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

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This line comes from Act I, Scene I, and it is chanted by the three witches as they await the end of the battle. At first glance, this line is a paradox since it is not possible for something to be "fair" (nice) and "foul" (horrible) at the same time. However, this paradox is central to understanding what the witches truly mean: by using this line, they are warning the reader that everything is not quite as it seems in this play. In other words, appearances can be deceptive, and the reader must not take the play's events and characters at face value.

As the play progresses, the relevance of this line becomes more apparent and is proven true through the character of Macbeth. On the surface, Macbeth is the ideal thane: he is loyal to the king and fights bravely in battle. But Macbeth is quickly and easily seduced by the prophecy that he will become king, and he soon begins planning Duncan's murder. Therefore, Macbeth seems to be "fair," but he is really quite the opposite.

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This line, chanted by the witches as they depart the stage in the first scene of the play, means that what seems good is evil, and what seems evil is actually good. This foreshadows many of the play's events, particularly Macbeth's blood-soaked rise to the throne of Scotland. It also suggests the rightful, or natural, scheme of things will be overturned in the play. We see this on several different levels: Macbeth's murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth's "unsex me" speech, and the witches' meddling. The line also indicates there will be a certain duality in everything the witches say and do; indeed, many of their prophecies for Macbeth's future, "fair" as they seem to Macbeth, end up being quite "foul" in the end. Macbeth realizes he has been tricked by the witches, or that he has tricked himself, but the fact that reality may not be as it seems is a theme first suggested by this line.

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