Does Shakespeare Present Lady Macbeth as Good or Evil?
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In this essay I shall be discussing whether Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth to be good or evil I shall be doing this by scrutinising Lady Macbeth’s actions and thoughts and then analysing them to see whether they are the actions of a good person or an evil person. Furthermore I’m going to articulate what women were supposed to be like in Shakespeare’s time and seeing whether Lady Macbeth was a typical women Shakespearean time, I will be using Lady Macduff (another female character in Macbeth) to compare Lady Macbeth to. I will also be looking carefully at other influences that would effect my judgement on Lady Macbeth’s character such as religion in the Shakespearean age. Then I will look at how a modern audience would perceive Lady Macbeth’s character. Overall after looking at all these factors I shall conclude by deciding whether I think that Lady Macbeth is evil, good or neither.
Lady Macbeth who is the wife of Macbeth plays a very important and pivotal role in the play as it is Lady Macbeth who persuades Macbeth to kill king Duncan which leads to a whole load of other events eventually resulting in the death of both Macbeth and herself. We first meet Lady Macbeth when she receives a letter from her husband Macbeth telling her about Macbeth’s freakish encounter with the three witches who correctly predict him to become Thane of Cawdor and soon to be king. When Lady Macbeth reads about the encounter, her soliloquy gives us an impression of what kind of person she is as she wastes no time in planning the death of the king showing her to be an ambitious and cruel woman willing to persuade Macbeth to kill another human in order to further her and Macbeth’s ambitions. She suspects that Macbeth’s nature is ” too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” to kill King Duncan just to become king, she knows that Macbeth hasn’t got it in him to kill an innocent and good man like Duncan. Also another thing that makes me think that Lady Macbeth is cruel is the fact that she seems to not have a conscience as there is no questions whether King Duncan should be killed, she has no mental argument with herself like Macbeth does and doesn’t see the moral implications of killing another human being.
Her soliloquy is then interrupted by an attendant telling her that the King is coming to stay at her castle, as she listens to the words I can just see her eyes lighting up as thoughts race about in her mind at the speed of lightning. After the attendant leaves she uses words associated with death to describe the Kings stay at her castle; “The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements” the raven is a bird often thought of as a sign of death. Lady Macbeth suggests that the bird knows what is going to happen to King Duncan and has croaked so much that it’s throat is now hoarse.
The image of the raven grown hoarse from croaking suggests a lamentor warning to the king. She also uses the words “under my battlements” to describe her home making her seem ruthless as she is talking as if she is at war with Duncan which she is not. She then invites the spirits “that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty”. This gives us an unforgettable impression of Lady Macbeth as any doubts that we had before about Lady Macbeth’s personality and whether she is evil or not is now answered. She shows her true colours when asking the spirits to change her sex and make her more manly and more capable of killing a fellow human being (at the time a woman was not thought to be capable of killing someone as it wasn’t in a woman’s nature and therefore the changing of her sex would make her more capable of killing someone).
Additionally she asks to be filled with the “direst cruelty” which makes her seem more evil as she is suggesting that she wants to be filled with the most magnificent cruelty in order to be able to kill. But the words “direst cruelty” has the opposite effect on our impression of Lady Macbeth as instead of making her seem more cruel, it casts doubts over whether or not she was evil already as why would an evil person ask to be made more evil? It makes us think that maybe she is good but in order to get what she wants she has to make herself more evil and therefore fill herself with the “direst cruelty”. She also asks the spirits to “stop th’access” of her thick blood to “passage to remorse” therefore telling us that she cannot be completely evil as if she was then she wouldn’t have to ask to stop the access of her blood to remorse. Additionally if she was really evil she wouldn’t be able to feel any remorse anyway so her speech succeeds in making us think negatively of Lady Macbeth but also succeeds in confusing us as to whether she is truly evil or not.
