Discuss How Shakespeare Presents Lady Macbeth
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‘Macbeth’ is a Shakespearian tragedy about a patriotic Scottish captain who is tricked and coerced into killing his King. He allows his own ambition and heart’s desire to become King to rule his head: a concept in Shakespearian times which must lead to tragedy and inevitable death.
Macbeth’s ‘dearest partner of greatness’, Lady Macbeth, is a key figure in Macbeth’s life. Her understanding and manipulation of her husband’s ambitions and weaknesses enable her to convince him of their infallibility and of his true destiny to become King of Scotland. By closely examining Lady Macbeth’s personality – how she behaves and what she says – it is clear that throughout the course of the play her character changes from a loving, decisive, strong wife to a woman driven to guilt and madness.
A contemporary audience might not see Lady Macbeth in the same light as an Elizabethan audience because women’s roles have dramatically changed. A 17th century woman of Lady Macbeth’s standing would be expected to look after the home and oversee domestic chores. She would also have to support her husband and would usually appear quite submissive, accepting all his decisions.
Lady Macbeth however, has a different relationship with her husband. They are more like equals; Macbeth values her; listens and respects her advice and suggestions. Yet in his weak and flagging moments she dominates, controls, challenges, contradicts and even mocks him. This would be shocking to an Elizabethan audience because traditionally it would only be the husband, i.e. Macbeth, who would control the relationship and make important decisions. So to see Lady Macbeth, a woman, influencing her husband so passionately would be more shocking to a Shakespearian audience than a 21st century one, where women, particularly in Western society, have achieved a much more equal and independent role in relationships.
The audience first meet Lady Macbeth in Act 1 Scene 5 as she is reading the letter of Macbeth’s encounter with the three witches. In this letter Macbeth confides everything in detail to his wife and the audience can instantly see the closeness of their relationship. Macbeth addresses her affectionately as his equal ‘my dearest partner of greatness’. He wants her to realise that his success is also hers ‘this I have thought/ good to deliver to thee…lay it to thy heart’. Lady Macbeth reacts instantly to her husband’s letter ‘thou shalt be/ what thou art promised’. This shows that Lady Macbeth has immediately grasped the implications of the predictions: ‘to catch the nearest way’. The audience see a woman and a wife who is not shocked by the witches’ predictions nor questions their evil intentions. She sees this as an opportunity to help Macbeth achieve his ambition: to be King. She appears quick-witted, capable of thinking on her feet; shows foresight, determination and above all a deep love for her husband even if it means poisoning her soul ‘make thick my blood’ and begins to prepare.
Lady Macbeth however, is also concerned about the fact that her husband ‘is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ as she instantly recognises the ‘illness’ that is needed to ‘catch the nearest way’. From these few lines the audience can already identify Lady Macbeth’s decisive, ruthless and impatient characteristics. She is determined that Macbeth will become King; she appreciates it will not be an easy path and both of them will need to be merciless and single minded ‘Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse’. This makes the audience think that although Macbeth is a brave and brilliant soldier, it is rather Lady Macbeth who is the driving force in their relationship.
Lady Macbeth’s language in this scene is very forceful, almost masculine ‘…pour my spirits in thine ear/ And chastise with the valour of my tongue’ is a very dramatic line. It sounds almost military, befitting the overtones of Macbeth’s recent military success, and again emphasises her ambitious qualities. The action itself sounds evil and is similar to that of another Shakespearian play; Hamlet. Her language also reveals her fears for Macbeth not realising his destiny. Her determination for his success is expressed with an underlying tone of urgency ‘Hie thee hither’. ‘What thou wouldst highly,/ That wouldst holily’ here Lady Macbeth is concerned that Macbeth will miss out if he acts ‘holily’. It is obvious that Lady Macbeth does not think much of this quality as it prevents him from the golden crown.
