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Examine the Dramatic Significance of the Theme ‘Fair Is Foul’ In Macbeth

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‘Fair is Foul’ is the major theme in Macbeth and is present throughout the play in both the characters and the events. ‘Fair is Foul’ refers to the contrast of good and evil in the play, since Macbeth commits many evil murders for what seem to be good reasons. There are several false and secretive characters, such as the Witches, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, because of the contradiction of good and evil. Therefore the theme of ‘Fair is Foul’ is also linked to the theme of appearances being deceiving. As a result of this theme lots of chaos, lies, secrets and total disorder are caused.

The three Witches introduce the theme of ‘Fair is Foul’ in Macbeth and are the first characters seen in the play: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Their words seem to contradict each other, presenting the idea of illusion versus reality in the play. The fact that the Witches are in the first scene of Macbeth confirms that they are important characters and main devices of evil. They meet in foul weather and talk of “thunder, lightning” and “the fog and filthy air”, giving the audience a first impression that Macbeth is a dark, dangerous play in which the theme of evil is central.

Only once in the play are the three weird sisters called ‘witches’, instead they are called “old hags” and “elemental forces”. Shakespeare describes the witches in this way to make them sound more evil so that the audience would dislike them more. Shakespeare used the witches and supernatural influences to present evil scenes and events. As witches were hated at the time that Shakespeare wrote the play, he used the witches so that the audience would be more interested and entertained in the play.

The Witches seem closely connected to Macbeth as he later repeats their words: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen”. They choose the right moment to approach Macbeth, when he is full of triumph and glory from the recent battle. The witches know exactly what to say and their timing is precise, all three appear to speak and act with one mind. They contradict themselves throughout their predictions that Macbeth will become king, which suggests that things are not what they seem: “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier”. It is also a clue to the audience that some extreme events will happen because Macbeth is currently in no position to become king.

Macbeth is intrigued by the Witches and later tells Lady Macbeth that he “burned in desire” to question them. Macbeth asks the witches to stay showing that he is interested in their predictions: “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.” The witches speak dangerous thoughts that Macbeth is thinking himself:

“Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings: My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical Shakes so my single state of man”

Macbeth’s reaction is as if someone has read his mind, whereas Banquo is reluctant to believe the witches and is aware that they are not what they seem. If their predictions were already thoughts in the back of Macbeth’s mind, then the witches don’t have very much power over him at this point.

Ross and Angus soon arrive with the news that Duncan has made Macbeth Thane of Cawdor: “He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor.” The first prophecy has come true and therefore Macbeth is no longer just excited by the witches’ words, he has proof that the witches can indeed predict the future and begins to believe them. Macbeth is now under the witches’ spell and their words will always be in his mind provoking evil thoughts. Macbeth wonders whether to act on the witches’ predictions or wait to see if they come true on their own and becomes a very vulnerable person:

“…why do I yield to that suggestion Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, Against the use of nature?”

Maybe this vulnerability suggests that Macbeth is not wholly evil. Although we only see the witches once more in the play, they are always present in Macbeth’s mind and in the evil streak that later overcomes in him.

Before Macbeth, a general of the king Duncan’s army, even enters the play we are given several impressions about him. He is obviously related to the witches in some way as they speak of him: “There to meet with Macbeth”. Macbeth is made to seem ‘foul’ as he is associated with the evil witches. Duncan, king of Scotland, and his noble men speak highly of Macbeth: “Brave Macbeth-well he deserves that name,” “noble Macbeth.” This shows his ‘fair’ side as he is seen as a hero. These two interpretations of his character are very different and therefore bring back the idea of appearances being deceptive and contradiction. How can Macbeth be the “brave” and “noble” soldier that Duncan thinks he is and still be involved with the weird sisters? This question builds up a feeling of uncertainty and wariness about Macbeth’s true character and is some kind of clue as to what happens later on in the play.

The several murders in the play reflect the theme of chaos and disorder as it goes against the natural process of death. They also create a lot of chaos between and within characters.