As she is saying her soliloquy I could just imagine her to be pacing up and down a room with her eyebrows scrunched close together and her head slumped forward showing her to be deep in thought. As she mutters in a low voice the line ” The raven himself is hoarse, that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements” I would imagine her to be waving her hands in a circular motion signifying the flight of the raven and then when she says the word “under my battlements” she would place her long slender hand on the cold grey wall showing that by battlements she means her home. Then her voice would become a lot louder and go down a pitch as she asks the spirits to “unsex” her and fill her with the “direst cruelty”. As she says that she would be looking out of the window with her hands out as if she is welcoming someone in and at that exact moment a cold and very strong wind would blow her hair back making the scene very eerie as if there was some kind of spirits actually present.
She would then shiver and start screaming “make thick my blood, Stop up th’access and passage to remorse” and then she would place her hands upon her breast and calmly ask the spirits to “… Come to my woman’s breast; Take my milk for gall”. At that moment her whole body would be overcome with tiredness and fatigue and her head would slump forward while she continues her soliloquy only looking up when softly saying the lines “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell” in which she would make a welcoming gesture with her hands towards the window. Then she would wave her hands around as if she was parting real clouds of smoke with her graceful fingers.
Suddenly her hands would jerk and she would slowly raise her hands towards her face and bring them together making it look as if she was clutching something, and as she would do this she would say the lines in a fast and out of breath voice “That my keen knife see not the wound it makes”. And at that exact moment she would speedily bring her hands towards her stomach and her whole body would keel over bringing her down to her knees, she would then look up with a strange vacant look on her face and she would continue speaking; “Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry Hold, hold” placing her hands on the window sill at the exact moment she says “Hold, hold” and bringing herself up off her knees. She would then just stare out of the window in a moment of serene silence until Macbeth enters.
Another instance in which Lady Macbeth gets to show her true colours as a manipulative and unmerciful woman is in Act 1 Scene 7 where Macbeth has decided to “proceed no further in this business”. This decision of Macbeth’s does not please Lady Macbeth who turns his honourable decision around and instead makes him feel cowardly; “And live a coward in thine own esteem”. Macbeth becomes very defensive and tells his “partner in greatness” that there is no reason to murder Duncan for pure ambition as “he hath honoured me of late… golden opinions from all sorts of all people… in their newest gloss”. By saying this Macbeth is trying to justify to Lady Macbeth that he is happy as he is still recognised to be great and his reputation has not worn off yet but Lady Macbeth turns his argument around and makes him feel cowardly and childlike questioning where his hope has gone; “Was the hope drunk …hath it slept since and wakes now to look so green and pale”, suggesting that his hope has a hangover.
A strong thought that comes into mind when reading Act 1 Scene 7 is the similarities between Lady Macbeth and the devil whom both are conveyed as evil but clever people who lure innocent and naive people like Macbeth with temptation and take advantage of their weaknesses. The most obvious aspect of Lady Macbeth’s personality that is similar to the devils is that they both have a complete disregard of the worth of a human life. As soon as Lady Macbeth hears that Duncan is only staying for one night, she hastily prepares for his murder without a second thought towards the fact that she will be partly responsible for the death of a human. “The future in an instant… leave all the rest to me”; here she is telling Macbeth that the time for the gracious Duncan’s death has come and that he should leave all the plans to her. Also she rather cruelly remarks that “O never shall sun that morrow see” telling us that Duncan shall never see another morning again.
Another remarkable similarity between Lady Macbeth and the devil is the fact that they are both deceptive, this is shown when Lady Macbeth is advising Macbeth to “bear welcome in your eye…look like th’innocent flower but be the serpent under’t”. She is recommending to Macbeth that he be really devious and act inviting to Duncan’s face like “th’innocent flower” but to really be like the treacherous “serpent”. This is a great form of deception, which shows Lady Macbeth is evil, as only someone truly evil can be capable of such treachery and the ability to regard something as important as treachery and murder to be completely trivial. Whilst she says the lines “bear welcome in your eye” I could imagine her to go really close to Macbeth’s face and smile a fake smile whilst shaking his hand as a gesture of welcome. Then when she says the lines “act like the innocent flower” I would imagine her to dance around Macbeth, almost float around him like an angel by spinning her body around causing her skirt to wave looking heavenly and very innocent. Then as she says “but be the serpent under’t” she would suddenly enclose Macbeth in a very tight hug and whisper “…Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom” tempting him with greatness.
