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How Does Shakespeare Shape the Perception of Lady Macbeth?

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Although the play is named ‘Macbeth’, Lady Macbeth seems to have the most major role and is probably the most well known character, not just in this piece of Shakespeare’s writing, but in all of his plays. In this essay, the way in which Shakespeare shapes the perception of Lady Macbeth will be discussed, using direct quotes from the text, explaining how it works and how the character of the Lady is created, but also through which she changes mentally.

The audience first meets Lady Macbeth in Act 1 Scene 5; we find her reading a letter from Macbeth. The contents of the letter is already known by the audience, however it gives us a good indication of what their relationship is like, with quotes such as ‘my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing..’, shows they obviously have great respect for each other, and that Macbeth wants her to join in his happiness when or if he becomes King. He also doesn’t leave anything out; he seems to fully trust her. Although they do have this somewhat close relationship, Lady Macbeth has her doubts.

The only way for Macbeth to get the crown is to murder Duncan, ‘to catch the nearest way’; but the Lady feels her husband is not up to this, that he is ‘too full o’th’milk of human kindness’. This means that it is not in Macbeth’s nature to kill, he is too much like an infant (association with milk). She knows that her husband is very ambitious, but also thinks that he isn’t brave enough to do what is necessary; we know this from the quote ‘art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it’, this means that Macbeth does have the desire to become ruler, but simply is not wicked or cruel enough to carry out the deed. Although, he is brave enough to be a ruthless, fighting soldier. Lady Macbeth, after reading this letter is determined to get her partner the crown. However, I feel that she wants the crown more for herself, so she can wreak the advantages of kingship.

Whilst waiting for Macbeth to arrive, after hearing from the messenger, she delivers her famous speech where she begs “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”. This means that she wants to get rid of her softer emotions, which will hopefully give her the drive to murder Duncan, or have her husband do it for her. It is disturbing though, how Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to ‘unsex her’ as it gives us the impression she is of evil descent as well, almost like a witch. In Shakespeare’s time there was an upmost belief in witches and their powers, so an audience watching this would have found it almost scary, this would have made it even more intense and absorbing.

Shakespeare shows the audience that Lady Macbeth does not have the moral standards of most people. First of all she says things like ‘make thick my blood’; she wants the veins in her body to block up so that she will not feel remorse, so no human benevolence can stop her from carrying out her murderous plan. She talks a lot about women’s nature, firstly ‘unsex me’ but also the quote ‘come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall’; by talking about breasts and milk (these usually are associated with the care of a baby), the language suggests that because she is a woman, she cannot kill Duncan. This must be done by a man; in other words, Macbeth. Consequently, we see later on in scene 7, Lady Macbeth trying to convince her husband to kill the king. , Macbeth is by himself considering his choice to kill the king and whether or not to actually do it or not.

He fears that his actions will “return to plague th’ inventor’; he has no other reason to kill Duncan than his, or his wife’s own ambition. This short piece of writing tells us that when on his own, Macbeth’s thoughts are actually morally right and he does have some sanity. This is when Lady Macbeth enters the scene only to find out her husband has had second thoughts about the murder; of which her reaction is pure anger. She accuses him of being a coward and questions his manhood, ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. Usually (and especially in the days of Shakespeare) women were looked upon as the lesser person in a relationship. Although she actually seems to take the male role in their relationship, telling Macbeth what to do all of the time, when it comes down to the dirty work she expects everything from her male counterpart and wouldn’t risk getting blood on her own hands. This could also suggest that she could be a witch, as witches were not physically able to kill anyone; only manipulate people’s minds and trick them. What Lady Macbeth does, is instead of murdering Duncan herself, manipulates Macbeth’s way of thinking and eventually turns him insane, as well as herself.

Just after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, in Act 2 Scene 2, the Lady is just as nervy and as tense as her husband. Macbeth returns from the deed still with the daggers in his hands, which angers Lady Macbeth. She tells him to go back into the room and put them next to the chamberlains, but to also ‘smear the sleepy grooms with blood’. This shows that she has absolutely no shame at this current time, and will do anything to make it look like it wasn’t in fact them that killed the king. To prove this, she also says ‘Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers’ and goes to put them back herself. When she re-enters, she delivers one of the most disturbing lines, perhaps in the whole play; ‘A little water clears us of this deed. How easy it is then!’.

She is saying here, despite all of the horrible things they have both done, that all they have to do to rid them of the guilt of murdering Duncan is to wash their hands. She also says ‘My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white’; so even after Macbeth listened to all his wife’s complaining and taunting, and eventually killed the King, she still calls him a coward; but also says she would be ashamed to be as cowardly as him. This shows us that Lady Macbeth can never seem to be satisfied, but also the guilt she is feeling may be disrupting her normal thinking. Her speech seems very jerky, not only due to the alcohol that she has consumed, but because she is not thinking straight. She actually seems delirious, and shows the early signs of her decline in mental sanity.

It is in Act 5 Scene 1 that we finally see what all this guilt and paranoia has done to Lady Macbeth. She has, by this point, turned insane. She is sleepwalking and has a delusional belief that her hands are stained with blood. ‘Out, damned spot’ she cries in one of the play’s most famous lines, and adds, ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’. The way in which she says this is a very clever, but ironic twist that Shakespeare has added. Earlier in ‘Macbeth’, we see Lady Macbeth say ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ when now in Act 5 she is, without consciously knowing it, reliving that moment but this time speaking what she is actually thinking inside.

She now knows that ‘all perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’; using the language ‘little hand’ makes her sound like a young infant, and it also makes her sound very innocent. By using this dialect, Shakespeare actually makes the audience feel pity for Lady Macbeth in a way. The thing is, do we actually feel pity for her after all she has done? She seems at this moment, very isolated from everyone else, and also her husband. This is the first time we have actually seen her in many scenes, which gives us this since of concealment as well. It is these pitiful actions and broken phrases that finally show the severity of Lady Macbeth’s insanity. It is also this that leads to her tragic downfall, which is eventually suicide; this was a sin in Shakespeare’s times and is still frowned upon today.

As has been said in the introduction, Lady Macbeth probably does have the most major role in the whole play. It sadly declines as the play goes on however; she ends up completely losing her mind over the death of Duncan, the man she looked up to as her father. Moreover, her tragic comeuppance was just as similar to her husband’s. They both had been wreaked with guilt, but in different ways. Lady Macbeth kept her softer emotions to herself, which lead to desperate attempts to cry out whilst sleepwalking. Macbeth ended more bloodthirsty than when he began. He started a bold, courageous and respectable soldier, but died as a pitiless laughing stock with his decapitated head being held up for everyone to see. Lady Macbeth’s story seems to be the most tragic of both though; slowly being mentally tortured with paranoia and her wellbeing very quickly declining.

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