What is the meaning of "Fair is foul; foul is fair" in Macbeth?

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In act 1, scene 1, the Three Witches comment on how they will meet again upon the heath, where they shall introduce themselves to Macbeth. Before they exit the scene, the witches recite, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air" (Shakespeare, 1.1.12–13). ...

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In act 1, scene 1, the Three Witches comment on how they will meet again upon the heath, where they shall introduce themselves to Macbeth. Before they exit the scene, the witches recite, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air" (Shakespeare, 1.1.12–13). The phrase "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" is a paradox and motif that runs throughout the entire play and essentially means that appearances are deceiving. The phrase is considered a paradox because it is a statement that seems to contradict itself but contains a hidden truth. According to the phrase, whatever seems good is really bad, while the things that appear to be bad are actually good. There are numerous examples of appearances being deceiving found throughout the play, beginning with Macbeth's seemingly optimistic prophecy about becoming King of Scotland. While the prophecy seems positive, it influences Macbeth's ambitious nature, and he develops into a bloodthirsty tyrant. King Duncan initially believes that Macbeth's castle is pleasant and welcoming, while it is actually ominous and threatening. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth conceal their true emotions by acting like gracious hosts while they plot Duncan's murder. The second set of prophecies also seems positive but makes Macbeth overconfident and leads to his demise. Overall, the phrase "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" is a motif that runs throughout the play and means that appearances can be deceiving.

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In Macbeth, the witches' equivocal language is a duality, a riddle, a kind of spell, a critique of the society, and an example of foreshadowing and verbal irony. Really, the statement is a way of showing that the natural order has been inverted, that the bottom of the Great Chain of Being (witches and murderers) will replace the top, the King, God's holy vessel.

Literally, as eNotes's "Text in Translation" says, it is "Beautiful is disgustingly filthy, and disgustingly filthy is beautiful." Certainly, this is a commentary on the witches themselves, as they are old hags at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. By Act III, they will become the King's most trusted advisors. So, it is a foreshadowing and an irony.

Other interpretations:

  • Good is evil; evil is good. The good King Duncan will be replaced by the evil King Macbeth.
  • Loyalty is betrayal; betrayal is loyalty. The act of murder will subvert the code of the thanes.
  • God is the devil; the devil is god. As the King was considered God's Holy Vessel, his murder will open the door for the devil's chaos.
  • Natural becomes unnatural; the unnatural becomes natural. After Duncan's murder, there are earthquakes, horses eating each other, bloody babies, moving forests, and all kinds of sinister and horrifying acts that subvert the natural order.
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