In Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth, when Macbeth says, "So foul and fair a day i have not seen," to what is he referring?What could be the dramatic irony in this line?

Expert Answers
kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This line from act 1, scene 3 is a paradox. At first glance, it seems contradictory: how can something be both "fair" and "foul"? Looking deeper, however, we see that this line contains some truth, because Macbeth is referring to the battle that has just taken place. The fact that King Duncan's forces were successful has made the day "fair," for example, but such intense fighting (including the loss of life) has also made the day rather "foul."

In addition, this quote also provides an example of dramatic irony because the reader has seen this phrase before. Back in act 1, scene 1, for example, the reader observed the conversation between the witches when they talk about meeting with Macbeth after the battle is won. As they depart, they all say, "Fair is foul and foul is fair."

Macbeth, of course, has no idea that he is destined to meet with the witches, therefore creating an example of dramatic irony.

droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For Macbeth, the day is a fair one because he has enjoyed enormous success on the battlefield, and therefore is feeling triumphant as a soldier. His comment simply indicates that the weather is bad and not reflective of his mood—never before has he experienced "so foul" a day when also celebrating something so significant.

The line is also laden with dramatic irony because, although Macbeth is unaware of it, his comment echoes the call of the witches, "Fair is foul and foul is fair," from act 1 scene 1, when they declared their intention to meet with Macbeth. The audience is aware of this, having of course seen the witches at the beginning of the play. The eerie similarity between Macbeth's comment and the witches' call underscores the fact that Macbeth's fate is tethered to them, whether he likes it or not.

cybil eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth refers to the day as "foul" because so many people have died in the battle against the Norwegians and Scottish rebels and "fair" because the Scottish soldiers won the battle. He grieves for the loss of life but rejoices in victory.

In the opening scene of the play, the witches use the same words when they say, "Fair is foul and foul is fair," and set the tone for the play. The audience has heard their words, but Macbeth doesn't know about them, thus fulfilling the definition of dramatic irony. The confusion between what is good and what is evil will pervade the play, particularly for Macbeth.

kmieciakp | Student

Or he's commenting on the weather "the fog" and delighting in the massacre. The coordinating pronoun "and" aligns "foul" and "fair"--and Macbeth's starting with "foul" reveals the first image in his mind.  Macbeth is "bloody," an exceutioner.  He split a guy open from the groin to the mouth and stuck his head up on a stick on the field, and he wasn't even bothered at all to go a second round.  Though the king is shocked and asks "Dismay'd not this / Our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?" the Sergeant even jokes about how killing is in Macbeth's nature: "As sparrows eagles or the hare the lion" (as sparrows shock eagles or hares shock lions).

A dramatic irony is also that the audience knows that he will fall--from the play's title of course, but also from the "I have not seen"--standard foreshadowing language, still used in horror movies today--by tying the foul and fair to the "I," the hero can see external nature but not internal corruption--or even better--that he thinks he sees corruption but doesn't, creating dramatic irony upon irony with "I have not seen"--and so it just hit me--he's starting to "make assurance double sure.'   So his first words and his blindness to their meaning reveal his nature.