Macbeth

by

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Paradox 2 key examples

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Definition of Paradox
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel... read full definition
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Fair and Foul:

In Act 1, Scene 1, the witches present a paradox in which they conflate two apparently opposite concepts:

All: Fair is foul and foul is fair

This paradoxical statement is a comment on the deceptive nature of appearances and is therefore not meant to be taken literally. The witches are not stating that "fair" and "foul" are truly synonymous, but that what appears "fair" may actually be "foul," and vice versa.

This paradox is multifaceted, since "fair" and "foul" are words with multiple literal and abstract meanings. "Fair" can be used to describe pleasant weather or a beautiful woman, but it is also a synonym for "just" or "honest." Likewise, "foul" is a synonym for "wicked" or "treacherous," but it also describes something polluted or abhorrent to the senses.

The witches' paradox encompasses all these meanings. When they state that "fair is foul," they mean that what appears charming or beautiful may turn out to be anything but. This sentiment proves true later on in the play, when Duncan comments on the friendly, wholesome atmosphere of Macbeth's castle at Inverness, unaware that it will become the site of his grisly murder.

The statement "fair is foul" also conflates honesty with treachery and justice with injustice, themes that persist throughout the play. Lady Macbeth plays the part of the gracious hostess, all the while plotting to assassinate her guest. Macbeth slaughters Duncan's guards to conceal evidence of his crime, claiming afterward the murder was an act of righteous anger. The visions that Macbeth sees of the bloody dagger and Banquo's ghost appear "honest" or genuine, but they are actually illusory manifestations of his guilt.

The alliteration of "f" sounds in "fair is foul and foul is fair" helps underscore the witches' argument about the nature of appearances—although they represent opposing concepts, the fact that both these words have the same number of syllables and begin with the same sound means that our ears perceive them as similar.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Macbeth echoes the witches' paradox:

Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Macbeth seems to be commenting on the nature of warfare. The day is foul, not just because the weather is bad, but because awful and bloody deeds have been carried out on the battlefield. But the day is also fair, because Macbeth's army has won a great victory and defeated the force that was threatening his nation and his king. Violence, although inherently negative, becomes commendable when carried out in service of one's country. This line is also a moment of dramatic irony—Macbeth has yet to meet the witches, but the audience picks up on the fact that he is echoing their language.

Act 1, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Fair and Foul:

In Act 1, Scene 1, the witches present a paradox in which they conflate two apparently opposite concepts:

All: Fair is foul and foul is fair

This paradoxical statement is a comment on the deceptive nature of appearances and is therefore not meant to be taken literally. The witches are not stating that "fair" and "foul" are truly synonymous, but that what appears "fair" may actually be "foul," and vice versa.

This paradox is multifaceted, since "fair" and "foul" are words with multiple literal and abstract meanings. "Fair" can be used to describe pleasant weather or a beautiful woman, but it is also a synonym for "just" or "honest." Likewise, "foul" is a synonym for "wicked" or "treacherous," but it also describes something polluted or abhorrent to the senses.

The witches' paradox encompasses all these meanings. When they state that "fair is foul," they mean that what appears charming or beautiful may turn out to be anything but. This sentiment proves true later on in the play, when Duncan comments on the friendly, wholesome atmosphere of Macbeth's castle at Inverness, unaware that it will become the site of his grisly murder.

The statement "fair is foul" also conflates honesty with treachery and justice with injustice, themes that persist throughout the play. Lady Macbeth plays the part of the gracious hostess, all the while plotting to assassinate her guest. Macbeth slaughters Duncan's guards to conceal evidence of his crime, claiming afterward the murder was an act of righteous anger. The visions that Macbeth sees of the bloody dagger and Banquo's ghost appear "honest" or genuine, but they are actually illusory manifestations of his guilt.

The alliteration of "f" sounds in "fair is foul and foul is fair" helps underscore the witches' argument about the nature of appearances—although they represent opposing concepts, the fact that both these words have the same number of syllables and begin with the same sound means that our ears perceive them as similar.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Macbeth echoes the witches' paradox:

Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Macbeth seems to be commenting on the nature of warfare. The day is foul, not just because the weather is bad, but because awful and bloody deeds have been carried out on the battlefield. But the day is also fair, because Macbeth's army has won a great victory and defeated the force that was threatening his nation and his king. Violence, although inherently negative, becomes commendable when carried out in service of one's country. This line is also a moment of dramatic irony—Macbeth has yet to meet the witches, but the audience picks up on the fact that he is echoing their language.

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Explanation and Analysis—Win Us To Our Harm:

In Act 1, Scene 3, Banquo warns Macbeth to be wary of the Weird Sisters' prophecy:

Banquo: And 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.

Banquo is paradoxically suggesting that, although the prophecy itself is genuine, the witches' intentions in delivering it may be dishonest. They have accurately predicted that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, but Banquo reasons that this prediction may be an "honest trifle" intended to win Macbeth over so that he takes the rest of the prophecy at face value without considering its possible consequences. 

This warning echoes the Weird Sisters' earlier paradoxical statement, "Fair is foul and foul is fair." Although the witches seem to be telling the truth and foresee mainly positive events, Banquo argues that they may be attempting to manipulate Macbeth toward some unfavorable end. The witches notably do not specify whether the events they predict will come to pass no matter what, or whether Macbeth must actively participate in their fulfillment.

Banquo, of course, is eventually proven right, and his words foreshadow the events that occur later in the play, when Macbeth fails to consider that the Weird Sisters' prophecies may have a hidden meaning. The promises that no man of woman born can harm Macbeth and that Macbeth will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood walks to Dunsinane are technically "honest," in that they are not untrue, but their ambiguous wording makes them easy to misinterpret. Macbeth, who is by this point paranoid and desperate, fails to think critically about the wording of these prophecies and falsely believes that he is invincible, even though the Weird Sisters are actually predicting his destruction.

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