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My Dearest Partner of Greatness

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‘My dearest partner of greatness’ is a quotation from a letter written by Macbeth to his wife. In this and the remainder of the letter, in which he shares the prophecy of the witches that he shall be king with Lady Macbeth, William Shakespeare show the closeness of the thane and his wife at the start of the play. Yet as the play develops and Macbeth’s power increases, thanks to Lady Macbeth’s ambition and strength, their roles appear to be reversed and their relationship deteriorates. While Macbeth the tyrant brutally rules Scotland without his wife’s aid, she gradually loses control over not only her husband’s actions, but also her own life, possibly as a direct result of the breakdown in communication with Macbeth. Without him confiding in her, she lacks completion and without her ambition for him she has no reason to be strong. She dies an undignified death while Macbeth, also lacking completion without his wife, loses his throne and life in battle. I believe that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the relationship shows that the tragic ending to the play for both of the Macbeths is at least partly due to their relationship breakdown.

It is immediately clear in Act One Scene Five, the first scene in which the audience see Lady Macbeth, that she and Macbeth are close. In the letter Macbeth calls his wife ‘my dearest partner of greatness’ which is used by Shakespeare to show how they share Macbeth’s successes. He also says ‘…what greatness is promised thee.’ Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘thee’ shows that if he is to become king, she too will be powerful. Macbeth’s letter also tells everything about his meeting with the witches, showing how he keeps nothing secret from her, which is a direct contrast with later in the play when he tells her nothing about his actions.

In Act One Scene Five Shakespeare also shows clearly the strength of Lady Macbeth’s character and her determination. As soon as she receives the news from Macbeth’s letter that he has been hailed as king-to-be, she says, ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promis’d.’ There is no doubt in her mind – Macbeth will be king. When she hears that Duncan, the current king, is to come to their palace that evening her only thought is to kill him. She says, ‘The raven…croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements.’ This compares to Macbeth who, in Act One Scene Three, says’ ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical’ Lady Macbeth believes that he is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’ to commit the murder and become king. She says that he is, ‘not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it;’ in which Shakespeare shows this contrast between herself and Macbeth and her belief that he is weak and not evil enough to make the most of his ambition. A strong link is made by Shakespeare between Lady Macbeth and the witches who prophesy to Macbeth. She says,

‘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 sounds like she is casting a spell and her language is black and witch-like as she calls on the spirits. Also what she is demanding – having her femininity and conscience removed – is completely unnatural and this is how the witches are seen by the audience. Shakespeare makes this link to show the audience how Lady Macbeth may mesmerise her husband and make the audience realise her blackness and evil. This adds emphasis to the change in her character later in the play when she feels guilty for and cannot handle all the evil that has been committed. He has her alone on stage in this scene receiving a letter rather than in conversation with Macbeth so that the audience can see her character as it really is without any constraints such as her expected role as a woman or the necessity to manipulate Macbeth.

The dominance of Lady Macbeth over Macbeth is shown in the same scene after the entry of Macbeth and in Act One Scene Seven. When Macbeth enters and the pair are seen together for the first time, they have the following conversation:

M: Duncan comes here to-night. LM: And when goes hence? M: To-morrow as he purposes. LM: O! never Shall sun that morrow see.

Lady Macbeth’s ‘And when goes hence?’ can be interpreted in many ways, but it is most likely that Shakespeare has her trying to discover Macbeth’s feelings and whether he is plotting to kill Duncan without actually asking him. Once Macbeth has given her the answer she does not want she makes it quite clear to him what she intends to do. Instead of saying, ‘The sun may never see that morrow’ she states it as a fact that Duncan will not survive the night, which makes it very difficult for Macbeth to disagree with her.