The way Lady Macbeth criticises her husband is very harsh and would have been thought unbecoming of a woman in the 17th century. Yet the way she speaks of Macbeth ‘…thy nature is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ shows she knows her husband well – his strengths, weaknesses and desires and she understands how to manipulate them. Although, in this scene Lady Macbeth appears callously calculating and evil, Shakespeare acknowledges her femininity in her appeal to the supernatural. She will need extra assistance in this sacrilegious treason. It also serves to emphasise her fearless and determined nature: the supernatural holds no fear for her, and this in turn reflects the extremes to which she is prepared to go to for her husband. This fact that Lady Macbeth is interfering in the supernatural also emphasises the unnatural intention of regicide, reflecting Shakespeare’s own political views on the matter.
The use of Macbeth’s letter as a soliloquy is a very effective dramatic device. The letter allows Lady Macbeth to have knowledge of the predictions and begin planning, thereby revealing her true scheming nature. Here we see her personality emerge and the audience are entirely focused on her. The audience start to see Lady Macbeth and Macbeth as part of a team; they are both on the same wavelength. Lady Macbeth, like Macbeth, immediately accepts the witches’ predictions as a positive thing, unlike Banquo who warned ‘to win us to our harm’. By the end of this first soliloquy the audience knows that although she is preparing for Macbeth’s return, she already has a plan; they have a clear sense of Lady Macbeth’s evil potential and the control she exerts over her husband.
Lady Macbeth’s response to Duncan’s arrival and her language confirm to the audience what she is capable of and predicts the horror of the events to come. In the soliloquy the reference to the raven is clearly an indication of death, an ill omen. In this case, it is Duncan’s death that the raven announces so formidably ‘The raven himself his hoarse/ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan’. Throughout this passage, Shakespeare’s use of imagery is very pronounced, words such as ‘thick night’, ‘sightless substance’ and ‘smoke of hell’ all echo the theme of the supernatural.
Lady Macbeth’s speech is very passionate; note her extreme reaction: asking to be filled ‘from the crown to the toe’. However, the use of the word ‘crown’ here is also a double meaning, it illustrates what is foremost in her mind, getting Macbeth to be King. Words like ‘direst cruelty’, ‘no remorse’, and ‘no…visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose’ emphasise her single mindedness. Lady Macbeth wants to eradicate her femininity. She wants to disguise her womanly nature which echoes both the witches’ and Macbeth’s previous words ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’: who could suspect such a delightful hostess and wife of such dastardly deeds? She offers ‘take my milk for gall’ and at this point the audience recognise the overtones of sacrifice in Lady Macbeth’s speech. The fact that she is willing to give up the most precious thing a mother possesses: her milk – the source of life for her baby. This shows the lengths she is willing to go to for her husband.
During this invokement of spirits, the play’s main themes of ambition, deception, corruption, greed and the supernatural are apparent. In her heightened passion Lady Macbeth’s language is riddled with visual alliteration ‘keen knife’, ‘murdering ministers’, ‘sightless substance’ as she is carried away by her thoughts. In the last five lines of the soliloquy Lady Macbeth reaches her climax, you can hear the crescendo of the last lines ‘Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,/ To cry “Hold, hold!”‘, no sooner has she said this than Macbeth enters without delay.
The overall tone of this speech is almost as if Lady Macbeth is chanting a spell. It is at this point that the audience can see clear similarities between Lady Macbeth and the three witches. All of them women, meddling in the supernatural with the intention of pushing Macbeth in a certain direction. These similarities between Lady Macbeth and the witches make the audience more suspicious of her and wonder, seeing as how she has already asked to exchange her motherly qualities to become more masculine, how far Lady Macbeth is willing to go, sending a clear message of what a headstrong and self-sufficient woman Lady Macbeth truly is.
In Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth has made it clear to the audience he is plagued with doubts – he is torn – his head telling him no, yet his heart urges him forward. The dramatic impact of Lady Macbeth’s entrance is clear to the audience. As Macbeth bemoans ‘I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, only/ Vaulting ambition’ in walks Lady Macbeth – she is his ‘spur’. The literary metaphor of stallion and rider exemplify the nature of their relationship at this point in the play.
Macbeth tells his wife he will not murder Duncan ‘We will proceed no further in this business’. Lady Macbeth is stunned as she was confident that her husband was fully committed to the task. Her rhetorical questions ‘Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?…at what it did so freely?’ are said with a tone of critical disgust and provocation. They show her anger and disappointment at her husband’s change of heart. She almost spits the words at him. She knows she must retaliate and regroup quickly. She allows him no time to think and charges at him mercilessly. She bombards him with insults – she calls him a drunk, a coward, frightened, weak and indecisive, she criticises him for wasting this opportunity ‘thou esteem’st the ornament of life’. The use of the rhetorical questions is a very effective dramatic device as both Macbeth and the audience answer these questions in their heads, therefore appreciating both the dilemma Macbeth faces and the manipulative techniques Lady Macbeth uses. Lady Macbeth attacks her husband’s manhood ‘Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire?’ again, another rhetorical question used to undermine his traditional “manly” authority.
Lady Macbeth also uses their loyalty to one another against him, she uses violent images, almost as if she is trying to persuade Macbeth that killing Duncan will not be as challenging as it seems. Throughout this scene Lady Macbeth uses a very patronising and disgusted tone to emphasise what she thinks of Macbeth at this point in the play. By the manner in which she takes control of this situation it is clear that although Macbeth is a strong and brave soldier, he seems unable to stand up to his wife. The audience is now fully aware of Lady Macbeth’s potential. They appreciate the extreme lengths she is willing to go to in order to get the job done. The audience realise that Lady Macbeth is not a typical Shakespearian wife and should not be regarded like one.
Lady Macbeth vividly describes a breastfeeding mother and uses this image as an analogy of her own commitment had she sworn to do something. The juxtaposition of the picture of natural innocence ‘boneless gums’ ‘smiling face’ versus the betrayal and sacrifice of an innocent child stuns the audience. Any audience, whether 17th or 21st century would be horrified at the violence depicted in her language ‘dashed the brains out’. This shocking finale to her attack on her husband highlights her desperation, ruthlessness and misguided sense of honour and proportion. Without realising it the “evil spirits” have truly ‘unsexed’ her, she is blind to what she is really saying and the audience must recoil from her. Lady Macbeth’s character is becoming immersed in evil and a one-way path to making Macbeth King.
Lady Macbeth has insulted, ridiculed, mocked, questioned, humiliated, abused and criticised Macbeth knowing full well it would anger and provoke Macbeth into action. Macbeth is won over by her vitriolic words which are the ‘spur’ he needed and he has let his guard down. ‘If we should fail?’ Both Lady Macbeth and the audience immediately recognise that Macbeth’s deepest fear is getting caught: the humiliation and the consequences. She throws back his words ‘We fail?’. Her tone is one of incredulity, it wins him over. She is now in complete control. She reassures him like a little child ‘We’ll not fail…what cannot you and I/ perform on the unguarded Duncan?’
It is clear whilst Macbeth was having a crisis of conscience Lady Macbeth continued to plot, to cover every angle, every detail. She had remained calm, cool and calculating. She is always in control directing Macbeth’s performance and guiding him towards his destiny. It is not until Lady Macbeth presents her fool-proof plan that he begins to realise that he can do this. Macbeth has given in to Lady Macbeth, her persuasion techniques of goading and manipulating; they have prevailed and forced Macbeth into action. Macbeth, however, does not realise this and instead is pleased and proud of his wife, complimenting her ‘Bring forth men-children only’. In Elizabethan times giving birth to a son was a symbol of being a strong woman so this is one of the highest compliments Macbeth could have paid her. By the end of this scene the audience’s impressions of Lady Macbeth as a strong, calculating wife who is ambitious for her husband have been consolidated.
