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Fair and Foul


"Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air" (1.1.11-12), chant the Weird Sisters as they go to wait for the battle to be over so they can deliver their seductive prophesies to Macbeth. [Scene Summary]


"So from that spring whence comfort seem'd to come / Discomfort swells" (1.2.27-28), says the sergeant who is telling of Macbeth's battle against the rebels. He means that just when the coming of spring makes us think that the weather is going to be fair and give us "comfort," foul weather can bring extreme "discomfort." The sergeant then goes on to tell how this same kind of thing happened in battle. Just as Macbeth had defeated one enemy, a new one attacked. [Scene Summary]


"So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38). These are Macbeth's first words in the scene in which the witches deliver their prophecies to him. [Scene Summary]


Just after he has been named Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is wondering if he can believe the rest of the witches' prophecies, and Banquo remarks, "oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray's / In deepest consequence" (1.3.123-126). Banquo is warning Macbeth that the witches could lure him to great evil by telling small truths. Macbeth either does not hear Banquo, or doesn't want to hear him, because he ignores Banquo's warning. Instead, he tells himself that "This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good" (1.3.130-131). Of course, Banquo has just said that it is ill, even though it may appear good. [Scene Summary]


After receiving a report on the execution of the Thane of Cawdor, King Duncan says "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" (1.4.11-12). He's commenting on the fact that he trusted the Thane of Cawdor absolutely, and had no idea he would become a foul rebel. [Scene Summary]


Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to "look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (1.5.65-66). This is just before King Duncan's arrival at their castle. Macbeth's wife wants him to look fair, the better to hide his foul intentions. [Scene Summary]


"Away, and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know" (1.7.81-82). With these words to his wife, Macbeth ends the scene in which he has serious second thoughts about the plan to murder King Duncan. He means that they should go to a feast and pretend to be the King's loving subjects, even though they plan to kill him that night. [Scene Summary]


In the scene in which the bloody corpse of King Duncan is discovered, Malcolm and Donalbain, the King's sons, fear that they'll be the next victims of murder. "Where we are, / There's daggers in men's smiles" (2.3.139-140), says Donalbain. Just afterwards, they flee Macbeth's castle. [Scene Summary]


In his first appearance as King of Scotland, Macbeth's first words are addressed to Banquo: "Here's our chief guest" (3.1.12). Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth treat Banquo with elaborate courtesy, but later in the scene Macbeth arranges the murder of Banquo. [Scene Summary]


After he becomes king, Macbeth suffers from sleeplessness and bad dreams. Also, he is afraid that Banquo's children will be kings of Scotland, as the witches prophesied. Apparently all these stresses show plainly in his face, because his wife pleads with him to be a better hypocrite: "Gentle my lord, sleek o'er your rugged looks; / Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night" (3.2.27-28). However, Macbeth resents the necessity of putting a fair face on his foul thoughts. He's already arranged for the murder of Banquo, but he tells his wife that she needs to be a good hypocrite, too, particularly in front of Banquo:

Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honours in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards to our hearts.      (3.2.30-34)
The key phrase in this passage is "unsafe the while." It's Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are unsafe, because Banquo could suspect that they killed King Duncan, and also because of the witches' prophecy. They are King and Queen, but they have to make nice to Banquo, as though he is better than they are. [Scene Summary]


After he becomes king, Macbeth puts on a banquet for the nobles of Scotland, and plays the genial host. During the banquet he makes a big point of showing his regard for Banquo, saying such things as "I drink to the general joy o' the whole table, / And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss" (3.4.89). Macbeth's guests don't know that he has just had Banquo murdered, but the bloody Ghost of Banquo appears to show Macbeth (and us) the foul reality behind the fair appearance. [Scene Summary]


In the scene after the scene in which Macbeth says that he will visit the witches again, Hecate comes from the underworld to tell the witches she is angry at them. She wants to know how they dare to mess around with Macbeth without including her. After all, isn't she the one who can "show the glory of our art?" (3.5.9). Hecate, like the witches, thinks that doing bad is good, and she thinks she is the best at doing the worst.

A little later, Hecate tells the witches that she will prepare illusions that will make Macbeth "spurn fate, scorn death, and bear / His hopes 'bove wisdom, grace and fear" (3.5.30-31), because, as they know, "security / Is mortals' chiefest enemy" (3.5.32-33). "Security" is a sense of safety. In short, the idea that we are bulletproof will kill us. [Scene Summary]


Sometime after the banquet at which the Ghost of Banquo appeared to Macbeth, Lennox comes to understand the foul reality behind Macbeth's hypocrisy. He says, "The gracious Duncan / Was pitied of Macbeth: marry, he was dead" (3.6.4). This bitter joke describes both Macbeth's facade -- that he was sorry for King Duncan -- and the truth about Macbeth, which was that he was sorry for King Duncan only after he killed him. Then Lennox proceeds to ridicule Macbeth's version of everything that has happened to this point. [Scene Summary]


Macduff appeals to Malcolm for his support in a war against Macbeth, but Malcolm is very cautious, because for all Malcolm knows, Macduff could be a double agent. After Malcolm expresses his suspicions, he half-apologizes and says, "Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell; / Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so" (4.3.22-24). The "brightest" angel was Lucifer, who fell and became Satan. Malcolm means that although a fair appearance may hide a foul heart, and one who looks like an angel may be a devil, that does not mean that every angel is a devil. Although the foul want to look fair, the fair still look fair, and it's not fair to the fair to suspect the fair of being foul.

In order to further test Macduff's honor, Malcolm tells him that he (Malcolm) would be an even more wicked king than Macbeth is. When Macduff is about to depart in disgust, Malcolm reverses himself and tells Macduff that he, too, is an honorable man, and that he is ready to fight Macbeth. At this, Macduff falls strangely silent. When Malcolm asks why he is silent, Macduff says, "Such welcome and unwelcome things at once / 'Tis hard to reconcile" (4.3.138-139). In this instance, what seemed foul -- Malcolm -- is suddenly revealed to be fair. [Scene Summary]


As the time of Macbeth's last battle approaches, he reflects that his life is not worth living, because that which makes old age good, "As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have; but, in their stead, / Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not" (5.3.25-28). Thus hypocrisy, which Macbeth used to his advantage, tortures him, now that he is on the receiving end. [Scene Summary]

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