What is a Foil in a Play

What is a Foil in a Play

In literature, foil is a character that has opposing characteristics to another character. The foil may be the complete opposite of the other character or may share some similarities except one major difference. A foil is mainly created to highlight some particular qualities of a character.

Foil is typically the opposite of the protagonist, created in order to highlight the attributes of the protagonist. However, this doesn’t mean that foil is the antagonist of the story. Antagonist is the character who works in opposition to the protagonist. It is also important to note that foil is never the main character of a book; foil is used to highlight the main character.

What is a Foil in a Play

Sancho Panza acts as a foil to Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Examples of Foil in Literature

Elinor and Marianne in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

The two Dashwood sisters have one major difference; Elinor is levelheaded and is able to control her feelings and emotions whereas Marianne is impulsive and has no control over her emotions.

Elinor:

“She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.”

Marianne:

“She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.”

Banquo and Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

At the beginning of the play, both Banquo and Macbeth are loyal soldiers of King Duncan. But their reaction to the witches ‘prophecy sets them apart as foils. Macbeth believes the prophecy and begins to dream of becoming king whereas Banquo is cautious and wants to remain a loyal subject.

Macbeth: 

“Glamis, and thane of Cawdor!

The greatest is behind…..

Do you not hope your children shall be kings,

When those that gave the thane of Cawdor to me

Promised no less to them?”

Banquo:

“That, trusted home,

Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,

Besides the thane of Cawdor. But ’tis strange.

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s

In deepest consequence.”

Heathcliff and Edgar Linton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights 

The two suitor of Katharine, Heathcliff and Linton can be also taken as foils. There is a marked difference between their appearance, behavior, and qualities.

“…having knocked gently, young Linton entered, his face brilliant with delight at the unexpected summon she had received. Doubtless Catherine marked the difference between her friends, as one came in and the other went out. The contrast resembled what you see in exchanging a bleak, hilly, coal country for a beautiful fertile valley; and his voice and greeting were as opposite as his aspect.”

Caleb and Aron in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

These two characters are modeled after Cain and Abel, the sons of Eve and Adam. They also imitate the difference between these two biblical sons.

Caleb:

“Cal was growing up dark-skinned, dark-haired. He was quick and sure and secret.”

Aron:

“Aron drew love from every side. He seemed shy and delicate. His pink-and-white skin, golden hair, and wide-set blue eyes caught attention.”

Image Courtesy:

“Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza” by  By Gustave Doré – originally uploaded on nds.wikipedia by Bruker:G.Meiners at 14:22, 28. July 2005. Filename was Don Quijote and Sancho Panza.jpg.(Public Domain) via

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