In Shakespeare's Macbeth, what is the relevance of the witches' statement (1.1.10) that "Fair is foul,and foul is fair" that the witches chant?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches chant the lines that

Fair is foul and foul is fair.

Hover through the fog and filthy air. (10-11)

These lines – especially the first – are relevant in various ways to the action, tone, meaning, and symbolism of the play. The first line, in particular, is relevant in some of the following ways:

  • Macbeth is a play about ambiguity – about the difficulty of knowing anything for sure, either about others or about oneself. Macbeth, for instance, is not sure whether he should kill his king or remain a loyal subject; his lack of moral self-knowledge appears very quickly in the play once he receives the witches’ prophecies. Macbeth is an ambiguous, ambivalent character, and the same is true, in a different way, of his wife: at first she seems quite determined that the king should be killed, but by the end of the play she seems a tormented, almost pathetic creature.
  • Macbeth is a play about deception – particularly about Macbeth’s deception of the king, the king’s courtiers, and even his friend Banquo. The idea that fair and foul are interchangeable, that appearances can be deceiving, is obviously relevant to this play.
  • In particular, the idea that what seems beautiful and attractive may actually be ugly and disgusting is relevant to this work. This idea is particularly relevant to Lady Macbeth, who at first seems uglier on the inside than any other character in the play, but the idea is also relevant to Macbeth as well.
  • The alliteration of the line – with its repeated f sounds – contributes to the chant-like, musically haunting quality of the witches’ speeches.
  • The fact that the witches state such a paradox with such absolute assurance implies that they are highly confident of the knowledge they possess (they do not chant “Fair may be foul, and foul may be fair”). They are themselves mysterious figures, and they begin the play by chanting mysterious but ominous messages.