She then says, ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t.’ which is an example of the recurring theme of the difference between appearance and reality. Again she makes it difficult for him to disagree by telling him to do something rather than suggesting it or asking. She is acting to move events forward as quickly as possible and now she has made up her mind she will not let anything get in the way of her ambition. She says, ‘you shall put / This night’s great business into my dispatch;’ and when Macbeth tries to suggest that he does not want to go ahead with the scheme and says, ‘We will speak further,’ she ignores him and says ‘leave all the rest to me.’ In this scene Shakespeare makes it quite clear that she is in control of her husband and the situation and shows more of the strength of her character.

In Act One Scene Seven, once Macbeth has decided in his lengthy soliloquy not to kill Duncan, he tries to be assertive in communicating this to Lady Macbeth and says, ‘We will proceed no further in this business.’ However she scorns him, suggests he is a coward and undermines his manliness. She says,

‘Woulds’t thou have that … (you) live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”?’ and, ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man; And, to be more than you were, you would Be so much more the man.’

This twists what he previously said – ‘I dare do all that may become a man’ – and shows that to her being a man is very important. Another man’s view of what makes a man is very different from her view. Macbeth is hailed by Duncan as ‘Worthy Macbeth’ and is obviously seen to have manly qualities such as bravery, but this does not satisfy Lady Macbeth whose vision of manliness involves putting ambition first and doing everything possible to make ambition reality. As a woman in this society she is expected to be gentle and fade into the background behind her husband and so any power she can have must be through Macbeth and the knowledge of this is what drives her to her dominance over him in private. Macbeth knows what her view of a man is and that he has to satisfy it and so Lady Macbeth manages to manipulate him by suggesting that he is not a man in her eyes.

These actions of Lady Macbeth’s can be seen to suggest that even though she and her husband are close, she does not actually care for him as much as Macbeth thinks. She knows that she is unable to have any power without him as she is a woman and so she must put all her energy into obtaining power and glory for Macbeth so she can share it. She knows how to taunt Macbeth and spur him on and so knows that she can use this to get him to do exactly what she wants. Without him she is nothing, yet without her he is without any evil or determination and would not be spurred on to killing Duncan and becoming king. Shakespeare has portrayed the two of them to be totally dependent upon one another and to complement each other perfectly.

After the murder of Duncan has been committed, it is Lady Macbeth who tries to convince the remorseful and ashamed Macbeth that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’ and that there is no need to feel guilt. She says,

‘These deeds must not be thought After these ways; so it will make us mad.’

This attitude is shown by Shakespeare to provide a direct contrast to later in the play when Macbeth is the one who does not dwell on past events and Lady Macbeth cannot remove them from her mind and goes mad, which is ironic given that she has just warned Macbeth about that. She is uneasy and tense and is worried when Macbeth says that he thinks he has heard voices but she hides this concern and takes control of the situation, trying once again to spur Macbeth on and taunt him with suggestions that he is weak and unmanly. She says, ‘You do unbend your noble strength to think / So brainsickly of things’ and calls him ‘infirm of purpose’. It is vital that one of them remains in control and even though she is anxious herself, it is Lady Macbeth. She is the collected one of the pair and the one able to conceal her feelings and keep her calm.

Another situation where Lady Macbeth vitally keeps in control is during Act Three Scene Four. When Macbeth is feeling guilt for Banquo’s murder and seeing his ghost, appearing to be mad to the thanes, he says ‘Avaunt! And quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!’ to the ghost which they cannot see and speaks of blood, the devil and wild animals. Lady Macbeth immediately controls the situation and says,

‘My lord is often thus, And hath been since his youth; … the fit is momentary.’

She also asks Macbeth, ‘Are you a man?’ in an attempt to manipulate him and provokes his sense of duty asking him to regain his composure and eventually asks the thanes to leave. In this scene she does not even know why Macbeth is acting how he is, but is loyal to him and lessens the embarrassment for him before his lords by remaining in control at all times. It appears at this stage that she is still the stronger of the two characters. Again, Shakespeare shows this as a direct contrast to later in the play and helps to show the change in character and the events turning full circle which is a vital aspect of the play and is instrumental to their relationship.

