6 Paradoxes in Macbeth – a study guide
Macbeth is known for its paradoxes and there are many of them in the play. Though I am by no means an expert in drama, and in fact my main appreciation of Shakespeare is in Hamlet (for madness) and Othello (for being an outsider with an ability to seduce). I have read most of his sonnets, and I still think them rather dull (sorry Shakespeare fans). And yet, despite these admissions, I will also admit that Macbeth rightfully puzzles the audience to this day. It dismisses the romantic sentiment that is so commonly accepted of Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliette,1 and it embraces the notion of power more than any of his other plays.
What really stands out in Macbeth is his emphasis on a strong female personality. He does not depict a submissive persona, politically empty and only deemed of emotional significance, but a strong woman. In an old-fashioned saying, Lady Macbeth is truly the ‘neck’ of her husband, turning him into various direction – or indeed, without whom Macbeth would not be able to direct himself. This is indeed what Boris Pasternak (of Doctor Zhivago – film / book) would claim, Lady Macbeth is “more resolute and consistent than he [Macbeth] is himself” (I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, p. 151).
I do not aim to recount what Macbeth is really about – I am hardly the person to do so. My intentions with this post are rather simple. I want to recount a number of paradoxical statements that appear in Macbeth. It is assumed that the reader has some familiarity with the play, though perhaps that is obvious (why look for paradoxes in the play otherwise). So this is somewhat of a study guide into the paradoxes that appear in the play, rather than a summary or an aid for a correct reading of the play. With that in mind, let us start from the very beginning.
1. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' Click To Tweet
At the very beginning of Macbeth, the three witches talk among themselves. Their conversation aims to foretell how Macbeth is going to act. The notion ‘act’ is to be taken literally; and the paradoxical statement only makes sense for as long as we understand ‘act’ in that literal sense (keep this in mind for what is to follow). This is indeed to say that where the witches are the mouthpiece, Macbeth is the extension of that mouthpiece. Where words are fair, the actions are foul (and vice versa: where words are foul, actions are fair). So the witches in fact not only foretell what is going to happen to Macbeth, they ‘act’ as his mouthpiece, as the words that explain the action. While most commentators would speak of foreshadowing, my understanding is that Macbeth already takes the position that is foretold prior to the witches – it is in him, in his nature, to do so.2
So what does this paradoxical statement mean? The fair and the foul play the role of good an evil. The witches that are the mouthpiece of Macbeth’s actions are the evil that make the acts evil. This is perhaps the most difficult of the paradoxes to understand, primarily because it occurs so early in the play. One direction to go to is that Shakespeare merely aimed to posit the relativity of moral positions. Though this would be very anachronistic, it is of course very possible. A more plausible explanation is the dramatic setting – it sets the tone for the rest of the play, it invites the audience to forget that they are still in the world they think they inhabit, where moral standards are the way they are. In a sense, this very first paradoxical statement ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ invites the audience into a particular understanding of political intrigue (very much akin to ‘all is fair in love and war’). Another explanation that has taken note recently is Harris’ presentation that the ‘foul’ and the ‘fair’ are allusions to Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the parliament (cf. The Smell of ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare Quarterly 58(4): 465-86 – sorry, paywall).
2. “So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come, discomfort swells”
This statement is somewhat easier on first sight, but it is equally problematic. Upon hearing of Macdonwald’s ‘bloody execution’ by Macbeth, King Duncan and his sergeant are at first pleased. But of course this is not going to be the case at a later stage, as this event will unfold other events which will cause further problems (most notably, the king’s death).
Additionally, Macdonwald is a rebel who rose against the king (Duncan), so his death is naturally welcomed. Duncan’s rejoice is thus very understandable when he proclaims
‘O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!’
The significance of this event is not to be misunderstood. Macbeth slowly rises (as did Macdonwald against the king) in his ranks. He assumes the role that he vanquished; getting closer, as it were, to his destiny of becoming the king as prophesised by the witches. So it is clear that this event would be the initiation of troubles to come – a paradox par excellence precisely because it is celebrated as a defeat, without a full realisation of what this defeat is going to signify in the near future.
3. “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”
There is quite some literary quibble in this particular paradox. The statement is aimed at Banquo, who is addressed by the witches and who prophesy his unfortunate fortune. Once again, Shakespeare sets the stage for future events, preparing the audience for what is to come. As they have told Macbeth that he will become king, they tell Banquo that he will not (and his descendants will). It is assumed by Shakespeare scholars that this particular foretelling is aimed more directly at the audience – the contemporary James VI (or I, depending whether you are English or Scottish) is in actuality thought to be a descendant of Banquo.
The truly curious part is why Banquo shall not be happy. There is really little indication why, after the whole debacle of Macbeth of course he should not be happy. This is precisely because he dies before the royal banquet – but it is doubtful that Shakespeare had Sisyphus in mind here. Suggestions are welcome in the comments.
- Follow this link for a study guide of Romeo and Juliet.
- Though this is not part of my intentions with this post, what is the nature of being is at the foreground throughout the play. What is natural is also juxtaposed to the supernatural. These themes run through the play innumerable times.