Both before and after Duncan’s murder Macbeth shows signs that his own natural feelings of guilt are still present in his character and that the witches do not have total power over him. He is ‘foul’ for the things that he has done but is somewhat ‘fair’ as he still has a natural human conscience. Before the murder Macbeth thinks that it would be cruel to kill innocent Duncan: “Besides, this Duncan Hath borne his faculties so meek” The morning after the murder Macbeth shows feeling of shock, guilt and fear: “‘Twas a rough night”, “Had I but died an hour before this chance I had lived a blessed time”. His feelings about Duncan’s murder are very similar to those about Banquo’s murder although he only acted out the first himself. He is sick with worry and guilt about Banquo’s murder:

“Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect; Whole as a marble, founded as on the rockBut now, I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in To saucy doubts and fears.”

This shows that appearances can be deceptive as Macbeth attempts to show a tough exterior but is really the same coward inside.

After Banquo’s murder and seeing his ghost at the banquet, Macbeth decides to go and revisit the three weird sisters:

“I will tomorrow And betimes I will to the Weird Sisters: More shall they speak; for I am bent to know, By the worst means, the worst.”

This is a real turning point; it seems like Macbeth has given up trying to control things himself and knows that the witches are the only ones who can help him. This again brings in the idea of evil as Macbeth is admitting that the witches are controlling him.

The second set of the witches’ predictions tells Macbeth “Beware Macduff”, “none born of woman shall hurt Macbeth” and “Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane”. The predictions contradict the first as they warn Macbeth of bad things to come instead of good. Once again Shakespeare links back to the theme of good versus evil.

Macbeth starts to exclude Lady Macbeth from his actions and decisions and she can sense this: “How now my lord, why do you keep me alone?” When Lady Macbeth dies Macbeth seems suddenly weary:

” She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”

His reaction is strange, very quiet and thoughtful. The fact that he possessed an indifference to life made it clear to the audience at that time that he was under the witches spell. Macbeth no longer has any motivation and soon realises that his own death is near: “And all our yesterday have lighted fools The way to dusty death.” This gives the impression that Macbeth has woken up out of the spell and now wishes that he had never been poisoned by ambition in the first place. At the end of the play Macduff describes Macbeth as “A dead butcher”, which contradicts Duncan’s original description of “noble Macbeth”.

Lady Macbeth’s character changes drastically throughout the play, linking her to the theme of ‘fair is foul’ as she goes between good and evil. When she receives the news of the witches prophecies regarding her husband she reacts in an extremely powerful and dramatic way. As this is the first time that Lady Macbeth is seen in the play, the audience is given the impression that she is a very strong character. As soon as she has finished reading Macbeth’s letter she has decided she will make sure Macbeth is king: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be What thou art promised.” It is as if her and her husband are thinking the same thing, which is a source of strength for both of them. Lady Macbeth doesn’t hesitate for a moment about her decision.

Lady Macbeth invites the evil spirits to enter her: “Come you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty” This was a well known sign of a person under the possession of evil spirits at the time the play was written. Lady Macbeth knows that she has to strengthen herself, that the murder will need evil power. Evil is obviously not naturally in Lady Macbeth and she asks the evil spirits to stop her natural feelings of guilt to come between her intention and fulfilment:

“Stop th’ access and passage to remorse, That no compunctious vistings of nature Shake fell purpose, nor keep peace between Th’ effect and it.”

Lady Macbeth immediately realises that murdering Duncan is the only way of quickly achieving her target. When Lady Macbeth receives further news that Duncan is actually coming to spend that night with her and her husband, it becomes clear that her role is to seize the moment and assist her husband’s rise to becoming king.

Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to commit the murder in several ways. She tells him that he must put on a false act so as not to give away his most inner thoughts: “Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t.” This once again relates to the theme of ‘Foul is Fair’.

From the morning after Duncan’s murder to the end of the play Lady Macbeth starts to go mad. She is often shocked by Macbeth’s many murders and is not prepared for more deaths. Lady Macbeth seemed prepared for Duncan’s murder but unfortunately thought that the murder would be the end of the story and easy to cover up and forget: “My hands are of your colour; but I shame to wear a heart so whiteA little water clears us of the deed. How easy it is then!” This may be the reason why she was so eager to take matters into her own hands. At the time of Duncan’s murder she seemed to be in control and the more evil of her and her husband. As Macduff described her at the end of the play, Lady Macbeth turned into a “fiend-like queen”.