During Act 2, Scenes 1 and 2 we get the first insight into Lady Macbeth’s true feelings about what she and her husband are going to do. Although Lady Macbeth’s adrenaline is heightened ‘hath made me bold’ ‘hath given me fire’ she is also, understandably, nervous jumping at every little sound ‘Hark!…It was the owl that shrieked’. This is the fist time the audience has seen Lady Macbeth, shaken. It is clear to the audience now, that although she has never said anything and remains confident on the outside, she too is anxious about the outcome of the murder. This once again, highlights the sense of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth working as a team; as Macbeth is carrying out the murder Lady Macbeth is going through step by step what Macbeth ought to be doing at each stage. This not only emphasises their unity but is also an integral part in calming herself down.
In this scene we also catch a first glimpse of Lady Macbeth’s humanity, a weakness ‘Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done it’. Now, is when the audience begins to see the cracks in Lady Macbeth’s composure and they recognise her conflict of emotions.
However, when Macbeth returns from the murder she closes over these doubts in order to support Macbeth who is in shock. She is once again the strong, confident wife Macbeth knows. Nonetheless, there is still a tone of urgency when she speaks to her husband and she resorts to the tactics she used to persuade him to kill Duncan in the first place. Lady Macbeth counteracts everything Macbeth says ‘This is a sorry sight’ ‘A foolish thing to say a sorry sight’. Lady Macbeth is trying to goad Macbeth into action once more, but this time it is not working so Lady Macbeth becomes more forceful. She starts speaking to Macbeth as though he were a child, criticising his manhood as she has successfully done previously, but this technique still does not work so Lady Macbeth has to become practical and physically take charge. She is the one who ends up returning the daggers.
When Lady Macbeth returns her hands too are covered in blood. This is an effective dramatic technique as it symbolises that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are to blame, again stressing the team qualities of their relationship. Lady Macbeth remains unphased, ‘a little water clears us of this deed’. However, for the rest of this scene the urgency in her words increases as she tries to get Macbeth to bed so that they can complete their plan ‘Get on your night gown’. Once again it is Lady Macbeth who shows practicality as Macbeth is still in in shock whereas Lady Macbeth shows no sign of remorse or guilt. Ironically, Lady Macbeth unwittingly predicts her demise when she warns ‘These deeds must not be thought/ After these ways; so, it will make us mad’ and towards the end of the play the audience will appreciate the dramatic irony.
We do not really encounter Lady Macbeth again in full flow until Act 3 Scene 2 ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent’ these are Lady Macbeth’s opening words. For the first time the audience are privy to Lady Macbeth’s innermost thoughts – Lady Macbeth is disappointed and disillusioned – Macbeth as King has not brought her the happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction she had hoped for ‘Where our desire is got without content’. She comes across as tired, regretful and morose. The audience are surprised at this development as this is a side of Lady Macbeth they have not seen before.
However, she still has enough self-discipline to pull herself together to support her husband. As Macbeth enters Lady Macbeth’s words are charged with irony ‘Using those thoughts which should indeed have died’ – she should take her own advice, but the nature of her personality is to be supportive of her husband and ensure he succeeds as King. She never worries Macbeth with her feelings and buries them away; she carries the burden of reassuring and encouraging Macbeth ‘Be bright and jovial amongst your guests’.
The audience now recognises that Lady Macbeth is playing a dual role: supporting her husband, being confident and strong for him, yet still carrying her own troubles and doubts inside her. It seems that still in this relationship it is actually Lady Macbeth who carries the “manly” quality of leadership and not Macbeth. It is the pressure of this dual role that will lead to her demise. Throughout the play the Macbeths’ relationship has been that of a team but when Macbeth says, regarding his plans ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’ she and the audience recognise that he is distancing himself from her.