The first turning point of the relationship comes in Act Two Scene Two when Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth to do the deed of killing Duncan. She says, ‘Had he not resembled / my father as he slept, I had done’t.’. This is the first indication Shakespeare gives that Lady Macbeth has a conscience and is not pure evil. In the following scene when the murder of the king is discovered by the thanes, Macbeth manages to hide his feelings about the murder and becomes an actor playing the role of somebody who knows nothing about what could have happened. He becomes adept at this and seems even to be beginning to convince himself. When he first hears of the death from Macduff, he says, ‘What is’t you say? The life?’ He appears to have hardened since the previous night as he is now able to enter the chamber where he committed the murder. He speaks melodramatically about his horror at the death, saying,

‘Had I but died an hour before this chance I’d have lived a blessed time; for, from this instant, There is nothing serious in mortality.’

He sounds very sincere and what he says is certainly believable to the thanes. However this is dramatic irony because the audience know what the thanes do not – that it was actually Macbeth who killed Duncan.

While Macbeth is talking so much, Lady Macbeth is almost silent. It is possible that she is trying to assume the expected role as the lady of the house and therefore tries to be ladylike and gentle, but it could also be interpreted that Shakespeare is showing her to be uneasy about the murder and the beginning of a reversal of the roles of herself and Macbeth as he takes over. Certainly a change in the character of Macbeth can be observed as he says,

‘O! yet I do repent them of my fury That I did kill them.’

After hardly being able to kill Duncan, he is now able to kill two innocent men very quickly without speaking to anyone else about it. He asserts himself much more and this probably stems from the murder of Duncan which he, rather than his wife, committed. Shakespeare includes this action to give another hint of the violence that is to come in Macbeth’s character and to show the beginning of his character-change. The first hint of his violence is at the very beginning of the play when we are told that Macbeth ‘unseamed (a traitor) from the nave to the chops’ in battle. However there is a difference between the earlier violence for king and country and later violence for his own purposes and in Act Two Scene Three scene Shakespeare gives us the first indication that he may use his violence for himself.

< a in says He him. worries this and kings be would children his that Banquo told also king becoming prophesied who witches, the knows over. takes really ambition powerful more therefore becomes Macbeth when is>

‘To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus. … For Banquo’s issue have I fil’d my mind; For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered;’

and decides without deliberation to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. He also makes this decision without making any suggestion of it to Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare is showing that they are no longer as close as they used to be as he does not tell her about everything. She is no longer his ‘dearest partner of greatness’ but he can be seen to be power-hungry and, not satisfied with what he already has, seeks further power for himself.

The breakdown in communication between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is illustrated in Act Three Scene Two where Lady Macbeth has to ask permission to speak to her own husband. She says to a servant, ‘Say to the king, I would attend his leisure / For a few words.’ This formality is probably partly due to Macbeth’s elevation to kingship, but this and the impersonal use of ‘the king’ rather than ‘my husband’ or his name suggest a drift between the two characters.

During their conversation Shakespeare makes it clear that much has changed in their relationship. In her four-line soliloquy prior to Macbeth’s entry, Lady Macbeth says, ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent, / Where our desire is got without content.’ She is clearly not content with her present situation. However she does not communicate this discontent to Macbeth. In previous scenes they have told one another exactly what they are feeling, but here she covers up her true emotions and gives the impression that she is happy. She says, ‘Be bright and jovial among your guests tonight:’ and tries to be cheerful herself. Macbeth is seeing himself to be superior to her. He says, ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,’ which is an example of the patronising language he is beginning to use. Macbeth speaks far more than Lady Macbeth in this conversation and is certainly becoming more dominant which shows a role-reversal from previous scenes where she has dominated him. Macbeth begins to use imagery of witchcraft, darkness and evil, such as ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse, / Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.’ This imagery was once used by Lady Macbeth (for example in Act One Scene Five: ‘Come thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,’). This link is made by Shakespeare to help to show the role reversal.

