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William Shakespeare’s play ‘Macbeth’ contains many examples of paradoxes. In this lesson, we will look at the paradoxes made in Act I and explain how they relate to the major themes of the play.

What Is a Paradox?

You probably have heard the expressions:

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  • The beginning of the end
  • ‘Deep down, you’re really shallow
  • Be cruel to be kind

All of these statements initially look contradicting. How can the end begin? How can someone be shallow deep down? All of these are examples of a paradox.

A paradox is a statement that sounds self-contradicting but is actually true. Studied closer, the opening examples are actually true. We do start an ending.

We can closely look at someone and realize how shallow he or she truly is. And there are times that we have to be direct, and even cruel, to make a change in someone for the better.As a literary element, a paradox can create a hidden meaning for us. They make us stop and think about a statement and question how it is relevant to the theme of the writing. In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, paradoxes are used to introduce some of the main themes of Macbeth‘s story.

Paradoxes and the Three Witches

In Act I, Scene I, the play opens with a storm and three witches. They make plans to find Macbeth after a battle and give him their predictions.

During their opening chant, they use several paradoxes.First, they say, ‘When the battle’s lost and won.’ In other words, all battles have one winning side and one losing side.

Reading into it deeper, we see that Macbeth will win many battles in the play, but for each victory, he will also have a loss. We later see Macbeth win his battles to become king when he kills King Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff’s family. However, these murders eventually lead to him losing his wife and then his own life.The witches later say, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ The witches are saying that what is fair to man is foul to the witches, but what men may see as foul, the witches see as fair. Put simply, the witches are seen as evil, but they see themselves as good.This paradox also tells the audience that appearances can be deceiving, a main theme in the play.

Macbeth appears to be a man of honor, unlikely to commit foul acts; however, he orders killing and himself murders. Macbeth believes that what may seen as wrong, or foul, to others are steps he must take to become king and stay in power. Macbeth believes it is his fate to be king, thus fair for him to take any steps necessary.

Banquo’s Paradoxes

In Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three witches. After making Macbeth’s prophecy, Banquo asks the witches to also see his future.

In their prediction, they make three paradoxes:

  • Lesser than Macbeth, but greater
  • Not so happy, yet much happier
  • Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none

While these lines may initially seem like they contradict each other, the witches are actually promising Banquo that he will be the beginning of a line of kings. While he himself will not be king and will remain lesser than and not as happy as Macbeth, his ancestors will be king. The witches tell Banquo that his line will then be greater, happier, and more successful than Macbeth.

This prediction creates a paranoia in Macbeth that eventually leads to Banquo’s murder. However, his son does escape, fulfilling the prophesy.

Paradox and Macbeth

Macbeth’s first line of the play echoes the earlier words of the three witches: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ When we first meet Macbeth, he has been victorious in battle.

However, with this victory, many people have lost their lives. He describes the day as ‘foul’ because of the death, but then as ‘fair’ because he was brave and a strong leader.The day is also foul because of the storm created by the three witches and the overall eerie feeling. Although Macbeth does not yet know the connection this statement has to the three witches, we do.

We know that Macbeth is already connected to the supernatural elements of the play and that his fate will also be ‘foul and fair.’After meeting the witches in Act I, Scene 3, Macbeth is greeted by Ross as the Thane of Crawdor, a title predicted by the witches. As he realizes the witches’ first prediction has come true, he says to himself, ‘This supernatural soliciting cannot be good, cannot be ill.’ Macbeth is torn and contradicting himself.

On one hand, he worries. He knows that prophecy could be bad, but, on the other hand, one of the predictions has just come true, so it cannot all be bad, right? Macbeth wants to believe that he will be king one day, but he feels some guilt about wanting to take this from King Duncan, which is why it must be ill. Although Macbeth initially is a man torn by his fate and desires, he does give in to his ambition and begins his decline to evil.

Lesson Summary

A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory but is actually true. In literature, paradoxes are used to create a deeper meaning. As readers, we look closer at paradoxes to find their relevance to the theme. In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, there are several paradoxes.

Some are made by the three witches: ‘When the battle’s won and lost,’ meaning Macbeth will be victorious but each victory will lead to more losses. They also say, ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ While many see the witches as evil, they do not.

This statement also supports one of the themes of the play, appearance versus reality.The witches give Banquo three predictions, all paradoxes, that tell Banquo he will not be king, but he will be the beginning of a long line of kings.Later in the play, Macbeth also uses paradoxes to show his struggle between doing good or doing evil. His first line of the play, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ supports his struggle with being victorious in battle, yet unsettled with the stormy day and the deaths he was a part of. Later he struggles with accepting the predictions made by the three witches or staying away from them.

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