Macbeth 101Hello- How does the alliteration of the letter F in the saying "Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair, Hover through the Fog and Filthy Air" show the altogether sinister motives of the witches...

Macbeth 101

Hello- How does the alliteration of the letter F in the saying "Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair, Hover through the Fog and Filthy Air" show the altogether sinister motives of the witches and the evil nature of the prophecy? How does it show that there is a connection between the witches and Macbeth in an evil, conniving way?? Any suggestions?? Questions?? Thoughts?? At all?

Expert Answers
vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here's an answer I posted earlier today to the same question.

Alliteration is often one of the most powerful sound effects in any kind of creative writing, but the precise nature and source of its power are very difficult to describe. Alliteration is almost always used for emphasis of some kind; repeated consonant sounds almost always call strong attention to themselves. Alliteration is especially important in works intended to be spoken aloud, such as Shakespeare’s plays. Yet alliteration can also call attention to itself even when a work is read silently and is heard only by the “inner ear.”

The precise effects of alliteration cannot be described in the abstract. In other words, any attempt to analyze the effectiveness of alliteration depends on a specific and particular context. Take, for example, the famous lines spoken by the witches in the second scene of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth:

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

The alliteration in these lines contributes to their effectiveness in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Each of the words emphasized by the alliterated “f” sound is also metrically emphasized.  In other words, each of those words is accented.  Thus the combination of the repeated “f” and the repeated accents gives those words special stress.
  • This double emphasis gives the lines an almost chant-like effect, as if the witches are engaged in some kind of strange ritual.  The fact that each of the lines is also shorter than might have been expected (neither has the expected ten syllables of iambic pentameter) also gives these lines special emphasis.
  • “Fair” and “foul” are not only alliterated but are also opposites.  The witches are denying the typical opposition that exists between these two concepts. They are destroying an important distinction that we usually take for granted. They are implying a world that is topsy-turvy, in which nothing is reliable and everything can easily become its opposite.
  • All the “f” words in this passage except “fair” have negative connotations: “foul,” “fog,” “filthy.”  All three of these latter words suggest some absence of an ideal. It is almost, then, as if “fair” becomes contaminated and undermined by being associated with these other “f” words, which are unappealing.
  • The words here are simple and clear: we all know what “fair” and “foul” mean, and both are monosyllables rather than anything more complicated or difficult to pronounce.  However, the witches use these very simple words in paradoxical, complex, and unexpected ways: exactly how (we wonder) can “fair” by “foul” and “foul” be “fair”? The confusion of these opposites suggests something mysterious, mystical, and even unnerving. Our neat categories are being subverted and are being made to bleed into one another. The witches speak with confidence (they don’t say “fair may be foul and foul may be fair”), and they speak of something that already is, not of something that might merely be in the future (they don’t say “fair will be foul and foul will be fair”). They thus speak, in their heavily emphasized way, of a disruption of normality – a disruption that they already know exists. They seem very confident that they know what they are talking about, although their words seems mysterious and unnerving to us.



Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Writers like Edmund Spenser and Shakespeare use the phonic and duration qualities of vowels and consonants to add emotional and psychological qualities, such as despair and tension, to their work. For instance, some consonants take longer to pronounce and produce a quietening effect: e.g., mild mannered musings of millennial meanderings, while some take less time to pronounce and create tension or other volatile emotional responses, e.g., till time tolls telling turbulent tales. The consonant /f/ is one of the second class. It requires greater energy to produce as it is a labiodental fricative (produced by a forceful expulsion of air past the lower lip against upper teeth) and facilitates quickened pronunciation of words. This selection makes the Witches speech staccato, quick, sinister, and a little maniacal sounding. Thus their role as sinister ministers of evil is embedded in their speech.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I always try to teach my students about the effect of literary techniques such as alliteration by getting them to re-write the same words but in a different way, not using alliteration. If you do this, you might come up with something like: "Good is bad and bad is good. Fly through the dirty fog and polluted air." Now, if you read my version and Shakespeare's version out loud, what is the difference? Which has more impact? Hopefully, you will see that the alliteration of the "f" sound adds great impact both in terms of making it seem like an evil incantation but also in terms of how it gives it a sinister, eerie sound.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Part of Shakespeare's talent in lines like these is that they serve more than one function. These lines exhibit both the pleasing effect of alliteration and the strength of appropriate diction (word choice).

From a poetic standpoint, any alliteration adds a nice musical touch. Since the witches are evil and discussing, using words like "foul" and "filthy" make sense--they communicate the evil world into which Macbeth will descend. Shakespeare doesn't just use any old words that start with "f"--the words he chooses also further the drama's story line and theme.

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Authors select particular literary devices because they add something to their work.  I do not think Shakespeare chose to use alliteration here by accident.  I agree that the F sound adds a hissing sound which we generally associate with evil or dark deeds.  The whispering and hissing F sound brings out an evil connotation to the words.  It sounds like an incantation rather than just words.  We see the prophecy as more of a magical riddle than just a foretelling because of the use of alliteration.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The alliteration reminds us how close these two opposites come for Macbeth. He struggles with understanding good and evil: to him they sound the same. By using the repetition of the 'f' sound, the two ideas are brought closer to the audience to help us understand the dilemma which Macbeth faces. We are able to retain our understanding of good and evil as polar opposites. Macbeth is convinces by the forces around him that one can be the other.


literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Immediately on notices that the dialogue of the witches is very different from that of the other characters (rhyme--gives the reader a sense of spells being spoken). It is not until the end of the play that Macbeth's dialogue tends to mirror that of the witches' (which shows his move towards the evil). Therefore, the alliterative nature of the verse shows the witches as "real witches" and adds to the overall ominous tone of the play.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that this is because of the simple sound of "f," particularly in these words. If you say the words out loud, don't they sound kind of slithery and slippery to you?  To me, they sound sort of like snakes slithering.  They also sound whispery and conspiratorial.  To me, that's why the alliteration makes this seem sinister.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The use of the f brings the fair and foul together, until they become the same thing.  The singsong nature of the chant also leads the viewer/reader in, making us feel the effect of the song and buy into the idea.

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