do Macbeth.

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Act 1 is filled with paradoxes. At the same time he has just shown his loyalty to Scotland and Duncan, Macbeth is contemplating regicide to advance his own position as he interprets the Weird Sisters' pronouncement of "king hereafter."

In scene 3, Macbeth greets Banquo with the words "so foul and fair a day I have not seen." He recognizes the paradoxes that have begun to permeate his life. He is being recognized and promoted but plans to kill his king. Banquo sees paradoxes too, in that the Weird Sisters look earthly yet unearthly and feminine yet masculine because of their beards.

The Weird Sisters compound the paradoxes by telling Banquo that he will be "lesser than Macbeth and greater" as well as "not so happy, yet much happier." Moments later, Macbeth does not immediately understand why Ross and Angus would tell him he is the Thane of Cawdor when the thane still lives. It is true that there is a Thane of Cawdor, but he will soon be executed for his treason.

Banquo takes a more pragmatic approach to the words of the Weird Sisters, cautioning that "the instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray's / In deepest consequence" as a way to understand the paradoxical nature of their prophecies. Macbeth believes "they cannot be ill, cannot be good," demonstrating his confusion with the contradictory truths of which he is being assured.

Finally, Lady Macbeth's assessment of her husband, that he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" is paradoxical, because he has shown himself to be so fearsome in battle that he cut Macdonwald wide open.

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The paradox illustrates one of the key themes of Macbeth, especially in Act One. Essentially, what it means is that appearances are deceptive, that things aren't always what they seem. Take the opening scene, for example. The action begins on a bleak heath in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Most people would describe this weather as foul. But not the Weird Sisters. To these evil witches, this is the perfect backdrop to their diabolical villainy. They live by completely different standards to most people, yet those standards are the ones that will prevail throughout the play.

The character of Macbeth, too, embodies this paradox. At the start of the play he's a noble warrior, a loyal servant of King Duncan. He's just distinguished himself on the field of battle, displaying exemplary courage as he fearlessly slaughtered The King's enemies. On the face of it, all seems well. But once again, appearances are misleading. Macbeth's head is well and truly turned by the witches' prophecy, so much so that he contemplates assassinating The King he's so faithfully served. From now on, Macbeth will do everything he once considered foul in pursuit of power, even though he's unsure as to how things will turn out:

This supernatural soliciting Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill, Why hath it given me earnest of success, Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor. If good, why do I yield to that suggestion Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, Against the use of nature? Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings. (Act I Scene iii).

The evil paradox by which the Weird Sisters live has now seeped into the life of Macbeth, contaminating a soul previously renowned for its honor and nobility. Lady Macbeth has also been infected. She encourages her husband to keep up the appearance of loyalty to Duncan, the better to lull him into a false sense of security that will make her wicked murder plot go off without a hitch. On the surface, all will be fair; Macbeth will warmly welcome Duncan to his castle; but all the while he'll be thinking about his murder. When The King eventually arrives, Lady Macbeth is already showing herself to be highly skilled at hiding her true feelings:

All our service, In every point twice done and then done double, Were poor and single business to contend Against those honors deep and broad wherewith Your majesty loads our house. For those of old, And the late dignities heaped up to them, We rest your hermits. (Act I Scene vi).

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When the Weird Sisters say that "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," they mean that things that seem good could really be bad, and things that seem bad things could really be good (1.1.12).  Macbeth recalls this motif when he says, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.39).  In one sense, the day has been foul because he has been involved in bloody battles; in another sense, it's been fair because his forces have prevailed.  

Then, when the Weird Sisters approach him with their prophecies, their words seem quite good, predicting a noble future for Macbeth; however, Banquo cautions him that

"oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray 's / In deepest consequence" (1.3.135-138).  

Banquo doubts the motives of the witches, and he believes that they might be trying to appear honest in order to mask their manipulative intent and draw Macbeth and Banquo into cementing their own destruction. He is right. It does not take long for Macbeth to consider murder in order to make the prophecy come true.

Further, Duncan laments the way he was deceived by the old Thane of Cawdor, now a traitor.  He says, "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" (1.4.13-14).  In other words, the old thane seemed like a good and loyal friend, but this facade concealed a disloyal and murderous interior.  

After Macbeth arrives home and begins to plot Duncan's murder with his wife, she says to him, "Look like th' innocent / flower, / But be the serpent under 't" (1.5.75-77). She wants him to appear loyal and friendly, as he always has, and use this "fair" exterior to hide the "foul[ness]" of their plot against the king.

Even poor Duncan rides up and declares that "This castle hath a pleasant seat," complimenting the looks of the Macbeths' home (1.6.1).  However, the castle's fairness hides the evil plan the couple is hatching to murder him.  Moreover, he calls Lady Macbeth a "fair and noble hostess," which, if he knew what foul deeds she was plotting against him, he would never say (1.6.30).

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