Lady Macbeth – Is Lady Macbeth Responsible for the evils of Macbeth?
- Pages: 21
- Word count: 5187
- Category: Macbeth
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The question that I have been given is to evaluate Shakespeare’s characterization of Lady Macbeth and to decide on an correct description of her character, as I think Shakespeare intended it to be – is she a cruel, calculating, cold blooded killer; or is she just a confused and distraught lonely woman?
Throughout the play, she shows qualities and performs actions that point to both of these possible outcomes, and I, through searching the book and picking up all possible leads (all quotes in Italics), will attempt to decide on which of these Lady Macbeth really is and if possible why she might have been this way.
The first scene that Lady Macbeth appears in is Act 1 scene 5. In the beginning of this scene, we are inside a room in Macbeth’s castle, and she is reading a letter that we think she has just got from Macbeth. The letter tells her of his victory in battle, and of his meeting with the witches and their predictions.
When she has finished reading the letter, she begins to show the audience the darker side of her character.
She begins by picking on the ‘good’ aspects of Macbeth’s character, and criticises him for being “…too full o’ the milk of human kindness…”
This means that she thinks of Macbeth as being too soft at heart to do what she believes is correct, as he feels it is incorrect. However, she does use mothering terms when describing kindness. This reference to motherhood repeats later on, and may be hinting at something deeper in her character that is never actually directly shown . She backs up this idea straight away with the lines “…though wouldst be great; art not without ambition; but without so the illness should attend it…”
This tells us again that she believes Macbeth too good and kind to achieve greatness by evil, referring to evil as “the illness”.
Already, Shakespeare has made the reader or audience wary of Lady Macbeth and led them to think about her motives, even though she has only spoken for 7 lines. The idea of first impressions being of the most important would lead us to feel that Lady Macbeth is evil. This is a good idea, as it has put the audience in the classic position where their first impressions will soon be changed by later events, therefore confusing them, and helps to give Lady Macbeth’s character far greater depth.
As Lady Macbeth continues to speak, it shows her thinking of Macbeth as being weak willed. She also lets the audience know that she is utterly convinced that it is Macbeth’s destiny to be the King of Scotland, and backs up both of these ideas with the lines “… and chastise with the valour of my tongue all that impedes thee from the Golden Round, which both fate and metaphysical aid doth seem to have thee crown’d withal”
When she says Golden Round, she is speaking of the crown, and my metaphysical she means supernatural and therefore the witches.
At this point, an attendant enters and informs Lady Macbeth that King Duncan will be staying at their castle that night. She is obviously surprised by this, so the messenger therefore presumes that she is shocked with honour, although the audience or reader (someone looking in from the outside) realise that it is because she knows that she has just been given a golden opportunity to help Macbeth become king.
This feeling is transformed into knowledge when the attendant leaves and Lady Macbeth begins plotting Duncan’s downfall.
As soon as she begins speaking she makes it obvious that she intends to kill Duncan that night by saying “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements”
Having said this she shows another more sinister side of her personality when she says “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake fell my purpose, nor keep peace between the effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers, wherever in your sightless substances you wait on natures mischief!”
The effect of these lines is less effective nowadays as belief in the supernatural is small, unlike when Shakespeare was writing this when more people believed in devil worshipping etc. But the idea that Lady Macbeth will stop at nothing, even give herself up to Demons, is still running strong and carries with it the idea that Lady Macbeth is so ambitious to the point of not caring how she gets what she wants, as long as it becomes hers. This once again brings with it the idea that Lady Macbeth is evil, and so far we have been given no evidence to suggest otherwise. Despite this, it must be pointed out that we are not yet very far into the play itself.
She then carries on her speech with the lines “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor heaven creep through the blanket of the dark, to cry ‘Hold! Hold!'”
This is where we begin to see the chance of there being some guilt inside her: she has to call upon the spirits to block off this reaction, so that her conscience will not stop her in the middle of the act that she wishes to commit. Macbeth himself also echoes this same idea of removing guilt later in the play when he is working himself up to murder Duncan.
It is at this point in Lady Macbeth’s speech that Macbeth enters the room. Lady Macbeth greets him by saying “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! Greater than both, by the all hail hereafter!”
This confirms for us once again that she has fixed her mind, on the future that she foresees for herself and her husband, and that she will stop at nothing to gain.
