Lady MacBeth – Character Assessment
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The audience first meets Lady MacBeth at home in the MacBeths castle. She is reading a letter that has been sent to her by MacBeth. It tells her of some witches prophecy to him – the prophecy that one day she and her husband would become King and queen of Scotland.
This idea seems to kindle a fire in Lady MacBeth. Immediately she seems to be forming a scheme, or have to have formed a scheme. She says, to herself, “I fear thy nature, is too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. This might indicate that she has immediately formulated the idea of a murder. This straight away creates a first impression on the audience – evil personified!
The first impression is of a monster. Someone who does not give a second thought to killing someone if it is going to help them (in this case) up the social strata. This impression is of a self-made monster that is driven by ruthless ambition.
This impression, initially, is one of a powerful women, – that, with her husbands power could influence the events of this play massively.
Yet, by the end of the play she is dead. She is mentioned, almost incidentally, to have committed suicide.
This play is a story following a couple who with burning ambition set out and accomplished a lot of sinister deeds. It then follows them, particularly Lady MacBeth, through their despair and decline until finally they are both dead.
Lady MacBeth by nature I believe is a manipulative woman; she has a goal in her sights and seems to use everything in her power to reach it. Her involvement in the murder of King Duncan is dominating; she formulates and directs the whole plan. Lady MacBeth is the person who gives the impetuous to MacBeth to do what she believes he must do.
She reads the letter from MacBeth and sees there is some truth in the witches’ prophecy – he has been made Thane of Cawdor as prophesied.
MacBeth is an honourable, courageous man who is a general (and cousin) in King Duncans’ army. He is held highly for his valiant part in battles by the king, and probably the court. Lady MacBeth knows he knows he is a man of honour. Lady MacBeth realises it will be a hard decision or MacBeth, perhaps shocking idea that killing Duncan would be to ‘catch the nearest way’, to becoming a royalty himself. She knows it is an extremely tempting offer and he will suffer greatly over his final decision.
Lady MacBeth realises that, as he is ‘Too full of the milk of human kindness’; she will have this if her ambition of being a queen is to be fulfilled.
Initially Lady MacBeth seems to have the stronger ambition of the two. She appears to be an individual who is totally devoid of moral conscience; she has the appearance of an unstoppable woman. She has a strong belief that will power/courage are the only two things that should dominate MacBeths mind, ‘screw your courage to the sticking place!’ – Someone who encapsulates evil. The audience comes to realise that MacBeth, who is very tempted by the notion of kingship, has no chance against this self-created monster. He is affect – damned. The witches’ prophecy is something that Lady MacBeth is obsessed by and is determined to will into fruition.
The reading of the letter is initially, the hatching of her ideas. When she is told that Duncan himself, ‘comes here tonight’; it is a catalyst to her ideas. Then the ambition flourishes.
Her second soliloquy now shows the igniting of this wicked plan. She realises that Duncan is actually coming to her. Her first few lines are probably spoken in total amazement. ‘He brings great news’; she would probably exclaim this quite joyfully. This works on two levels though. It is a great honour to have the king himself staying the night. It is also her big chance, in her mind, not to be missed! She continues, ‘The raven himself is coarse, That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan’. The croaking raven is a bird often associated with bad omens. Its croak is more hoarse than usual, she imagines (as an illustration), because it signals the arrival of Duncan and his future death. I imagine that she would speak this sentence in a sense of amazement as Duncan is literally dropping into her lap.
This obvious amazement now sinks in; she now attempts to almost use magic to change her nature into wholly unnatural channels.
The audience since her first soliloquy has established that she has more ambition, and craves more domination than a woman (particularly at that time) is thought rightly to have. The notions that she has conjured up do not seem to be likely of a particularly feminine personality. She shows very little compassion or worry.
Now, she (by the power of magic) wants to get rid of any womanly nature at all, ‘Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here’. She would deliver these lines as if calling to a divine power. She calls to the ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ – these are the spirits that tend on any murderous thought or ambition. She asks them to, ‘stop th’access and passage to remorse’. I can imagine she would almost spit out the phrase ‘passage to remorse’, she sees it as weak minded (something that she detests) to turn back on any of the plans she has.
She wants to be separate as possible from ‘the milk of human kindness’. She wants her breasts to be instead full of bitter poison. She probably desires to get rid of most human qualities, and, instead be on a par with these ‘magic murdering ministers’ – the spirits of evil and murder.
