‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’

John Martin, “Macbeth” (1820)

Looking forward to a production at the Globe Theatre in London, I am undertaking my first reading of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth (1623). The first scene of Act 1, which is given the superstitious number of thirteen lines, sets an electrifying and haunted atmosphere: electrifying because of the forces of nature (thunder and lightening) and haunted because of the forces of evil (three witches). Upon a stormy battlefield, an unholy trinity of witches arrange to meet the Scottish warrior Macbeth. Literary critic Leland Ryken remarks:

In Shakespeare’s day witches were believed to exist, but the age did not agree on their nature. The rival views were that they were women in communion with the Devil, or actual demons disguised as human witches, or humans under the power of Satan and used for his purposes. Their purpose was to do evil things to people and tempt them to do evil things themselves. Shakespeare never tips his hand on what he believes to be true about witches, but this is unimportant. The important point is that Shakespeare’s witches are fictional inventions that image forth a true reality, namely, the action of supernatural evil in the world. We should not get up in speculation about what witches might or might not be in real life but instead concentrate on the reality of which they are metaphors. 

The second witch proposes that they confront Macbeth “When the hurly-burly’s done, / When the battle’s lost, and won”, which already implies that the warfare in this play is not just political but—more distressingly—spiritual, consistent with what the apostle Paul admonishes: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). As these witches depart the battlefield, they chant in union, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Not only does this infamous line foreshadow subversion in the kingdom of Duncan, it anticipates the Nietzschean aspiration of lately modernity: to create a new table of values. Such machinations are doomed if we remember the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (5:20). Fair should be fair, foul should be foul—but alas, we live in a fallen world, where “ought” is not, where moral confusion prevails. Whose eyes will penetrate “through the fog and filthy air”?

One Reply to “‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’”

  1. I guess I was unaware that you had not read Macbeth before. I hope you enjoy reading the play, and seeing the subsequent performance at the Globe Theatre!

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