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When Fair is Foul: Paradox and Equivocation in Macbeth

Teachers' Rating:
  40 ratings

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. Oil on canvas, 1793.

January 2008
Matt Patterson teaches English at Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence, Kansas.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Macbeth 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.6, 2.3, 3.1, 3.4,
What's On for Today and Why

In this lesson students will examine the role of paradox and equivocation in the Scottish play. The goal is for students to gain a greater appreciation of how Shakespeare— and his characters— manipulates words to give them multiple, complex meanings beyond the expected. Students will discover how language drives the events in the play and what it tells us about the characters in it.


The lesson will take one class period. Alternately, it can be split into two partial lessons— one on paradox after students read Act 1, and the other on equivocation after students read Act 3.

What You Need

Folger edition of Macbeth
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


Handout on paradox and equivocation
What To Do

1. Distribute handouts on paradox and equivocation and read the definitions.


2. Divide the class into small groups of students (2 or 3 to a group).


3. Assign each group a numbered quotation from the handout (If you split this assignment into two lessons, you might assign the same quotation to multiple groups).


4. Assign each group to complete, in writing, items A, B, and C listed on the handout for their assigned quotation. Students will need to refer to the text to describe the context of their assigned lines.


5. Have each group report their discoveries to the rest of the class. Discuss how paradox and equivocation contribute to the themes of the play and what they tell us about the characters that use them in their speech.


6. Have students look at the equivocations in 4.1.91-92, Second Apparition, and 4.1.105-107, Third Apparition, and ask them to track the course of these equivocations as they continue to read the play. If you prefer to maintain a greater sense of mystery, tell students that there are two equivocations in Act 4 and ask them to identify them as they continue to read.


7. If time allows, assign each student a character from the play and ask him/her to write a paradox or equivocation from that character's perspective. Ask students to share their lines aloud with the rest of the class or post them on the walls of the classroom.

How Did It Go?
Did students gain a better appreciation for double meanings in Shakespeare's language? Were they able to relate paradox and equivocation to characterization of the speakers and to broader themes from the play? Did their original lines demonstrate an understanding of the ability of words to hold multiple meanings?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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  Common Core State Standards

There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.
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