She summons the thickness, or darkness of the night and the ‘damnest smoke of hell’, to make her deed as dark and concealed as possible. So hidden that ‘nor heaven peep through the blanket of dark’.
These two soliloquies’ have first of all created a lasting impression on the audience. Yet more importantly it has made us think about her as a person. We have all reached the conclusion about how prepared Lady MacBeth is to get rid of any human/womanly qualities to become almost supernatural or at one with the ‘Magic murdering ministers’. Yet in the back of everyone’s mind, we all realise at the end of the day she really is only a mortal woman. Just like any other person, she will suffer under guilt and a bad conscience. She is not immune, as much as she would like to think, or desire to be.
Lady MacBeth at this point has herself very excited. When her husband finally enters, we see him and her together for the first time.
In her excitement Lady MacBeth addresses him as ‘Great Glamis’, ‘Worthy Cawdor’ and then, ‘all hail thereafter’ – the king! This excitement would cause her, I believe, to change the way she speaks. From calling for divine influence, she would almost snap out of it and become quite joyful again at seeing her husbands’ arrival.
This excitement and more importantly the will power she derives from it seems to overtake her husband. This again reinforces the audiences’ suspicion that Lady MacBeth is pushing herself further than is appropriate. She is living in a time where wives are well below their husbands – not overtaking them in ambition and desire of social status.
Lady MacBeth as she feels so strong, is ready to commit the murder herself. She appears to want to do this solo, urging MacBeth to ‘put this nights great business into my dispatch!’ She only asks him to ‘Look up clear, to alter favour ever is to fear’; in other words she wants him to hide his feelings and leave the nights ‘business’ to her. I think that she is on a bit of a power trip; she is an ambitious woman and wants to use the chance she has to get a bit of the power she craves. Lady MacBeth would be urging MacBeth with her voice. She wouldn’t be pleading, but, I think she would definitely be trying to keep MacBeth out as far as possible from doing the job on hand – Lady MacBeth at this point is, apparently unshakeably strong.
In Act 6, Duncan finally arrives. Lady MacBeth now proves how deceptive and two faced she really can be. Duncan arrives with nothing but compliments for the castle and its hosts, ‘This castle hath a pleasant seat’, ‘See our honoured hostess’. Lady MacBeth shows herself as the perfect hostess, ‘All service in every point twice done, and then done double’. Then she leads him triumphantly, almost as a trophy, into the castle and to his dreadful fate.
Lady MacBeth has her work cut out for her. She constantly has to reinforce her husbands’ resolve, pushing him on. MacBeths resolve fails him, in his soliloquy (Act 1, Scene 7) he is in agony with his doubts, and he decides against following through with the plot. He thinks of all the reasons why he cannot kill his king. – He sees him as an honourable king, an honourable man. He is ‘His Kinsman’, and MacBeth was his ‘subject’. MacBeth had been honoured by Duncan, being made ‘Thane of Thife’. He also worries what will happen, ‘Tears shall drown the wind’.
He reaches his final decision; the murder will not go ahead. MacBeth seems to wake up, he doesn’t ask his wives permission, and he seems to have regained control from her dominating influence.
Lady MacBeth enters asking why MacBeth, as expected of a host, was present at the table, MacBeth asks ‘hath he asked for me?’ Lady MacBeth replies, ‘Know you not he has?’ I believe she would ask this question quite firmly; she wants Duncan to be oblivious to any negative feelings MacBeth may have.
MacBeth goes straight to the point, ‘We will proceed no further in this business’; he outlines his reasons, ‘He hath honoured me of late…Which would be worn in its newest gloss, not cast aside so soon’.
Lady MacBeth is somewhat taken aback – staggered by her husbands’ decision. Here she thought she had the cat in the bag, her husband was prepared to take this amazing opportunity to grasp kingship. Her willpower had spurred him onto it. Now she saw she wasn’t as powerful and influential as she originally thought she was – She turns on MacBeth. In a moment she realises her willpower had not had its desired affect. Lady MacBeth changes, her tactics switch from ‘unsexed’ to using her feminine powers. As a woman, she will now humiliate MacBeth as a man.
Lady MacBeth knows that it will sting MacBeth if she taunts him. At the beginning of the play MacBeth had been mentioned to be, ‘A worthy bridegroom for the goddess of war herself!’ He has been honoured for his great roles in battle by the king himself. Naturally, it will provoke MacBeth if his honour or ‘masculinity’ is challenged.