In Act 3 Scene 4 Lady Macbeth was totally oblivious of Macbeth’s plans to murder Banquo. However, when Macbeth crumbles at the sight of Banquo’s bloody ghost she is shocked and incredulous yet immediately goes into “damage limitation” mode. She reacts spontaneously attributing his behaviour to an epileptic fit whilst at the same time endeavours to pull Macbeth together by using tactics which had worked previously ‘Are you a man?’ However, they do not appear to work – Macbeth vehemently asserts himself ‘Ay and a bold one that dare look on that/ Which might appal the devil’. Macbeth is not so easily manipulated and the audience sense that Lady Macbeth is losing control over her husband.
Lady Macbeth is aware of how precarious their situation is. This is the first time that we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their official roles as King and Queen and Macbeth is on the verge of exposing them. Lady Macbeth appreciates the threat of Macbeth’s behaviour and must again think on her feet. She next attempts to calm Macbeth ‘[touches his arm]’ and speaks to him gently ‘My worthy lord/ Your noble friends do lack you’. Nothing seems to work and she is now forced to dismiss the lords.
Once alone, she treats him like a child, scolding and berating him like before. However, the audience see a shift in their relationship – Macbeth’s now acting of his own accord; only he sees the ghost – ; Lady Macbeth is on the outside looking in. Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a woman trying to keep everything together; to be strong, confident and supportive – and yet we have seen the cracks appearing. At the end of the scene, the audience almost feel sorry for Lady Macbeth when Macbeth announces ‘I will to the Weird Sisters’ as they realise that Macbeth is no longer dependent on his wife. This will be a devastating blow for Lady Macbeth as her partnership with her husband disbands as he drifts further and further away from her.
Shakespeare includes Act 4 Scene 2 to use Lady Macduff as a female comparison against which to measure Lady Macbeth. Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth both represent the role of a wife whose husband is on a mission and are characteristically similar in the fact that they are critical of their husbands, although the audience can side with Lady Macduff’s concerns. Lady Macduff feels abandoned and betrayed by the fact that her husband has put King and Country before the protection of his family whereas Lady Macbeth has put her husband before King and Country.
These are two women in similar circumstances who deal with domestic situations and relationships in different ways. It is ironic that Lady Macduff and her family, innocent bystanders, are cruelly murdered as a direct consequence of the machinations of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macduff’s role as a dramatic device is emphasised here as she highlights the corruption and savagery that comes as a result of killing Duncan, in order to protect and assert himself Macbeth must continue to murder. It also highlights how immoral and selfish Lady Macbeth was; she did not stop to think how her action in persuading Macbeth to kill Duncan might affect others. Regardless of how well Lady Macbeth thought she understood her husband’s strengths and weaknesses, she did not appreciate the effects of corruption.
Lady Macbeth was blinded to the wider picture as, just like her husband, she did not stop to question the prophecies, she took them for granted, she did not pause to think about the supernatural being a bad thing. Lady Macbeth did not think about what would happen once Macbeth became King, what they would have to do to protect themselves; she was short sighted and she miscalculated. Lady Macbeth also did not realise what effect it would have on herself and her husband, she assumed they would both be able to cope, an error Lady Macbeth later paid for.
Lady Macduff represents a typical woman, a pure, maternal figure, a major contrast to Lady Macbeth who has previously argued that she would ‘while it (a baby) was smiling in my face…dashed the brains out’. Whereas Lady Macduff, alone, is murdered protecting her family. Both women love their husbands and are loyal to them; both are worldly in their own ways. Lady Macduff’s final words remind the audience of the Macbeths’ treachery ‘where to do harm/ Is often laudable’. Lady Macduff’s cruel death, partly instigated by Lady Macbeth makes Lady Macbeth appear more of an evil ‘fiend’ in the audience’s eyes who now expect to see her suffer and punished. We see clearly how different Lady Macbeth is to the stereotypical view of an Elizabethan woman who should be at home caring for her family honourably and honestly.
