Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

Origin of Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

This phrase pervades Shakespeare’s entire play, Macbeth, reminding the audience they need to look 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,” 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; after careful examination, they turn out to be the opposite.

Meaning of Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

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.

Usage of Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

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 the public. It is also uttered by cynics when faced with the conundrums prevailing in politics.

Literary Source of Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

Since witches are creatures of devil and night, and they like “foul” and dislike “fair,” 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 the loss of so many lives and stormy weather.

Literary Analysis of Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

The first time we hear this phrase is 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. 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 considered foul. Though this motif relates to various characters in the play, it strongly relates to Macbeth in line 130 of Act I, Scene III, when he questions whether the predictions of the witches for his future life are fair or foul.

Literary Devices

  • Paradox: The phrase employs a paradox, as it foreshadows the deception of Macbeth, in that the prophecies of witches might 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 coward and a plotter.
  • Consonance: It is a very good use of consonance “f”, as fair, foul, foul, fair shows mastery of the playwright.