Macbeth speaks next, confirming that Duncan will stay at the castle that night and that he will be leaving the next day. Lady Macbeth is clearly overjoyed at this opportunity, and says, “O, never shall sun that morrow see!” She then continues with several lines that tell Macbeth on how he should behave, including the line “Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t”
This is a very good line, and it clearly shows how Lady Macbeth has no troubles with lying and deceit when the truth gets in the way of success.
It is worth noting at this point that her ambitiousness can be seen as not being completely self motivated, as she is doing this for Macbeth as well. This is another question that hangs in the air for a lot of the play: does she really love Macbeth, or is she using him for her own personal gain?
Continuing with the current scene, Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that she will take care of the ‘business’ for him, and “… to alter favour ever is to fear…” meaning that he must hold his mental stance and not change his mind.
In conclusion, this first scene starring Lady Macbeth shows us some of the worst of her personality. She is ambitious like Macbeth, and yet does not have the same level of moral restraint as him, and will therefore stop at nothing to achieve greatness, and is willing to deceive so that others do not realise this. She has already started trying to make an honest, loyal man kill his own king who has treated him well just so that they can both achieve more power, and this quite obviously darkens her character in the eyes of the audience or reader. In such a key scene for opinion building in respect to the character of Lady Macbeth, it appears as if Shakespeare is trying to make us hate her. For now at least, the audience is left with the feeling that Lady Macbeth is more of a meddling monster than mild mother.
We now continue onto Act 1 Scene 6, which is set at the front of Macbeth’s castle.
Duncan and Banquo are discussing what a lovely setting the castle is in, which subtly ties in with Lady Macbeth’s instruction to “… look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t…” – the castle seems beautiful and inviting, but it spells death for Duncan.
Lady Macbeth greets the guests, and begins to completely deceive and fool Duncan, by saying “… we’re poor and single business to contend against those honours deep and broad wherewith your majesty loads our house: for those of old, and the late dignities heap’d up to them, we rest your hermits”
This is classic apple-polishing – Lady Macbeth is giving Duncan an ego boost by playing the part of the humble servant honoured by her master’s wish to stay at her humble abode. She even says that she will pray for Duncan constantly (we rest your hermits) when it is more likely that she will pray that he dies an easy death. Unlike Macbeth, she is consistent in her deceit and makes no mistakes, and it is obvious from the way in which she speaks that she has no problems about lying to Duncan to make him feel safer. This suggests that she is very clever and has given everything much thought, and is not prepared to ruin her plans with such foolishness as honesty or compassion. She continues with this same self-humbling, ego-boosting technique until the end of the scene, at which point she leads Duncan into the castle.
Continuing onto Scene 7, we find Macbeth searching his soul and considering the outcomes of the murder of Duncan, and coming to the conclusion that Duncan is such a good king and that he has Ben such a good servant of late, that he should not murder him. At the point where he finally decides that murdering Duncan is something that he would definitely regret, Lady Macbeth enters the scene. Macbeth tells her of his decision not to kill Macbeth by saying “We will proceed no further in this business: he hath honour’d me of late; and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon”
This seems like a perfectly fair reason for not wanting to kill Duncan, so when Lady Macbeth completely destroys it, the audience get a greater look at the dark side of her character. During her argument, she manages to turn Macbeth’s point of view completely around, showing the power she has.
She begins by insulting him with lines such as “Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire?” and “… and live a coward in thine own self esteem…”
These insults strike one of Macbeth’s typical male weak-points – his ego. She completely deflates him with a load of insults, and his response, “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none” is insufficient to hold back Lady Macbeth’s fury. She continues delivering mental blows to all of his soft spots, moving from calling him a coward, onto making him look dishonest.
However, in lines 54 – 59, she delivers her most powerful and controversial line yet: ” I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out, had I sworn so as you have done to this”.
This line is very powerful due to it’s graphic description of violence and cruelty, and the fact that a man could not respond to this, coming from a woman, who has to go through the pains of giving birth. The bond between mother and child is very strong, and yet a woman, who has obviously been a mother, would be willing to kill the child she loves so dearly, so that she could keep her word. This line completely deflates Macbeth’s attacks, and is key in the reversal of his decision.