Throughout the scene, Macbeth does not disclose that he has commissioned the murder of Banquo, which is another clear example given by Shakespeare of the lack of communication in their relationship. It also shows that Macbeth does not believe he needs the help of his wife any more or does not trust her, and from this scene onwards, they are two separate characters working independently of one another rather than a couple and a team. Macbeth decides in Act Three Scene Four that he it is not worth turn back now and so he will do anything to further his own cause. He says,

‘I am in blood Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as going o’er.’

This furthering of his own cause – the brutal reign, consultation of the witches and murder of Macduff’s family – is carried out by Macbeth alone without his wife’s aid.

The next time Lady Macbeth is seen after this scene is in Act Five Scene One. Shakespeare keeps her off-stage for so long to show how Macbeth’s tyrannous actions have taken place without her consultation and the effect that this has had on her. It emphasises to the audience the change in her character as there is a direct contrast between her behaviour in Act Three Scene Four and in Act Five Scene One. If the change was shown gradually with her seen by the audience more often it would have less of an effect. In the earlier scene she is in control while Macbeth appears to be mad as he hallucinates, feels tremendous guilt after Banquo’s murder and uses death and blood imagery.

In this later scene, Lady Macbeth has lost all of her control and this is immediately shown by the breakdown of her sentence structure. She is speaking in prose rather than verse and the sentences and ideas do not appear to be linked. For example she says, ‘ Out, damned spot! out I say! One; two; why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier and afeard?’ She seems to be hallucinating and is obsessed with blood and washing her hands (of guilt). It appears that she feels guilty for all of the murders that have taken place even though it was Macbeth and not her who committed them. This is a role reversal from Act Three Scene Four and it is ironic that now she, who always wanted to harden herself and remove all feeling, now cannot emotionally cope with the murders. Her doctor says, ‘More she needs the divine than the physician,’ which is used by Shakespeare to suggest that her illness is mental and not physical.

This madness and mental illness can be seen to be a direct result of the breakdown in communication with Macbeth. Without Macbeth she can have no power and her ambition for him made her the strong woman she was. Gaining power for Macbeth was the meaning of her life and what she dedicated her whole life to. Now she and Macbeth are distant, she is powerless, has no reason to be strong and has lost the meaning of her life, which has led to her breaking down.

Macbeth appears not to be concerned about his wife’s illness. He asks the doctor, ‘How does your patient doctor?’ which is very impersonal and a huge contrast from the closeness at the start of the play. When the doctor tells him that she is mentally troubled, he says, ‘Cure her of that,’ expecting to get what he demands. He shows no worry that his wife is ill and does not go to see her. This shows quite how far apart they have drifted and how unimportant he now considers their relationship to be. In Act Five Scene Five he is told of her death and his reaction is, ‘She should have died hereafter; / There would have been time for such a word.’ He is so engaged in his own business of the threat to his throne that he does not have time to mourn the death of his own wife who was once his ‘dearest partner of greatness.’

However he is prompted by her death to reflect sadly on life in his ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ speech. He says, ‘All our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death,’ suggesting that the past is simply a path towards death and has no meaning. This reaction to his wife’s death can be interpreted as him showing that he cares because it does prompt this reflection, but I believe that it simply shows how self-absorbed he has become and how unimportant he thinks she is to him because he thinks only of his life and life in general and never once of hers.

This reaction and indeed the whole relationship can be compared to the relationship between Macduff and Lady Macduff and his reaction to his family’s murder. When Macduff has left Scotland to go to England and puts his country first, his wife is horrified. She says, ‘His flight was madness,’ and, ‘He wants the natural touch.’ This is a direct contrast to Lady Macbeth who said that Macbeth is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’. In the following scene, when Macduff is told by Ross about the death of his wife and children his reaction is: ‘All my pretty ones? Did you say all?’ He immediately feels guilty for this as he feels it is a direct result of him leaving them and scorns himself, saying, ‘Sinful Macduff!’ Although he is engaged in an attempt to overthrow the king he mourns his family, unlike Macbeth, and feels that it is all his fault. Shakespeare includes these scenes with the Macduffs to show how unnatural and unfeeling Macbeth’s reaction to Lady Macbeth’s death is as it is a complete contrast to Macduff’s which seems to the audience to be a far more natural and expected way to react to the death of a loved one. The Macduff scenes also emphasise how the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth has changed and now lacks emotion as it is contrasted with a ‘normal’ relationship with love, concern and family values.

