What is the role of paradox in Macbeth?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Paradox - where a statement that seems self-contradictory reveals a possible truth - is much more than simply one of a number of a literary devices in Macbeth. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that it is the theme of the play itself. From the overture of “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” (Act I, i, 37) to the finale of Macduff "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, paradox occurs again and again, suggesting that there is something in the device itself which is entirely appropriate to the theme of the play. As paradox presents something that is not, or says something it does not say, it underlies the dominant theme of Macbeth - the deceptiveness of appearances. The grand opening paradox of "fair is foul and foul is fair" points ahead not only to the layers of deceit and double-dealing in the play, but also to the eventual rebalancing of contradictions: As the 'fair' rule of the kindly king Duncan is replaced by the 'foul' tyranny of Macbeth, so the usurper falls before 'fair' Malcolm, the worthy predecessor of a worthier line of kings. In the end, this suggests that Shakespeare saw paradox as a metaphor for the working out of divine justice in human history.


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