She taunts him: ‘Was the hope drunk Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?’ Lady MacBeth I believe would utter this in mock disbelief. She would be sounding as if to be appalled at the lack of confidence in MacBeths’ conviction. It makes a fool of him, she asks, ‘Were the hope drunk Wherein you dressed yourself?’ She is saying, was your hope drunk? And now, wakes with a hangover – regretting what it had said? She uses the words, ‘pale and green’ to pictorially describe colours and shades that are normally associated with weak, and sickliness. She then continues, using her feminine power, to question his love for her, saying, ‘Such I account thy love’. Meaning his love to her is as one of his drunken promises.
These are not words that MacBeth is accustomed to having directed at him. He is not used to having his courage mocked. He reacts. As Lady MacBeth knows he will, he retorts, ‘Prithee peace. I dare do all that may become a man’. He is right, he perfectly knows he is not a coward. He is one of the bravest men around. Lady MacBeth expects him to retort this way. He continues though, he puts his finger right on it, ‘Who dares do more is none’. MacBeth means whoever dares to do anything more daring, dangerous or maybe wicked, isn’t human; they are supernatural, probably monstrous.
MacBeth is defending himself, he is suggesting that anything more brave (by bravery he means acts on the battlefield and killing in general) wouldn’t make him a man, it would make him monster; and that is the truth. MacBeth knows it’s the truth, Lady MacBeth knows it is the truth, and importantly the audience realise this is the truth. He is prepared to do ‘all men can do’, but he draws the line at becoming a monster.
Lady MacBeth would perhaps falter at this. Yet again though, she picks up the offensive, though in a slightly weaker position perhaps. She takes a risk (showing the fragility of her situation) by replying ‘What beast was’t then, that made you break this wicked enterprise to me?’ Lady MacBeth shifts the blame back onto MacBeth, claiming he was the one to hatch the plan, the crucial words being ‘you break this…to me’. The audience will pick up on this, realising that it was never MacBeth who ever originated the idea, it was in fact Lady MacBeth. MacBeth fails to see this though and she carries on.
She reasons that when he (MacBeth) had proposed this ‘enterprise’ to her, then he ‘were a man’. Lady MacBeth tries to change MacBeths’ perception of what is manly. She tries to change what MacBeth perceives as man, being brave and daring to do ‘all that may become a man’, to a man being almost a killing machine. She does this by saying ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’. Lady MacBeth thinks that a man is someone who would do anything to make himself bigger, stronger or more powerful.
Lady MacBeth then uses a slightly different tack; she uses shock tactics to demonstrate how she feels about following through with the murder. Lady MacBeth brings to mind the most grotesque image that she can think up. She says she would take a child, hers, and ‘while it was smiling in my face…and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done this’. By this, Lady MacBeth reveals a side to her to her audience. Perhaps Lady MacBeth and MacBeth had had a child, ‘I have given suck’; this may bring back painful memories for MacBeth. She is using this as a shock tactic against MacBeth, to catch him off-guard. This is a horrible thing to say and a horrible thing to do to MacBeth, using painful memories to hit her husband with; in affect, this would put a seal on audience perceptions of her. She is evil and she will stop at nothing.
What she meant by killing her child like this was to show her strength of conviction and willingness to carry out her word ‘had I so sworn to you [MacBeth]’. It appears to work, and MacBeth falters saying (indicating a change of heart) ‘If we should fail?’ Lady MacBeth has now re-engaged him, and MacBeth is curious again. Again Lady MacBeth shows her strength of conviction and will, ‘We fail?’-(Almost mocking). ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place – and we’ll not fail’, Lady MacBeth I think hits these words with a real sense of belief, urging MacBeth to think about it. Failing? – Lady MacBeth declares that this is impossible. She proceeds to outline her plan, believing she now has MacBeth back onboard. She will make Duncans’ guard’s drunk and she and MacBeth will commit the murder, leaving the guards to take the fall for it. The plan is ruthlessly simple and cowardly. The audience cannot help but realise this; Lady MacBeth has thought this through non-stop and has made her plan as efficient and as fool proof as possible. Lady MacBeth makes it so safe, and has reconfirmed MacBeths’ original intentions – but still MacBeth will know in the back of his mind, this is all wrong.
Lady MacBeth has powerfully changed MacBeth, using his moral weaknesses exposed by his ambition, to change his mind. MacBeth has let his wife’s iron will destroy his conscience and his somewhat ‘sophisticated’ moral sense. Again though, the audience are left with sub-conscience doubts about Lady Macbeth’s appearance of unshakeable strength.