Furthermore Lady Macbeth is heartless, another trait which she shares with the devil, she overtly shows this trait when trying to convince Macbeth to carry out the murder by making him feel guilty about breaking his promise to her: “What beast … made you break your enterprise to me”. She continues to grind him down by telling him that she would never break her promises, even if it meant killing her own child which she loved; ” How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me … I would while it was smiling in my face …dashed the brains out had I sworn to do so as you have done so to this”. While she says this I could just imagine her to mime cradling a child while looking down at the imaginary child whilst wearing a sweet smile of adoration and love, then just as she says “dashed the brains out” she would make a jerky movement that looked as if she just threw a child against the wall. She would then look upon Macbeth’s face with a savage look plastered upon her own features and say ” had I sworn to do so as you have done so to this”.
Although there have been several occasions in which Lady Macbeth has been portrayed as evil, there have also been occasions in which Lady Macbeth’s actions have made us question our first impression of her being evil and made us think that she may actually be good. The first of these occasions is when she finds out that Duncan will be staying with them. “You shall put this night’s great business into my dispatch…leave all the rest to me”. Although she wastes no time in planning the death of another human being showing her to be cruel, it also shows the audience how strong Lady Macbeth’s love is for her husband, as she is prepared to organise the death of another human being in order to fulfil her husband’s ambitions.
Also another occasion in which Lady Macbeth is shown to be good and not evil is when she is describing to Macbeth how she would never even think of breaking a promise, even if it meant doing something she didn’t want to do. “How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would …dashed the it’s brains out had I so sworn as you have done to this” shows Lady Macbeth to be a very intense and ruthless woman who would be willing to murder her own child had she sworn to do so. Although this may be interpreted as an action of an evil woman it can also work the other way and show Lady Macbeth to actually be good. It may be seen as an action of a good woman as it shows us how she would keep her promise no matter what, even if it involved killing her own child and doing something she doesn’t want to do. As well as showing her to be good, it also shows Lady Macbeth to be very truthful as by the intensity of her words you can tell that she means what she says and that she would actually kill her own child if it meant that she wouldn’t be breaking a promise she made.
Lady Macbeth is shown to be ruthless yet at the same time very intense and loyal to the ones she loves such as Macbeth and her father. “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t”. Here she is explaining how she would have killed gracious King Duncan herself had it not been for the fact that he looked like her father whilst he slept. This shows us that Lady Macbeth does have a heart despite her outward appearances, as the fact that Duncan resembles her father seems to stop her from doing the evil deed herself. This is significant as it shows her to be moral as to an evil person it wouldn’t matter whether Duncan resembled her dad and it certainly wouldn’t stop her from killing Duncan herself.
The last and most notable occasion in which Lady Macbeth is show to be virtuous and good is when Lady Macbeth starts sleepwalking and writing letters in her sleep. She is trying to relieve herself from the pain her conscience and the fact that she helped kill Duncan and in turn help transform her husband into a paranoid murderer. “Look how she rubs her hand…washing her hands”, here Lady Macbeth who is fast asleep, tries to wash imagined blood from her hands. This is significant as it shows us that she has a conscience and seems to be tortured by her past actions. This would not be the case if Lady Macbeth was truly evil as she wouldn’t care and by her actions, it is obvious that she is heavily burdened with guilt.
“Will these hands ne’er be clean? …Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” shows us that Lady Macbeth is severely troubled and that she cannot get away from her troubles, not even in her sleep. She constantly refers to her hands and how they will never be clean despite the number of times she washes them. Whatever thoughts that may have formed in our head about Lady Macbeth are now shattered into little pieces as Lady Macbeth proves that she is in fact good by showing us how troubled her actions have made her.