The death of Lady Macbeth appears only to be a single event in a downward spiral for Macbeth and does not change Macbeth’s character for more than one speech. However I believe that it has far more importance than this and that it is a vital part of the spiral and makes his downfall and death inevitable. Lady Macbeth’s madness shows how incomplete she is without him by her side and I think that he is also incomplete without her. In the beginning of the play Shakespeare shows how well they work together, how they complement each other’s characters and how much he needs her. Although he believes he can work alone, once she is dead it is inevitable that surely he must die too. Much of the play shows events turning full-circle and so because she fell from being a strong character and he now appears to be the strong one, he too must be expected to fall. I believe that the breakdown in communication and distance between the Macbeths is a significant cause of the tragic ending to the play as each of them is one of a pair and when the pair is broken neither of them can function properly or cope alone.

The role of Lady Macbeth in the drama is debatable. It can be seen that, given that she originally encouraged Macbeth to follow his ambition and she was the one who masterminded the murder of Duncan, she is responsible for the chaos in the play and its tragic ending. However I do not believe that this is the case. Although Lady Macbeth persuaded Macbeth to kill Duncan on the evening he came to Inverness, the ambition to become king was inside him. Once the witches prophesy that he will be king, the thought of it begins to take over his mind, especially once he becomes Thane of Cawdor, as they also prophesied. In Act One Scene Three he says, ‘Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind.’ He then has a lengthy aside in which he thinks of the idea of murdering Duncan, saying, ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…’ When Malcolm is declared heir to the throne, his immediate thought is, ‘that is a step / On which I must fall down or else o’er-leap’ and he then says, ‘Let light not see my black and deep desires.’ This shows his desire to be king and ideas of killing the king. Lady Macbeth is therefore not the only one thinking of the murder and I believe that eventually Macbeth would have been overcome by his ambition and killed Duncan if Lady Macbeth had not persuaded him to do it that evening. She is simply a catalyst to his ambition which, once it is triggered into action, causes the chaos of the play without the necessity for further encouragement.

This is not Lady Macbeth’s only role, as the control she manages to keep in vital situations such as when Macbeth is feeling guilty after Duncan’s murder and the banquet scene when Macbeth is completely out of control and is hallucinating before his thanes, is very important to the play and to Macbeth. If she had not kept the control in the former of these two situations, Macbeth may never have been able to shake off the guilt that he felt which would have meant that ambition or no ambition he would not have committed another murder or continued in his ruthless power quest which could have led to a quite different ending. In the latter situation she saves Macbeth from great embarrassment, humiliation and possibly the discovery of the truth by his thanes by keeping her control and providing an explanation and when they try to question him, she says, ‘I pray you speak not / …Question enrages him.’

I also believe that in the back of Macbeth’s mind he knows that if he makes a mistake or loses his control during his tyrannous reign, such as in the banquet scene, her control will be there to back him up and save the situation, so perhaps if she had not been there Macbeth would not have reigned in the same manner. Once she is dead he does not have this to fall back on, but it is too late to retract his actions and he has gone so far that he has tunnel vision towards absolute power and he can only continue.

In conclusion, I believe that although Lady Macbeth catalysed the actions of Macbeth to kill Duncan and become king, they would have happened without her even if far more slowly. However she is a very important part of Macbeth’s actions that followed, even though she is not consulted about them because it is she who persuades him to believe that what is done is done and it is the control and strength Macbeth knows she has that he can fall back on as he brutally follows his own ambition. Whatever the distance between them, she is a part of him and so when she dies, something is missing from his life even though he does not realise it as he has become so obsessed with his own quest for power. Therefore the tragic ending is the only one possible when the relationship breaks down and consequently Lady Macbeth dies.

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