Moreover, this line confirms earlier suspicions that Lady Macbeth was once a mother. We are lead to the conclusion that the child is now dead due to their having been no reference to Macbeth’s son, and we see that Lady Macbeth has a reason to be the way she is. Having ‘failed’ as a mother in a world where this is the woman’s key responsibility, she must now find other ways to prove her worth, and making her husband and herself King and Queen, now motivates her.
Crucially, for the first time in the play this allows the audience to sympathise with her, as she is apparently only doing what she knows how to do to become great.
Carrying on, we see that this immensely powerful attack has taken the back out of Macbeth’s revolt, and he now tries a different, far weaker approach by saying “If we should fail?”
In the face of Lady Macbeth’s previous arguments this a pretty pathetic response, and Lady Macbeth treats it so by questioning it “We fail?”
She then continues her manipulative tactics by drawing his attention away from the possibility of failure and assuring him that the plan is foolproof, and goes on to outline it in detail. It is here we see her obvious mental superiority to Macbeth. She has thought out an incredibly good plan, and managed to convince someone who was at first totally against it, that it is in fact their only choice with dazzling speed, and all the while she has maintained the same level of calm and collectedness. Meanwhile, Macbeth has only wound himself up in a web of bewilderment, and has gotten absolutely nowhere in his attempts to unravel himself.
By the end of the scene, Lady Macbeth has completely transformed Macbeth’s outlook on the situation, which is a feat which would be worthy of large applause had it not been for such bad motives.
This is the first point in the play where the audiences outlook on Lady Macbeth becomes slightly more complicated than it first appeared: not only is she clearly an intelligent woman who has to deal with a husband who despite his courage and obvious skill is nonetheless lacking in aptitude; She has also confirmed our suspicions that she is a mother who has suffered the loss of her child, so once again more sympathy is gained. The general idea of Lady Macbeth is now a upset woman, who has become the person she is, through trying to find strength, getting it misguidedly, and ending up evil, remorseless, and manipulative.
The next scene that Lady Macbeth appears in is Act 2 Scene 2, where she awaits Macbeth’s return from Duncan’s chamber. She is talking to herself while she waits, which suggests that she is a little nervous, and is of course a useful way of conveying the character’s thoughts to the audience. We find out that she has been drinking – “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; what hath quench’d them hath given me fire…”
Immediately after this line we see how nervous she is when she jumps at the sound of an owl: “Hark! – Peace! It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman…” Owls are also associated with death, which is why this creature is a good one to use, as it shows her being nervous of death.
For the first time in the play again, we begin to see some weakness within Lady Macbeth’s character, and this is again carried across later in her speech when she hears a voice say “Who’s there? What, ho!”
Her response to this voice is to worry that Macbeth has been caught, and she then gives the audience even more evidence that she may have lost some of her conviction when she says “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t” in reference to Duncan.
However, this small but short loss of conviction goes as soon as Macbeth returns. After some initial confusion when he arrives on the scene, Macbeth immediately lets the audience know that he is remorseful, when he says “This is a sorry sight” whilst looking at his hands.
Lady Macbeth straight away returns to her unforgiving self, and says “A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight”
Macbeth ignores his wife’s advice, and tells Lady Macbeth how he was unable to say Amen when the guards did. This was believed to be a sign of Demonic possession, and ties in both with the witches he meets at the beginning of the play, and also the demons that lady Macbeth called on to remove her ‘feminine’ qualities. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to this omen is to say, “Consider it not so deeply”
This would imply that she doesn’t think much of such superstitions, but she had called on spirits earlier in the play, so it could possibly mean that she is worried by it and is pushing it to the back of her mind in order to keep herself mildly sane.
She confirms this point of view a few lines later when she says “These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad”
This once again displays the practical side of her personality, as she is still keeping everything that is important in the front of her head, whilst at the same time Macbeth is gradually losing control and making mistakes.
Lady Macbeth listens to what he has to say, then continues her attempts at knocking some sense back into him, once again ending in insults to shock him back into thinking straight: “Why, worthy thane, you do unbend your noble strength, to think so brainsickly of things.”
She then comes back to what is important in their current situation, saying “Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hand. Why did you bring these daggers from the place?”
Once again, Lady Macbeth is still thinking clearly whilst Macbeth has lost control of sensible thought. The audience again feels sorry for her, but again it is in a situation where we still cannot feel compassion towards her properly, as the deeds being committed are so horrific the feeling is somewhat dulled.
