This phrase pervades throughout Shakespeare’s entire play, Macbeth, reminding the audience they need to look into deeper in order to understand the thoughts and actions of the characters. Though it first appears in the beginning in the twelfth line of Act I, Scene I ,uttered by witches as “Fair is foul, foul is fair”; however, it lasts throughout the story with recurring themes of evil doing and deception in the name of equivocation, ambition and good. The meaning of this line is that though events, things and people may seem good or bad; however, after careful examination, they turn out to be opposite.
The meaning of this motif is quite obvious in the very first act. Simply it means that appearances are often deceptive, and that things are different from what they appear to be. This line also points towards the play’s concern with the inconsistency between appearance and reality. Though it is a knotty and difficult idea, nevertheless it suggests that in this world, you can never be sure whether it is a mirage, an apparition or a dagger– means a place where you would not be able to trust anyone.
This phrase is very tricky, which we find in literature, media, political speeches and everyday life. Many people use it as a paradox to criticize one’s double standards and dual personalities that have contradicted in appearance and reality. We can often see its best usage against public servants and politicians who present their dual personalities in front of public. It is also uttered by cynics when they are not sure of the conundrum prevailing in the politics.
Since witches are creatures of devil and night, and they like “foul” and dislike “fair”, hence, they sing this phrase in Act I- Scene I of the play, Macbeth as:
“Fair is foul and fouls is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
(Macbeth Act I- Scene I, 12-13)
Later, Macbeth also uses it as “So fair and foul a day I have not seen.” The day is fair because he wins the war and foul due to loss of so many lives and stormy weather.
First time, we hear this phrase in the opening scene, where witches utter this phrase in the twelfth line of Act I, Scene I, in order to trap Macbeth by predicting his future falsely for causing turmoil. Then Macbeth uses the phrase and later it echoes on different occasions with different meanings. Simply, for witches it means whatever is fair to a common man is foul to them and what is foul to a common man is fair to them. If we recall the story of the play, this phrase refers to Macbeth as well, as he does everything that he formerly considers as foul. Though this motif relates to various characters in the play, yet it strongly relates to Macbeth in line 130 of Act I, Scene III, when he questions whether the predictions of witches for his future life are fair or foul.
This phrase contains following literary devices:
- Paradox: The phrase employs, as it foreshadows the deception of Macbeth that prophecies of witches would lead him to greatness, but they would destroy him instead.
- Symbolism: The witches are symbolic of foul but give fair advice and Macbeth outwardly appears to be a hero, but inwardly he is a dastard and plotter.
- Consonance: It is a very good use of consonance “f”, as fair, foul, foul, fair shows mastery of the playwright.