Soon enough these doubts become more backed up in the plays events. Soon enough there are flaws in that iron like persona Lady MacBeth has built up for herself. Lady MacBeth has given us all a picture of strength, now as the play progresses the audience will see the long and arduous self discovery that lies ahead. The painful discovery that at the end of the day Lady MacBeth is in reality a weak woman who is unable to control or influence events.
Lady MacBeth cannot be the ruthless monster that she seeks to be, she cannot escape from the inevitable human traits of regret or conscience. I think the first thing that sparks the audience interest in her almost immediate change from the woman who spurs MacBeth on, to the woman who needs spurring on. In Act 2-scene-ii she says, ‘That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’. She refers to the alcohol that she used to get the guards drunk with, which she is using to keep her spirits up and her mind focused and willing.
One of the things that particularly stood out to me was her inability to commit the murder herself. For all the boasting and the character she built up of herself, Lady MacBeth cannot do any of which she said she was so sure of. Lady MacBeth was supposed to commit the murder herself, but she goes in and comes straight back out again, being startled by a bird’s cry as she stands there. MacBeth comes up the stairwell and sees Lady MacBeth there; she seems to make some excuses for her being there saying, ‘I am afraid they have awaked’, then she admits, ‘ and ’tis done. Th’ attempt and not the deed’. Lady MacBeth has faltered, and she cannot bring herself to the deed she swore she would do even if she had to dash her own child’s brains out. She came into the chamber and almost I would imagine shouts the line, ‘Hark! I laid the daggers ready’. Lady MacBeth is angry I think with herself. She makes the excuse that she entered, saw Duncan and saw he was like her father in his sleep – and could not kill him (baring in mind she was prepared to kill her own child).
MacBeth nevertheless has killed Duncan; ‘I have done the deed’. Now MacBeth is almost immediately feeling the consequences; he recounts it as if he suffered immediate guilt whilst he was doing the murder. MacBeth has started to crack; he is breaking down, saying that he heard voices saying he would no longer be able to sleep.
What Lady MacBeth now faces is what ultimately destroys her. She has now to bear up to MacBeths faltering conscience amidst her own despair. Lady MacBeth tries to silence MacBeth, trying to drive the thoughts of guilt out of her mind – trying to remain strong saying ‘A foolish thought to say a sorry sight’. A few lines on Lady MacBeth prophetically says, ‘These deeds must not be thought. After these ways; so, it will make us mad’. It is here that Lady Macbeth’s character has its biggest and final test.
Lady MacBeth tries to distract her mind from what has happened by snapping into gear and sorting out what has happened. She is practical and tells her husband to go and wash himself of blood, and then she summons whatever courage she may have left to go and put the daggers with the guards to ensure that they have the blame. Again Lady MacBeth is meticulously practical, there is a knock at the door of the castle and she restrains her husband from answering it. Lady Macbeth’s mind is in full gear with this murder. She sees that it would be strange if they were to answer the door at this hour of the night saying, ‘Get on you’re night-gown…And show us to be watchers’. Lady MacBeth is in full control of her faculties at this point, whereas her husband is starting to really break down, already wishing he’d not done it ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst’. Lady MacBeth is not the strong person she appears to be though.
Macduff arrives at the gate and goes to see the king in his chamber, and returns with the news of his death. The blame obviously falls upon the guards and MacBeth convincingly puts up a show that he loved Duncan so much that he decapitated the guards on the spot. This I believe is the turning point for Lady MacBeth, she, by what I imagine by the sight of the decapitated guards, realises what she has done, and it finally sinks in – she faints.
After this point Lady MacBeth takes a back seat in the events of the play. She does not appear in as much of a major role in the play. When she does take part, she has visibly deteriorated and her relationship with MacBeth has undergone major changes. When we next see her in the play, it is at another banquet in their castle. This time she is not the dominant scheming of the couple. MacBeth is the one who welcomes his guests this time, and he takes the active role as the host.
The most drastic change though is the change of mentality between the two; whereas MacBeth used to listen to his wives plans MacBeth now is the one who schemes his next murder. Lady MacBeth invites Banquo, Macbeth’s right hand man to the feast. What Lady MacBeth is unaware of is that MacBeth is planing to kill him that night. In Act 3-scene ii Lady MacBeth is again telling MacBeth to put his past behind him, ‘what’s done is done’, putting more strain on their relationship. MacBeth obviously however has taken over, he hints to Lady MacBeth that he has a plan in action and she should be, ‘innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’.
