The Meaning of Macbeth’s ‘Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is a famous quotation from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most widely studied and, perhaps on account of its brevity, straightforward plot, and crowd-pleasing set pieces, it is one of his most frequently staged.

We find the line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ very early on in Macbeth. But what is the meaning of this statement? How can ‘fair’ be ‘foul’ and how can ‘foul’ be ‘fair’ when those two adjectives are, surely, opposites?

The famous opening lines of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth, are spoken by the First Witch: ‘When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’. These lines immediately ushers us into a world of witches, prophecy, and black magic, elements which Shakespeare probably chose to include because the new King of England, James I, had written censoriously about witchcraft in his book Demonologie.

This line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is spoken by the three Witches or Weird Sisters towards the end of the play’s short opening scene. All three of them say the line, and the one that follows it:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Shakespeare gets a good deal of credit for things he doesn’t deserve credit for: for coining hundreds of new words, for instance (most of which he was simply popularising), or for coming up with ingenious new plots (when in fact, almost all of his plays borrow their plots from elsewhere).

And the line ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ was already an established proverb, albeit with slightly different wording, when Shakespeare wrote this line. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, for instance, we find the line, ‘Then faire grew foule, and foule grew faire in sight’. This was in the 1590s, a decade or so before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth (whose story also, of course, was borrowed from elsewhere).

But ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is a fitting line to find so early in a play in which the natural order will be well and truly overturned. Macbeth will be prophesied king, and then seize the crown for himself; he will go from Duncan’s favourite to Duncan’s murderer; from Banquo’s closest friend to his cold-blooded killer.

Fair, then, will well and truly become foul in the play, and Macbeth is filled with images of corruption, putrefaction, strange omens, and foulness of all kinds. The pair of opposites, foul and fair, will dissolve into one: fair has been rendered foul, and foul has become fair. Good and evil appear to have swapped places. The Weird Sisters are merely prophesying this.

Macbeth is also a play in which characters’ statements and utterances echo again and again later in the play, and ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ will find itself echoed, fittingly enough, a couple of scenes later when Macbeth himself is first introduced. Indeed, his first words in the play are, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ This is just as Macbeth and Banquo are about to encounter the Witches for the first time.

Although he was not present when they declared, in unison, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’, Macbeth echoes their words. In his Arden Shakespeare edition of Macbeth, the editor Kenneth Muir has a useful note on this line, pointing to noted Shakespeare critic Edward Dowden who observed that this echo establishes a ‘connection’ between Macbeth’s soul and the souls of the ‘hags’. His destiny is bound up with their prophecies.

But what is clever about the line ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ is that we have just learned, in the previous scene, of Macbeth’s great victory in battle. Fresh from the battlefield, and making his way through ominously bad weather, Macbeth may merely be commenting on the ‘foul’ weather but the ‘fair’ victory he has won. The line doesn’t therefore strike us as coming out of the blue, or as a clumsy and overdone echo of what the Witches had previously said.

But a link between Macbeth and the Weird Sisters’ magic has been established, nevertheless. And one of the ways Shakespeare subtly points up this link is through the linguistic echoes around ideas of ‘foul’ and ‘fair’ which both Macbeth, and the Witches, provide.

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