Lady Macbeth then takes the daggers from the shell-shocked Macbeth and finishes the job herself, before returning to clean herself of the blood, which she now has on her hands and clothes. She instructs Macbeth to follow, saying “A little water clears us of this deed: how easy it is then!”
This line pretty much sums up the audiences original opinion of Lady Macbeth, sharp and remorseless, although we already have evidence that this may be her putting on a front.
At the end of this scene, we have now been given a somewhat more balanced view of Lady Macbeth – we have seen her at her most cunning and her most evil, and we have seen her as a more normal person with normal reactions to strange events in a tense situation. The view of her as just wanting the power nothing else is now coming across far more clearly, and at this point in the play it has become a decent explanation for her being the way she is.
Lady Macbeth’s appearance in Act 2 scene 3 is only small. Duncan has been found dead, and the castle had been awoken from its slumber by the alarm bell. Lady Macbeth arrives on the scene, demanding to know what has happened as if she had been asleep all night and has no knowledge of the situation whatsoever – “What’s the business, that such a hideous trumpet calls to parley the sleepers of the house? Speak, speak!” and “Woe, alas! What, in our house?”
She then faints when Macbeth re-enters the room after killing Duncan’s guards, and it as at this point that we find several possible reasons for her actions.
She could be faking shock, so that she can distract attention away from Macbeth and the rather silly mistake that he has just made. Another possible motive is that she was actually shocked that Macbeth had killed the guards, and was simply unable to retain control. Finally, there is the least likely possibility that she may actually have been overcome by the final realisation of what had been committed the previous night.
Considering Lady Macbeth’s past track record of cunning and clear headedness, I would suggest that the idea of her faking a faint to divert attention is most likely, as we know that at this point in time Macbeth is not capable of this sort of thing himself.
Lady Macbeth appears very shortly in Act 3 scene 1, but her only line tells us nothing more about her character, so this scene offers little in reference to the questions at hand. I shall therefore move onto the next scene with her in that exhibits relevance, Act 3 scene 2. This scene is a turning point for Lady Macbeth, as this is the point where her leading role in relation to Macbeth and their plans for greatness is finally reversed.
The first evidence we receive as to this role switching is when Lady Macbeth has to ask an attendant to request permission to spend time with Macbeth. She also utters a line which shows suspicions of her growing regret towards the murder – “Naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content: ‘T is safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”. This line leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that Lady Macbeth has lost most of the conviction that she previously had that what she was doing was the best possible solution to the problem of gaining more power. From the beginning of her conversation with Macbeth, we can see that he has already given the subject of their problems much thought, and Lady Macbeth has little to say.
When Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth “What’s to be done?” she receives the answer that is the defining point of this scene in terms of characters and their roles: Macbeth tells her “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaud the deed”
This is the only time in the entire play so far when Lady Macbeth has not been a key part of outlining the plans, and she is now left in a position where she has little to do. This is a serious change of role for Lady Macbeth.
The scene ends with Lady Macbeth being none the wiser to Macbeth’s plans, and therefore having become far less important to the things yet to come. This could be seen as being unfortunate for Lady Macbeth, as now she is no longer a key decision maker she is left with nothing to focus herself on, and this could in part be an explanation for her later actions.
Lady Macbeth next appears in Act 3 Scene 4, the banquet scene. In this scene, Macbeth sees the ghost of the recently murdered Banquo, and is convinced that he is real. Lady Macbeth for a time resumes her role as the more resourceful of the two, and attempts to calm the guests, who are quite rightly shocked by Macbeth’s behaviour. When he first begins speaking to the ghost, she almost immediately comes up with the excuse that it happens often, and that the guests should take no notice of him: “Sit, worthy friends – my lord is often thus, and hath been from his youth: pray you keep seat; the fit is momentary; upon a thought he will be well: if much you note him, you shall offend him, and extend his passion: fee, and regard him not.”
Lady Macbeth then resumes her now classic method of snapping Macbeth back into shape by insulting him by saying, “Are you a man?”
However, this time the tactic is less effective and Macbeth continues to insist that what he sees is real. Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth perseveres with her attempts to shake him clear of the illusion, and finally succeeds. She then tells him off in her usual style for his foolishness, before Macbeth finally regains enough control to follow his wife’s lead and attempts to pass off his seeing the ghost as a temporary fit. When the ghost re-appears, the same set up is once again repeated, with Lady Macbeth making the excuses while Macbeth slowly loses touch with reality.