Women in the time of Shakespeare were a lot like dolls. They were supposed to be seen and not heard and were never asked for their opinions or thoughts on any matter. They were supposed to be obedient and loyal to their husbands who were their superiors. Women were made to stay at home and due to the lack of education were not allowed to get jobs therefore relying on their husbands for money, food and clothes. The lack of employment made them dependent upon men and because of this dependence upon men, Shakespearean women had to be gracious housewives who could not question what their husbands said. Women weren’t equal to men in any way, they weren’t equal in marriage, in education and certainly didn’t have fair trials or the right to vote. If women were accused of witchcraft, they would be ducked in water to prove their innocence and usually the women died, despite their innocence. They weren’t permitted to be head of the house, only the men were acceptable to be head of the house.
Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff were both ladies of the Elizabethan period of time yet they were both very different. Lady Macduff was a more typical lady of the time as she was the quiet housewife who looked after the children and had no idea what her husband got up to. This is proved when we first meet Lady Macduff who has just been told that her husband has gone away for a while and she seems to have no idea why. This proves that she hasn’t got an equal relationship with her husband, as he didn’t bother telling her where or why he was going. “What had he done, to make him fly the land…to leave his wife, to leave his babes…he loves us not”. Another thing about Lady Macduff that makes her a more typical lady of the time is the fact that she seems to be half-witted with very limited thoughts as when she hears that Macduff has fled, she thinks it is because he doesn’t love them anymore and that he has gone crazy: “His flight was madness”.
Another trait of Lady Macduff’s that makes her more fitting to the Elizabethan period of time is the fact that she is weak. This is shown when a messenger informs her that she has to get away as soon as possible because she will be murdered. Instead of getting ready straight away and going away from the place as someone like Lady Macbeth would have done, she instead sits there wondering what to do. “Whither should I fly…I have done no harm” here Lady Macduff is telling the audience how she has never done anyone any harm and she seems to be almost childlike wondering where to go as she is so well house trained that she has no idea about the real world.
Another trait that Lady Macduff has that is more fitting to the Elizabethan perception of women is the fact that she doesn’t seems to be very bright. This is shown when she is conversing with her son who answers her question of what he shall do now that his father has died, he replies “as birds do mother”. Lady Macduff doesn’t seem to understand her son and asks “what with worms and flies” not understanding that he means he wants to live their free lifestyles; “with what I get I mean”.
Lady Macbeth on the other hand seems to be the complete contrast of a typical woman of the Elizabethan period of time as Lady Macbeth is a very independent and clever woman who isn’t dominated by men and is certainly not inferior to men. In fact I would say that Lady Macbeth is the opposite in a way, as she seems to be superior to men whom she can easily dominate and manipulate by using their weaknesses against them.
The first occasion, in which we meet Lady Macbeth, she is greeted with the words “my dearest partner of greatness” which is in itself extremely rare for the time as it shows us that Macbeth considers his wife to be his equal partner rather than his inferior despite the fact that she is a woman. Lady Macbeth then goes on to instantly plan the death of the gracious king Duncan and call on the evil spirits to assist her in her murderous plans as soon as she hears of the witches’ predictions for her husband. Firstly she asks the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me …of direst cruelty”. This action forms an impression on the audiences minds making us think that she is quite cruel but despite that she is also a very powerful and fearless woman who doesn’t seem to be afraid of evil or the consequences of her actions.
Lady Macbeth is very clever in the way she manipulates the men around her to make them do what she wants them to do, the best example of her doing this is when she manipulates the feelings of guilt felt by Macbeth over breaking his promise to kill king Duncan. Lady Macbeth succeeds in making him feel further guilty by telling him that she would kill her own child had she promised to do so as Macbeth has done so. “How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would …dashed the it’s brains out had I so sworn as you have done to this”.
Lady Macbeth is a very ambitious woman who is not afraid to do anything to get what she wants including helping plan the death of another human being. When she finds out that Duncan is only staying for one night, she immediately realises that they will have to act fast as they have only one night and she assures Macbeth to “leave all the rest to me”.
