The witches in Macbeth end the first scene with a paradox: ''Fair is foul and foul is fair.'' How is this contradiction shown to be true in Act 1?

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The witches' proclamation illustrates one of the most prominent themes in Macbeth - appearance versus reality. We can infer from the play that what appears to be fair is actually foul. This can be best explained if we take a look at our tragic hero, Macbeth.

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is depicted as a valiant and loyal warrior, defending Scotland from the Norwegians and the Scottish traitors. He appears to be as one of the most reliable and trustworthy king Duncan's subjects. Nevertheless, after his surreptitious ambition of becoming the king of Scotland is awakened, we see him as disloyal, treacherous, and unscrupulous. Despite the fact that Duncan and Macbeth are related and that Macbeth is Duncan's subject, Macbeth sees him as the greatest impediment to the realization of his ambition and, therefore, kills him and becomes the king himself. This is the moment when Macbeth's tragic downfall begins.

Even the witches describe Macbeth as "wicked" before he appears in front of them to ask them about his future:

 By the pricking of my thumbs,
 Something wicked this way comes.
 Open, locks,
 Whoever knocks!

Although we may first describe the witches as the agents of evil, we realize that Macbeth is, in fact, the one who awakens evil within him and who resorts to committing dreadful deeds. By murdering innocent people in order to establish himself as the untouchable monarch, he rejects goodness and embraces wickedness. This eventually costs him his life.

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In the first act of Macbeth, the witches offer the paradox "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" to lay the foundation for the dichotomy of appearance versus reality in the play.  When Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches in the first act, the men appear to be "fair"--they are returning from battle as two who fought well and will receive honor from King Duncan.  The witches, on the other hand, are strange, frightening creatures who appear as "foul."  However, the first act later reveals that in fact Macbeth is foul as he is persuaded in part by Lady Macbeth and in part by his own greed and ambition to kill Duncan so that he can immediately become king.  Thus, the witches are "fair"--they have simply reported the truth of future events.  The witches' paradox continues to color the plot and characterization of the play after the first act is done.

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