Eventually, Lady Macbeth decides that she can explain no more, and requests that the guests leave. Upon their departure, she once again tells him off Macbeth for being so careless in front of the guests.
Nonetheless, despite the temporary switch in roles, by the end of the scene Macbeth has once again taken the leading part in decision-making, and informs Lady Macbeth that he has a spy inside Macduff’s castle, and that he will find out why he was not present. The scene finishes with Lady Macbeth recommending that Macbeth gets some sleep, and Macbeth obeying her orders.
This scene is the final scene in the play where Lady Macbeth gets to show off her superior mental abilities to Macbeth, with the reasons for this showing in the next scene. However, when she does get to do this, she does it flawlessly; with perfect timing and without hesitation she manages to completely explain Macbeth’s inner turmoil to their guests by way of quick thinking and convincing delivery. This once again serves to emphasise this side of her character, and leaves the audience certain beyond reasonable doubt that despite recent changes in her role she is nonetheless still the cleverest of the couple.
This all changes in the final scene in which Lady Macbeth plays, Act 5 scene 1, the sleepwalking scene. This is the scene where Lady Macbeth finally loses control over herself, which has been hinted at several times now but only in a very small way, such as in Act 2 scene 2 where she is clearly more nervous than would be expected from her former appearances, and in Act 3 scene 2 where she makes it known that she is beginning to regret the murders.
In this scene, a doctor and an attending lady are watching Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, and noting down what she says.
When she enters the scene, she begins rubbing her hands, as if washing them, and then speaks the famous lines “Yet here’s a spot” and “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
She appears to believe that she still has spots of Duncan’s blood on her hands, showed by her saying “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
This ties in with her feelings of regret in Act 3 scene 2; she appears to be unable to get the fact that she assisted in the murder of Duncan out of her mind, contrary to the earlier belief that she could wash it away as easily as the blood on her hands. With the returning realisations of the acts that she has done, her mind has brought up the association with the blood on her hands, and this has made itself apparent in her sleep.
She continues to let slip other details of the acts she and Macbeth have done, before playing out the last moments of her and Macbeth’s rush to bed after the murder of Duncan.
In this final scene that she appears in, Lady Macbeth finally loses her well fought battle to retain her mental stability, and reveals all of the wrongdoings she and her husband have taken part in.
Following this scene, Lady Macbeth commits suicide, the motive for which is once again unclear. One possibility is that she realised upon awakening that she had given the game away, and took her life by way of self-punishment. The other possibility is that she became still further obsessed by her crimes, and lost the will to carry on. One thing remains clear: she was no longer able to keep up the same level of self control and mental aptitude that she once displayed. This could simply have been because she was troubled by her actions, or it could have been because she had little purpose left in her life following the takeover of all decisions by Macbeth after he became king.
Considering all of the possible factors, the Lady Macbeth that Shakespeare intended becomes a little more balanced, and therefore it is difficult to describe her as either uniquely monstrous or pitiable.
After examining all of the available evidence, I have put together my final, complete analysis of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth:
Lady Macbeth was an incredibly intelligent and quick-witted woman. Following the hinted at loss of a child, she found that she had little purpose left in a world where men ruled and women stayed at home caring for the family. She found a way of putting herself to use by becoming the driving force behind Macbeth, adding fuel to his ambitions and correcting his failings. When she learned of the witches’ predictions, she saw an opportunity to further both herself and her husband in the eyes of others, and seized it. However, despite her undoubted intelligence, she was unable to foresee the downward spiral of problems that would follow the murder of Duncan, believing that she could simply wash herself clean of guilt.
As time progressed and the situation gradually began to worsen, she started to become dragged down by the relentless torrent of troubles, and despite her desperate attempts to pull herself and Macbeth free, she was eventually dragged under by the weight of their combined troubles. Following Macbeth becoming king, he began to become more independent of her, planning strategies on his own. Having no further matters to occupy her mind, she began to dwell on the past, slipping further and further from reality until she eventually completely lost her hold on sanity and took her own life.
Had her ambition not overridden her sense of morality, she could have been a respectable, intelligent woman who complemented her husband’s abilities to form a perfect partnership. However, she ended up becoming a tortured, immoral, dejected soul, and disliked by many people.