Lady Macbeth despite being ruthless as displayed by her apparent disregard for human life (both Duncan’s and her child which she was prepared to kill), she is also very loyal and trustworthy to her family. This is shown when “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t”. Here she is explaining how she would have killed King Duncan herself had it not been for the fact that he looked like her father whilst he slept. This shows us that Lady Macbeth is not as ruthless as she makes out to be as the fact that Duncan resembles her father seems to stop her from doing the evil deed herself therefore showing her to have a heart.
Lady Macbeth is a very determined woman, which is displayed when she hears that Duncan shall only be staying for one night. She prepares quickly telling Macbeth to leave it all to her, also she rather cruelly remarks “O never shall sun that morrow see” referring to that fact that if all goes to plan, King Duncan shall never see another morning again.
Lady Macbeth has a very equal relationship with her husband as he tells her everything including where he is going and what he will be doing yet when Lady Macduff finds out her husband has gone away she has no idea why. She suspects it is because he has committed a crime and she proceeds to tell her children that their father is dead: “Sirrah your father is dead”. When her son asks whether his father was a traitor, she replies “ay, that he was” even though in actual fact he isn’t. This shows us that her relationship with her husband isn’t at all equal, as he doesn’t confide in her about his plans like Macbeth does with Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff are both very different women of the same era. Where Lady Macbeth is strong-minded and independent, Lady Macduff relies upon her husband to do everything for her. Lady Macbeth is a very ambitious and manipulative woman who is able to make men do what she wants by using their personality traits against them to get what she wants whereas Lady Macduff seems to be happy and content with her life and doesn’t have a lot of ambitions therefore not needing to manipulate people into doing what she wants. Lady Macbeth is very intelligent and uses her intelligence to manipulate people to further her own ambitions whereas Lady Macduff doesn’t seem to be very bright which is shown with her doing nothing even when she is warned that murderers are coming for her.
Lady Macduff is a very kind woman who seems to care for her children a great deal which is displayed when she gently teases her son about his father. Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem to share Lady Macduff’s maternal love as shown when she tells Macbeth that she would gladly kill her own child had she promised to do so. Even so Lady Macbeth does come across as a very intense and loyal person to the ones that she loves such as her father whose resemblance to Duncan stops her from killing Duncan herself. Also the fact that she is prepared to help murder a gracious man like Duncan just to further her husband’s ambitions is a great act of love. Altogether Lady Macbeth comes across as a stronger woman who is a lot more intelligent than Lady Macduff even though Lady Macduff is a lot more loving.
An audience in Shakespeare’s time would find Lady Macbeth to be above all a very unique woman as for a woman to be so strong and independent in a time where women were uneducated and dependant upon their husbands for everything was very rare. Moreover the Shakespearean audience would dislike Lady Macbeth as they would be scared of such a strong woman and would probably think that she was a witch or evil in some way. What we have to remember is that people in Shakespearean times were very superstitious and whatever that they thought was evil, would have to be abolished as shown with the witch trials which were very common at the time. Therefore the scene in which we meet Lady Macbeth wouldn’t be very helpful if trying to persuade the audience that Lady Macbeth was a good character as in her soliloquy she invites spirits to “unsex” her and fill her “from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty”. This scene would be very eerie and supernatural and would immediately make the audience become fearful of Lady Macbeth, as they would think she was evil therefore increasing their dislike of Lady Macbeth.
The audience in Shakespeare’s times bearing in mind their views on women would think Lady Macbeth was evil as Lady Macbeth is very rare as she is a woman who actually has a mind of her own and comes across as a confident and intelligent which contrasts what women were supposed to be like in the Elizabethan age. Her confidence and intelligence would alienate her making the audience disfavour her as they would find her intelligence outrageous.
