Fair Is Foul And Foul Is Fair

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

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair” means that appearances can be deceiving, a theme that runs throughout Macbeth. That which seems “fair” and good is actually “foul” and evil. The best example of this theme is Macbeth himself. Macbeth pretends to be a loyal and good servant to King Duncan, but he eventually betrays Duncan’s trust and murders him to steal the throne.

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Okay, you've got a ton of answers here, but what I believe is the intention behind these words, (the reason the witches say them), is because they are making an incantation. They are not just making an observation about the nature of things as they see them. In theatre, every...

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Okay, you've got a ton of answers here, but what I believe is the intention behind these words, (the reason the witches say them), is because they are making an incantation. They are not just making an observation about the nature of things as they see them. In theatre, every character is engaged in action. The witches are powerful characters and Shakespeare has them at the beginning of the play for a very specific purpose, which is to set up the atmosphere for the whole of what's to come. The lines we are addressing are deliberately spoken....a state of affairs willed into being....by the witches. We are witnessing the creation by the witches of a reversal in the ordinary nature of things. Here we witness an incantation creating an environment for the whole play that follows, which turns right into wrong, good into bad, and all things bright into gloom. This incantation helps to set the tone and direction for the play.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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