Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair Analysis in Macbeth
The phrase “Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair” (Act 1, Scene 1) is chanted by the three witches at the beginning of the play. It acts as a summary of what is to come in the tale. Shakespeare uses the phrase to show that what is considered good is in fact bad and what is considered bad is actually good. The theme of fair is foul and foul is fair is therefore very prevalent in Macbeth.
The first characters to showcase this theme are the three witches. Ever since their existence, witches have been known to cause havoc. The three witches in this play are therefore not different from the rest. When Macbeth and Banquo meet them on their way, their destinies change. Wielding their power of deception, they tell Macbeth that one day he will be king.
It is not clear how he would ascend to the throne considering that he has no royal blood and that he has flimsy chances of getting the kingship. Furthermore, the king has two sons, who would inherit the throne if he were to die. Since the witches refuse to reveal to Macbeth how he is going to be king, he realizes that murdering King Duncan and his two sons is the only way. He therefore sets out to kill them.
The message of the witches is fair to Macbeth, but foul to Banquo. Although he is told that his sons would be kings, Banquo is able to see through the witches’ enticing lies and warns Macbeth to be careful with the words he has just heard: “Oftentimes, to win us our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence” (Act 1, Scene 3). But Banquo’s warnings do not do much to dissuade Macbeth from pursuing such a perverted path.
Later in the play, Macbeth further consults the prophecies of the witches, where he is fed more crap. He is told that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” and that he “shall never be vanquish’d be until great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Macbeth is made to believe that he is invincible by the witches and becomes blind to the imminent danger that befalls him. In the end, he is defeated by humans contrary to what the witches claimed.
Macbeth and his wife are the ones who highlight this theme the most. Although he starts out as a good person, Macbeth’s morality is easily converted by the three witches. The same happens for Lady Macbeth, who becomes exceedingly ambitious after she learns of the witches’ prophecy from her husband’s letter. She tells her husband to “look like the innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under’t” (Act 1, Scene 5).
This phrase summarizes the two characters perfectly. She tells him to act fair in the eyes of their guests, but to be foul in order to achieve their ambitious goal. But, as their plan is underway, we realize that Macbeth’s foulness has taken toll over him and is finding it hard to act fair in front of his guests.
“Away, and mock the time with fairest show/ False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (Act 1. Scene 7), Lady Macbeth tells her husband to act as a normal jovial host to the king and the other guests and not to show his true intentions to them. They put on quite a facade that no one learns of their real intentions and subsequently, King Duncan is killed by Macbeth.
The same treatment is given to Banquo, whom they describe as “Here’s our chief guest” (Act 3, Scene 1) when they have secretly plotted to murder him. They both find it hard to act fair in the presence of Banquo, based on what they plan to do to him. Lady Macbeth says, “Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks;/ Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night” (Act 3, Scene 2) Macbeth tells her to also act normal as well in front of Banquo:
Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honours in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards to our hearts. (Act 3, Scene 2)
Macbeth continues with a series of foul play to ensure that he has a stronghold grip on the throne. At the banquet for the nobles of Scotland, Macbeth dupes everyone around that he has high regards for Banquo when he has just killed him. He says, “I drink to the general joy o’ the whole table,/ And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss” (Act 3, Scene 4).
After the murders of King Duncan and his friend Banquo, he turns to Macduff and his family, where Macduff is able to escape, but not his family. Therefore, Macbeth starts out fair, but ends up a foul person: “I have walked so far into this river of blood that even if I stopped now, it would be as hard to go back as it is to killing people” (Act 3, Scene 4).
From the beginning, Lady Macbeth is presented as a ruthless and an over ambitious character, who will do anything to become royalty. She is the one who comes up with the plan to kill King Duncan and she also coerces her husband to execute it. One of her memorable quotes highlights the depths she is willing to go to secure the throne for her husband: “How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:/ I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I sworn as you have done to this” (Act 1, Scene 6).
She says that she is willing to bash their tiny baby’s head, if that is what it takes to achieve their goals. In a twist of events, Lady Macbeth does not cherish her new status as queen. She is haunted by the guilt of her evil deeds.
It becomes evident that she has lost her mind when she starts sleepwalking and confessing about her role in the deaths of King Duncan and Banquo. She rubs her hands as a gesture of washing them. This represents guilt and she is trying to take away that guilt by washing away the blood that has stained her hands. Some of the quotes highlighting her guilt include: “who’d would have thought the old man had so much blood in him” “The Thane of Fife had a wife where is she now?” “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” “Banquo’s buried he can’t come out of his grave” (Act 5, Scene 1). She eventually commits suicide to set herself free from the guilt.
Macbeth’s castle is also a manifestation of the theme fair is foul, foul is fair. King Duncan is moved by the beauty and pleasant atmosphere of the castle. He says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air/ Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/ Unto our gentle senses” To him the castle is fair. After he is murdered in it however, it becomes obvious that the castle is far from what it is made out to be by the owners.
Coincidentally, a porter compares Macbeth’s castle to the gates of hell when Macduff and Lennox persistently knock at the door: “Who’s there, I’ th’ name of Beelzebul?” (Act 2, Scene 3). The porter unknowingly describes the evil that lurks in the castle.
There is also the honorable title of the Thane of Cawdor. It is not a coincidence that the only two characters with the title try to harm the king. It is the seat nearest to the king’s throne and is therefore reserved for individuals with the highest integrity and courage. But, this is contrary to what is experienced in the play, as the two Cawdors commit acts of treason. King Duncan is shocked by the first Thane of Cawdor’s betrayal that he remarks, “There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face” (Act 1, Scene 4).
Characters who are considered foul when in reality are fair are the chamberlains and the king’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain. Unbeknownst to them, the chamberlains are framed for the murder of King Duncan and unfortunately killed for a crime they did not commit by Macbeth.
While committing the atrocious act, Macbeth overhears the chamberlains say their prayers and when he tries to say “amen” with them he is unable to, due to his guilt. Also, when Malcolm and Donalbain discover that their father, the king has been murdered, they realize they will be the next victims. Donalbain says that “Where we are,/ There’s daggers in men’s smiles” (Act 2, Scene 3). They therefore decide to escape, where Malcolm goes to England and Donalbain goes to Ireland.
They are however framed for their father’s murder based on suspicion that they fled without giving any explanation. Macduff tells Ross of the two brothers: “Malcolm and Donalbain, the king’s two sons, / Are stol’n away and fled, whch puts upon them/ Suspicion of the deed” (Act 2, Scene 4).
The phrase fair is foul, foul is fair is a dominant theme in Macbeth. It highlights the hypocrisy that people adopt to hide their true intentions. Shakespeare uses this theme to caution about judging things based on the face value. While King Duncan loves Macbeth dearly, it is Macbeth who ends his life. In a nutshell, things do not seem what they appear to be- the good may turn out to be bad and the bad may actually be good. However, Shakespeare cautions that whatever our motives may be, in the end they will come back to haunt us.