“Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair”: Reading Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The ‘fair and foul’ tool refers to sudden contraries, or reversal: something seems fair and then is revealed to be foul, or something seems foul and then we realize it’s fair. Let’s put this tool into practice by looking at several of the most famous moments in Macbeth.

Poster detail from an 1884 production of Macbeth, showing the witches confronting Macbeth and Banquo.
Banquo and Macbeth are confronted by the witches. Banquo expresses amazement at the appearance of the witches.
(Image: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith./Library of Congress/Public domain)

Banquo and the Contrary Witches

We will start with the first interaction between Macbeth and the witches. What are Banquo’s first words when he sees the witches? They are a question: “What are these, / So wither’d and so wild in their attire, / That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth, / And yet are on’t?”

We’re seeing contraries, opposites, at work here. Banquo says the witches don’t look like “inhabitants of the earth”, yet he must admit that they are indeed “on” the earth. This opens up a huge theme in this play, really one of its great questions: What are these witches?

They can’t just be illusions, because Banquo sees them, too. Do they cause Macbeth to kill Duncan, his king? If so, how? Do they wield magical power? Or is it more a malevolent, psychological influence? If they don’t cause the events, do they foretell them? Are they somehow privy to what the future holds?

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Three Witches Predict Macbeth’s Greatness

What if we apply this tool to the first words the witches speak to Macbeth? They exclaim that he is “Thane of Glamis”—a title he just received—“Thane of Cawdor”—a title he does not yet have—and “King hereafter,” certainly a title he does not and ought not to hold.

Detail from a painting showing three robed and hooded figures on the left, facing two standing men on the right, who are in martial attire.
Macbeth’s first reaction to the witches is one of alarm and maybe fear.
(Image: Henry Fuseli/Public domain)

Macbeth responds to these apparently positive statements by showing fear, as Banquo observes: “Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” Well, our tool serves us well here: we see that this apparently good news is also very evil—Macbeth will be driven to fulfill these prophecies by murdering his own king. Fair is foul.

This, of course, is the error made by Macbeth’s king, Duncan, who is so pleased with Macbeth’s valor on the battlefield that he honors the lord by spending the night in his castle. As he approaches the castle, Duncan remarks, “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses.”

Macbeth’s castle appears to Duncan to be a fair place indeed—but we know, armed with the ‘fair is foul’ tool, that in fact it will be the place of his death that very night.

Learn more about the tools for a lifetime of Shakespeare.

Duncan’s Misplaced Trust in the Thanes of Cawdor

Indeed, Duncan, although portrayed as a highly virtuous king, is rather lacking in the ability to read his political rivals accurately. When Duncan learns that his apparently loyal lord, the Thane of Cawdor, has led the rebellion against him, he is amazed.

“There’s no art,” he states, “To find the mind’s construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust—” and before Duncan can finish his sentence, Macbeth appears, and Duncan exclaims, “O worthiest cousin!” He then bestows upon Macbeth the title just relinquished by the traitor, Thane of Cawdor.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Personal and Political Foul and Fair

'Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth', a painting by John Singer Sargent portraying Lady Macbeth holding a crown.
Lady Macbeth, portrayed by Ellen Terry in this painting by John Sargent, persuades Macbeth to appear fair while being the serpent.
(Image: John Singer Sargent/Public domain)

Armed with our ‘fair is foul’ tool, we can see the dynamic of betrayal developing in the early scenes of the play. In fact, this is the very dynamic that Lady Macbeth will rely upon as their strategy to succeed in killing Duncan: “bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue” she tells her husband. “Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t.”

In Macbeth, this dynamic has its political dimension, too. In the fourth act of the play, the scene shifts to England, where Duncan’s son, Malcolm, speaks to Macduff, one of the Scottish thanes. Malcolm is wiser than his father, in this respect at least: He knows not to trust Macduff just because Macduff appears to be loyal and friendly. “All things foul would wear the brows of grace,” Malcolm states, and we see that he understands the ‘fair is foul’ device quite well.

Indeed, he proceeds to test Macduff’s loyalty by pretending that he himself is corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, even tyrannical, despite his fair appearance. In disgust, Macduff prepares to leave Malcolm’s presence—but we know that there’s a twist coming: ‘fair is foul’, but also, ‘foul is fair’—Malcolm pretends to be foul, but is actually fair within.

He admits to Macduff that he only wanted to be certain of Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, and he’s confirmed in this by Macduff’s refusal to support Malcolm if Malcolm were indeed so wicked.

So this tool helps us to see into a repeated dynamic in the play, yes; but also if we keep noticing the prevalence of this dynamic, we realize that the world of Macbeth is ultimately a world where nothing is certain: the apparently foul is actually fair, but that fair can easily and rapidly shift to foul once again.

Nothing is known, no one is to be trusted. It’s a radically skeptical world, a representation of humanity in its most fallen state, as far from clear moral goodness as any representation in Shakespeare.

Common Questions about ‘Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair’ in Macbeth

Q: In what way do the three witches in Macbeth present contrasts?

To begin with, for Banquo, the three witches appear other-wordly, but are also clearly present on the earth. Similarly, though the witches declare apparently good news to Macbeth, he reacts with fear rather than joy.

Q: What does the play tell us about Duncan’s assessment of people?

The play tells us that King Duncan is a poor judge of character. To begin with, Duncan is surprised at the disloyalty of the earlier Thane of Cawdor. Duncan displays that very same gullibility when he expresses his trust in Macbeth as the next Thane of Cawdor.

Q: How is the ‘Foul is Fair’ dynamic used by Lady Macbeth?

When advising Macbeth on what he should do, Lady Macbeth says “bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue”. She tells Macbeth to “Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t.”

Q: How does Malcolm test Macduff’s loyalty?

Malcolm pretends to be corrupt, lascivious, avaricious, unjust, even tyrannical, despite his fair appearance. Macduff is disgusted by this, and that is when Malcolm reveals that he had only been pretending.

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