Macbeth – Fair Is Foul and Foul Is Fair?

The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth
The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth via Wikipedia

Macbeth is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1603 and 1607. The play is probably one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, up there with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

I’m not sure about other places but in Toronto, it was part of the high school curriculum. I remember trying to wrap my head around its complexity at an age when I was probably a bit too green to fully appreciate its depth and breadth.

At university, I took a course in psychology and religion and the professor, versed in English literature, drew parallels between Lady Macbeth and modern psychology.

The plot, in a nutshell, goes like this:

Urged by his wife, the Scottish General Macbeth kills King Duncan in Act V to become the new king of Scotland.

Lady MacBeth, The Gower Memorial This statue of Lady MacBeth is one of four statues surrounding The Gower Memorial in the Bancroft Gardens Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved] © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Soon after, Lady Macbeth descends into a kind of madness. She sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains – “Out damned spot!” – from her hands. As our professor pointed out, Lady Macbeth’s symbolic cleansing many years later would be classified by psychology and psychiatry as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Sadly, Lady Macbeth’s unconscious coping strategy fails and she suicides from overwhelming guilt. Macbeth, himself, leads an apparently charmed existence, somewhat reminiscent of the biblical Cain (who murdered his brother Abel but escapes with a protective mark on his forehead).

Macbeth cannot be killed by one born of a woman. However, he’s finally beheaded by Macduff who was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb. Shakespeare, genius that he is, loves to throw in these kinds of trick endings. He did a similar thing in The Merchant of Venice.

Wikipedia summarises the import of Macbeth, I think, inadequately.

It dramatises the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake.¹

A poster for a c. 1884 American production of Macbeth, starring Thomas W. Keene. Depicted, anti-clockwise from top-left, are: Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches; just after the murder of Duncan; Banquo’s ghost; Macbeth duels Macduff; and Macbeth via Wikipedia

Like so many in our secular world, whoever wrote that Wikipedia passage overlooks the spiritual dimension of the play. Just before his death, Macbeth’s name is described as “a hotter name than any is in hell.”

Part of what makes Shakespeare great is his holism. He explores countless areas: Myth, science, physics, astronomy, religion, politics, love… I could go on.

To reduce Macbeth to physicality, psychology and politics is pedantic, but perhaps a sign of the times.

A penetrating study at Stuff Jeff Reads points out, among other things, the importance of Elizabethan cosmology (to include heaven and Earth) as well as the number three in Macbeth. I strongly suggest visiting Unholy Trinity: The Number Three in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” for more on this.

Jeff Hitchcock, Double Double Toil and Trouble… via Flickr

As for me, I’ll close with the famous opening line of Shakespeare’s three witches:

Fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air.²

If I may be permitted to go beyond Macbeth’s immediate cultural climate,³ it almost sounds as if the “weird sisters” are describing the less admirable aspects of the 21st century. What seems wholesome is often rotten; what seems rotten is often wholesome. Moreover, we live in a physical, symbolic and, some would say, spiritual environment marked by pollution.

No wonder some see this as a heavy play!


² See in context

³ For a fascinating look at the historical context of this timeless quote, see Unholy Trinity: The Number Three in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

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  1. I like the connection you made to our modern world with that great line from Macbeth. I hadn’t thought of that line in those terms before. Awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jeff. I actually searched your site, knowing that you were a Shakespeare fan. Was pleasantly surprised with your insightful entry about Macbeth!
      That film came out when I was 9. So it rings bells, for sure. But I don’t know if I’ve ever watched it in its entirety. The trailer looks grisly and very modern. Like Game of Thrones. I’ll have to add it to my list. Right now just embarking on yet another sci-fi series… Future Man! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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