I would imagine he almost tells her with a smirk on his face as if to say, ‘just you wait and see how manly I can really be’. MacBeth has grown in confidence about himself, he has killed Duncan, and now it has made it easier for him to carry on murdering for his own benefit, without much of a guilty conscience. Lady MacBeth is the opposite however; she is at heart a weaker woman than MacBeth is the stronger man. She does start to feel guilt and consequences for her actions; she cannot keep the ruthless monster image up. MacBeth even teasingly knows this, saying in affect that she would prefer not to know the details of his plan. The monster of Act-1 has lost its initiative in evil.
Lady MacBeth becomes increasingly worn down by her husbands’ own mental deterioration. MacBeth makes quite a scene at his feast. It starts with him not sitting at the table and instead having a furious conversation with one of the murderers of Banquo. Lady MacBeth hurries in saying that ‘you do not give a cheer. The feast is sold’, MacBeth is acting strangely to his guests, but this is not the strangest thing to happen yet by far. MacBeths’ colour drains from his face and he begins to shout because of seeing a ghost, only visible to himself – a ghost of Banquo. At first Lady MacBeth or the guests cannot understand the kings behaviour. Lady MacBeth soon realises that MacBeth is about to give the whole game away and has to desperately rescue herself and her husband by asking the guests, with a complete lack of ceremony, to leave immediately. This surely wears her down and worries her of what the guests may think.
Lady MacBeth tries to pull MacBeth together, but it has no effect. She is undergoing along with her husband a state of intense mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. This is the last time the MacBeths are seen together as one working unit. Lady MacBeth says little at this point and cannot seem to match her husbands’ vigour. MacBeth says, ‘I am…o’er’ – meaning he admits that he is too far gone, it is simpler to carry on his bloody ways than to turn back now. Lady MacBeth urges him to stop, telling him he lacks sleep and needs to go to bed. Macbeths’ range of evil has outstretched Lady MacBeths, she is beyond it all.
This is the last time that Lady MacBeth is seen as sane. In fact, Lady MacBeth is not present in any of Act-4, not appearing until into Act-5. Scene I is where the most obvious change of Lady MacBeth unfolds. The long absence of Lady MacBeth until Act-5 reinforces her appearance as the mad, delusional woman in scene ii. Her mental stability reaches its terminal point and this once monster, becomes nothing but a nervous wreck. The human traits of guilt, conscience and common human feeling all catch up with Lady MacBeth. She could not run from them forever, and now they have reduced her to a pitiful state. Lady MacBeth walks around her bedroom, shuffling nervously, crying out when she cannot remove a figurative spot of blood – or guilt. Lady MacBeth recounts her guilty deeds but as a sign of her mental disarray, she cannot tell them in any chronological order. I would imagine an actor playing the part of Lady MacBeth telling each incident that she calls to mind, as if it cuts her mentally – breaking up her mind.
The agony that Lady MacBeth passes through will eventually lead to the last part of her deterioration. Her agony will drive her to despair and ultimately, she is mentioned to have committed suicide.
This is a bad end for Lady MacBeth; though, a woman of powerful ambition and driving force, and a person in an influential position – she dies pathetically. This end runs parallel to the events of the play and reflects on the outcome of the theme of evil throughout. Lady MacBeth thought she was as evil as she could wish to be, as unconnected from other womanly and human qualities as she might choose. She believed ambition and will power were everything – yet it was all these things that ultimately lead to her end.
Lady MacBeth thought that her ambition and worldly success would justify any move she made. Lady MacBeth would not accept that evil is self-destructive. Her impressions of overpowering evil were in the end of a day – only an impression.
Her conscience first shows its greater power when she is unable to kill Duncan herself. Her next step was when she had to come to terms with her and her husbands reality of evil. The mounting guilt becomes heavier and heavier on her, with the killing of Banquo and the guards. She has to continue to keep up her appearances and her husbands resolve, excusing his behaviour, supporting him, all whilst keeping on top of her own mental condition until he overtakes her in evil. This has its obvious end, she has no way of escape which further tortures her mental condition. The only way out of her self created downwards spiral was her own death.
The powerful thing about her character is Shakespeare’s ability to make the audience feel a sense of pity for this woman, evil though she is.