Discuss the theme of equivocation and fair is foul and foul is fair in the play?
Shakespeare uses equivocation not to confuse but to either get across multiple meanings or to leave dialogue and events in the play open ended. Equivocation can be seen with the witches and whenever they talk. The witches are themselves a vague set of characters who talk in a puzzling riddle-like manner. For instance when Macbeth goes to see them for the second time they are very vague about predicting his future, intentionally confusing him and making him overly confident. An example of this riddled dialogue goes like this:
All (three witches): Listen, but speak not to’t.
Apparition: Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until;
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
Macbeth: That will never be:
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
That excerpt shows how the witches twist and play with Macbeth’s mind and feelings. By the end of the Apparition’s lines, Macbeth is convinced he can not be killed by anyone, and so grows in confidence till seething and almost rupturing with it. It also shows Shakespeare’s use of equivocation and how, unless certain lines are studied, their true, if vague, meaning cannot be seen or understood.
The quoted phrase, fair is foul and foul is fair is used frequently, the phrase itself is an oxymoron. Early in the play the reader sees Macbeth as the hero because he has saved all of Scotland from the Norwegians. Duncan, honoring Macbeth, says, More is thy due than more than all can pay. (Act 1, Scene ) Towards the middle of the play the reader suddenly begins to pity Macbeth, slowly realizing his encroaching insanity for what it is, a downward spiral of death and increased mistakes. Finally, at the end of the play, the reader’s opinion of Macbeth moves more towards hate and a feeling that Macbeth is unmistakably evil. As the second witch said:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes:
(-Act 4, Scene 1)
Such is Macbeth’s fair to foul story in a flash. There is also Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Malcolm, and Donalbain, and perhaps even Banquo. Each of these character’s development follows the fair is foul and foul is fair format.
In the beginning of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth shows a beautiful face, yet what she says in private is evil. In fact in Act 1, Scene 5, she says:
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness that should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou’dst have, great Glamis…
She is saying that Macbeth is ambitious but lacks the brutality of character (the illness) to carryout any evil deeds through. After this Lady Macbeth continues on, trying to convince Macbeth to murder Duncan and eventually succeeds. From the end of the first Act through the 2nd, Lady Macbeth has shown her innocent-self perfectly capable of committing heinous deeds. Yet eventually the illness gets the better of her, as it did Macbeth, and she kills herself unable to stand living with her burdens.
On the other side of the fair is foul and foul is fair phrase there is Malcolm and his loyal followers. Malcolm and Donalbain were seen as traitorous murders as they fled their fathers’ murder. Because of Lord and Lady Macbeth’s craftiness, there were seen as traitors along with the grooms. For the people at Macbeth’s Inverness castle their fleeing only confirmed suspicions. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff says, … Malcolm, and Donalbain, the king’s two sons, are stol’n away and fled, which puts upon them suspicion of the deed. In the end Malcolm comes back with an army in tow to avenge the wrong done against him and his country men. As Macduff stated:
Hail, king! For so thou art: behold, where stands
The usurper’s cursed head: the time is free:
I see thee compass’d with thy kingdom’s pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds;
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine:
Hail, king of Scotland!
As for Macduff himself, he was also thought a traitor half way through the play. Being distrustful and disgruntled with Macbeth he runs to England to join Malcolm. Later though, after being tested by Malcolm to find out where his loyalties lie, Macduff finds out that Macbeth has slain his family. Wrapped in a shroud of vengeance he returns with Malcolm to take Scotland back. Like Malcolm and Donalbain, Macduff goes from foul to fair.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
– (Act 1, Scene 1)
Fair is foul and foul is fair is necessary for the development of certain characters in Macbeth, such as Macbeth. The statement itself is vague enough so that the audience will never know what the change from fair to foul will. The quote also suggests that the audience and the characters in the play shouldn’t trust anyone because the characters may not be what they seem to be. This famous quote is the epitome of the play’s subtleties and double meanings.