Now these roles have been reversed, linking to the theme of chaos and disorder. Foul has become fair and fair has become foul. Lady Macbeth begins to feel isolated by the fact that Macbeth no longer consults her about her opinions and she has feelings of regret suggesting that she too is not wholly evil. Therefore Macduff’s description of her cannot be accurate.

Shakespeare often uses physical devices of illusion and hallucination throughout Macbeth. Visions were seen as signs of a person seized by demonic possession in the 17th century when the play was written. They are used as physical proof of the things that the characters say and think and often illustrate the theme of ‘fair is foul’.

The first example of this is when Macbeth sees a dagger in Act 2, Scene 1: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” This is a sign of captivation and an inner desire in Macbeth. “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going.” The dagger urges Macbeth towards Duncan’s bedroom, somewhere that he was already planning to go. It is as if this vision is confirming to him that he is headed the right way. The dagger is also a sign of evil and represents the visions of the witches.

Later in the play (Act 3) at a banquet after Banquo’s murder Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost come back to haunt him. Macbeth’s reaction has different stages. At first Macbeth is terrified:

“the time has been, That when the brains were out, the man would die, And there an end; but now, they rise again with twenty mortal murders on their crowns, And push us from our stools”

Macbeth can’t understand how it is possible for Banquo to come back and his true feelings of fear beneath his false exterior come out. Then Macbeth tries to challenge the ghost: “Hence horrible shadow! Unreal mock’ry, hence! Why so; being gone, I am a man again.” He confronts the ghost in order to overcome his fear and appears to win when the ghost disappears. Macbeth then puts his faith in the supernatural, as his relationship with Lady Macbeth is no longer a source of strength. He is willing to admit that he is not strong enough alone to deal with the situation.

Near the end of the play (Act 5, Scene1) Lady Macbeth shows her own signs that she is under the control of the weird sisters. She starts to sleep talk and see Duncan’s blood on her hands. She begins to think that she needs to be cleansed and has feelings of guilt: “Out, damned spot! Out I say What will these hands ne’er be clean?”

Shakespeare uses linguistic and literary techniques such as imagery and dramatic irony in Macbeth. Dramatic irony is shown by the difference between what the audience and the characters believe. The idea of false appearances comes into this, as the audience often know whether certain characters are being genuine to one another. An example of this is when Lady Macbeth gives her husband some advice:”look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t”. None of the other characters will be aware of the fact that Macbeth is putting on a false act but the audience will. Macbeth’s words also reflect this: “”False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” The imagery in the play is mostly linked to the ideas of appearance and reality.

The overall meaning of the theme ‘Fair is foul’ is that good can be evil and evil can also be good. Therefore you should not to be quick to believe, as things can sometimes be too good to be true and something evil can reveal something good. Shakespeare makes the theme ‘Fair is foul’ dramatically significant in several similar ways. He often repeats the same ideas throughout the play such as: appearances being deceptive, good and evil, contradiction and chaos. I think that Shakespeare’s reason for this was to show the many aspects of the play from different points of view.

Shakespeare based the play on witchcraft, evil spirits and their consequences. These were all subjects that brought up a lot of questions and beliefs during the 17th century. Macbeth wrote Macbeth after Guy Fawks’ attempt to kill King James I in 1605. James would have therefore enjoyed the play, as he would get the chance to watch Macbeth die for trying to kill his own king. The witches in the play would have also been linked with James I, as he had three witches killed for trying to conjure up a storm to kill him. Shakespeare’s main reasons for writing Macbeth were to flatter King James I and to keep the interest of his audience. This is shown by the fact that Banquo, named after James’ ancestor, is portrayed as a good and honest character. Shakespeare also wrote about witches and evil witchcraft, which were considered wrong and morbid at the time. Women were considered to be most likely to relate to witchcraft, which is perhaps why Lady Macbeth seemed to be more controlled than Macbeth in the play.

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