Also Lady Macbeth’s sneakiness and ability to manipulate Macbeth to get what she wants wouldn’t help the impression the audience have of her. Lady Macbeth’s persistence in having Macbeth murder Duncan would make the audience think that the murder was Lady Macbeth’s fault as if it hadn’t been for her interference Macbeth might not have done it. Another important thing to know is that people of the Shakespearean age were very religious and they thought that the king was somehow closely related to God and therefore if you killed the King, apart from being a traitor against the king, you were a traitor against God and Christianity.
Lady Macbeth is a very independent and strong woman which is contrasting to what women of the time should have been like as women at the time should be seen and not heard which is obviously not the case with Lady Macbeth. In summary a Shakespearean audience would dislike Lady Macbeth due to her assistance with murdering King Duncan and the fact that she seems as if she is evil. Most of all they would dislike Lady Macbeth because she is over bearing, strong, confident and she actually has a mind of her own which would go against what women were supposed to be like in those days.
In contrast a modern audience would admire Lady Macbeth for being strong and independent unlike Lady Macduff whom they would not respect. Where Lady Macbeth outsmarted the men around her in order to further her husbands ambitions, Lady Macduff sat at home waiting for her husband to tell her what to do clueless to the world around her.
Lady Macbeth is the image of a modern woman; she is confident, clever and cunning. She is prepared to do anything in order to further both her and her husbands ambitions as demonstrated when she hears that Duncan will only be staying for one night. She quickly sets about planning the murder remarking to her husband “O never shall sun that morrow see …leave all the rest to me”.
Also she is intensely loyal towards the ones she loves as demonstrated when she remarks that she would murder Duncan herself if not for the fact that he resembles her father: “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t”. Also we are made aware if how powerful Lady Macbeth’s love for her family and husband is when Lady Macbeth plans the murder of Duncan. I think the fact that Lady Macbeth is prepared to have someone die in order for her husband to become king is the greatest act of love possible.
Furthermore Lady Macbeth’s relationship with her husband would make a modern audience respect her more due to the fact that she seems to have an equal relationship with Macbeth despite the fact that women of the time were supposed to be seen and not heard. A modern audience would find it remarkable that Lady Macbeth’s opinions and thoughts mattered to her husband who not only listened to Lady Macbeth’s point of view but also respected it. Also when Lady Macbeth’s relationship to her husband is compared to Lady Macduff’s relationship to her husband, we gain a lot more respect for Lady Macbeth who seems to control Macbeth unlike Lady Macduff who is completely unaware of her husbands actions and whereabouts.
Finally a modern audience would probably be able to identify with Lady Macbeth more as she is a strong and confident woman who has a thirst for success as well as being a very loyal and loving person. Lady Macbeth is more like a modern woman unlike Lady Macduff who is the weak housewife who isn’t the least bit ambitious or confident. When faced with a problem Lady Macduff wouldn’t have a clue what to do and would probably wait for her husband to deal with it which in today’s society is looked down upon as nowadays women are equal to men and are completely independent like Lady Macbeth.
In conclusion I think that Lady Macbeth is a human being and like human beings she makes mistakes. Her view of morality was blocked by her thirst for success and her love for Macbeth and despite her planning the murder and manipulating Macbeth into killing Duncan, I think that she only did it out of love and therefore she wasn’t truly evil, just a little overpowered by ambition.
Also after she helped convert Macbeth into a crazed and paranoid man, Lady Macbeth started to become troubled. She started to walk, talk and pretend to wash her hands whilst asleep and eventually she committed suicide which showed that she did have a moral side and that her past actions got to her showing the audience that she wasn’t truly evil as someone truly evil wouldn’t give a second though to their victims.
Some people might argue that at the beginning of the play Lady Macbeth was truly evil but after Duncan was murdered, she began to turn good. But I personally think that she wasn’t evil at all as all that she did, she only did it out of her love for Macbeth and the fact that she killed herself shows us that she is good. Her last action of suicide was the final and grand sign that Lady Macbeth did in fact care about the lives changed and lost due to her and she did regret her actions. In my opinion Lady Macbeth was never evil and every single action that she did was empowered by love therefore making it impossible that Lady Macbeth was evil.