In Lady Macbeth’s final scene, Act 5 Scene 1, the audience see a very different woman. Lady Macbeth has completely transformed from her original, confident, assertive self to an agitated, weak and guilt-ridden character. She can no longer competently look after herself and is clearly not the strong, ambitious woman the audience met at the beginning of the play. The fact that she is sleepwalking in this scene would have been a visual indication for an Elizabethan audience of Lady Macbeth’s disturbed mind before she even speaks. Lady Macbeth now estranged from her husband, a contrast to their previous close and open relationship.
It is not only Lady Macbeth’s personality that has changed, but also her manner of speaking. The content of her speeches are uncontrolled, broken ramblings. They reflect her true thoughts and inner-feelings. Her first line in this scene ‘Yet here’s a spot’ is full of dramatic irony. The audience are fully aware that Lady Macbeth is referring to Duncan’s blood on her hands, another example is her desperate cry ‘What will these hands never be clean?’ . Here, she contradicts herself, as when she was trying to comfort Macbeth after just having killed Duncan – Act 2 Scene 3 ‘A little water clears us of this deed./ How easy it is then’. It is clear to the audience that Lady Macbeth has to found it as ‘easy’ as she had anticipated. She now has confusion and turmoil in her mind, whereas before she was confident and sure of what needed to be done.
‘Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?’, ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?’, ‘Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave’. Here, Lady Macbeth is confessing to all three murders, though she is completely unaware of what she is saying. These confessions and doubtful questions reflect true guilt and remorse. The dramatic irony is clear as the total degeneration of her character from Act 2 Scene 3 where Lady Macbeth was confident and easily brushed aside these feelings. Lady Macbeth is now a woman alone; she has been abandoned by her preoccupied husband and has no-one to share the heavy burden of what she has done. All these factors combined are, undoubtedly, the cause of Lady Macbeth’s deteriorating state of mind.
The way Lady Macbeth is presented at this crucial point in the play prepares the audience for her death. There are many indications of Lady Macbeth’s looming fate, especially the doctor’s comments ‘…have died holily in their beds’, ‘God…look after her’. Here, the doctor’s premonition is a dramatic device used to forewarn the audience of what is to come. It is important to have Lady Macbeth die in this fashion because it emphasises how far she has fallen, it would also benefit to an Elizabethan audience’s sense of justice. She committed the worst treason possible and must suffer the consequences: her death must not be easy.
We hear of Lady Macbeth’s suspected suicide offstage ‘[a cry within of women]’ and the impersonal statement ‘The Queen, my lord, is dead’. This is the end that the audience has been waiting for. Lady Macbeth is expected to suffer for all her sins: invoking the evil spirits and persuading her husband to commit treason. The fact that Lady Macbeth dies off-stage underlines her now insignificance to the main events of the play. The audience now focus on Macbeth and highlights Lady Macbeth’s diminishing role as a vital influence to Macbeth. Not even Macbeth has the time to mourn for her.
I think, at the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth we saw a strong, confident, ambitious woman who was willing to do anything, including experimenting with the supernatural and committing treason, in order to get her husband to fulfil his destiny. During the course of the play, I feel that she comes to realise that her sacrifices have not given her the joy and satisfaction she had hoped for. Instead, she begins to realise that there is no escaping the consequences of their actions and she has to spend her life consumed with worry and guilt. I feel particularly sorry for Lady Macbeth when Macbeth becomes more dependent on the witches especially as she has dedicated herself purely to his success and is left a lonely woman.
I realise that Lady Macbeth had to die for just punishment for her deeds and even though she has shocked and horrified the audience, they cannot fail to be moved by her death. I think it is a tragic end for a misguided woman who ultimately only wanted to support her husband and I think the description of ‘fiend like queen’ is too extreme. Even though we cannot condone what Lady Macbeth did, we can definitely understand her motives.