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The Reversal of Roles between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

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In William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan drama Macbeth, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire to kill the king Duncan in order to gain the monarchy. To be able to earn the kingship, Macbeth must commit more murders so that someone else does not inherit the position. Not only does Macbeth defy his loyalty to Duncan, he also betrays Banquo, another general in Duncan’s army. Macbeth, power hungry in his own right, at first opposes the immoral act of murdering Duncan; however, his outlook changes when Lady Macbeth’s manipulation forces him to submit to her own hunger for power which wanes when her guilt overcomes her quest.

At first, Lady Macbeth forcibly pressures Macbeth to kill Duncan in order to inherit the throne. Lady Macbeth obliges Macbeth into murdering Duncan by taunting Macbeth and saying “Wouldst thou have that/ Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life/ And live a coward in thine own esteem,/” (1.7.45-47). Lady Macbeth is ridiculing Macbeth by calling him cowardly for choosing to not kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth is teasing Macbeth in hopes of perturbing him to the point that Macbeth changes his mind and chooses to murder Duncan. Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth if he is going to let his wimpy actions stop him from obtaining what he truly desires. Lady Macbeth continues to taunt Macbeth by saying, “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man,” (1.7.56-58). Lady Macbeth is persistent with taunting Macbeth in order for him to change his mind about killing Duncan. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that he will be a man once he has done the deed, but that until then he is still the coward that he is now. Therefore, Lady Macbeth gives Macbeth the option of choosing to either be a coward or to obtain what he truly desires.

Although Lady Macbeth forces the issue, Macbeth objects to her provocation to murder Duncan. Macbeth finds himself unable to do this deed because of his strong loyalty to Duncan in that Macbeth acknowledges that he is Duncan’s “kinsman and his subject,/ Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/ Who should against his murderer shut the door,/ Not bear the knife [himself]” (1.7.13-16). Duncan trusts Macbeth as a family member and would not expect murder at the hands of his host. Rather, Duncan would expect Macbeth, his subordinate, to protect him from the actions of a murderer. Macbeth then admits he has “no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other/” (1.7.25-28). Macbeth’s only true reason for even considering murder is his ambition for the throne. Macbeth realizes that the power he would gain does not invalidate the killing. Thus, Macbeth cannot rationalize the murdering of Duncan.

After Macbeth has killed Duncan, Lady Macbeth has a drastic change of heart with her outlook on murdering to obtain the throne. Lady Macbeth is starting to feel quite guilty for the terrible deed of murdering Duncan and can she “[smells] of the blood still. All/ The perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little/ Hand,” (5.1.53-55). Lady Macbeth is unable to forget about the killing of Duncan. Lady Macbeth wonders if her hands will ever be metaphorically clean from the blood of Duncan. Lady Macbeth is now feeling guilty about killing Duncan and is unable to forgive herself for what she and Macbeth have done. When Lady Macbeth is informed about Macbeth’s plan to kill Banquo and Fleance she tries to make it seem unneseccarry and says that Macbeth needs to “Sleek o’er [his] rugged looks,” and that he needs to “leave this” (3.2.31; 40). Lady Macbeth has transformed her extensive hunger for power to now believe that the killing that is going on is not nessecarry. Lady Macbeth completely changes from what she is seen as in the beginning of the drama; she is no longer instigating or manipulating Macbeth, she feels guilty for her actions, and prefers a clean conscience over being higher in societal rank. Consequently, Lady Macbeth does not see the need nor does she approve of the murdering of anyone else.

Once Duncan has been murdered, Macbeth feels guilty but overcomes these feelings when he understands the necessity of killing to become king. Macbeth realizes that without killing others, the murder of Duncan is unimportant to Macbeth, “For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;/ Put rancors in the vessel of my peace/ Only for them, and mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man/ To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings./” (3.1.71-75). Macbeth realizes that all of the trouble he has been through to murder Duncan and to hide in hopes of becoming king would all wash away because Banquo’s son Fleance is next in line to inherit the throne. Macbeth’s hunger for power grows because he is now willing to kill even more people to secure the throne for himself. Macbeth comes to the conclusion that Banquo and his son are a threat to Macbeth becoming king therefore he decides that “Banquo, thy soul’s flight,/ If it find heaven, must find it out tonight./” (3.1.161-162). Macbeth throws all morals he had in the beginning and lets his hunger for power take over his emotions, making him decide that Banquo and his son are more useful to Macbeth dead than they are alive. Macbeth has an outright change from early on in the drama to the end. Macbeth changes from almost not even murdering Duncan then feeling much remorse for the deed, to deciding that Banquo and Fleance are an obstacle to becoming king for Macbeth and that they must die because of this. Therefore, Macbeth now sees the only way to get rid of a problem is to remove it from the picture completely, justifying the murders of Banquo and Fleance.

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s hunger for power affects their personal views on the justification of a murder in order to raise him or herself in terms of social status. In the beginning, Macbeth is apprehensive of even the thought of murdering Duncan and wants to “proceed no further in this business,” while Lady Macbeth is gun-ho about it and manipulates Macbeth into doing the deed (1.7.34). Comiting the murder causes Macbeth to have guilt and think about it a lot to the point of Macbeth being “afraid to think what [he] [has] done,” whereas Lady Macbeth mocks Macbeth for feeling so guilty (2.2.66). These qualities of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch throughout the drama. Later, Macbeth finds it nessescarry to kill Banquo and his son and does not show any actual care for
taking their lives, whereas Lady Macbeth tries to make it seem unnessecarry to kill them. Toward the end, Lady Macbeth becomes much more sorrowful of her and her husbands actions. Lady Macbeth is unable to exonerate herself from the terrible deed that have taken place and thinks that her “hands will ne’er be clean,” a metaphor showing that she can still see Duncan’s blood on her hands. This shows that Lady Macbeth feels remorseful for her actions now and Lady Macbeth’s hunger for power greatly wanes as she choses to end the violence rather than continue only for the reason of inheriting the throne. Macbeth, on the other hand, now seems to be somewhat immune towards guilt and “[has] almost forgot the taste of fears” (5.5.11). Macbeth no longer feels apologetic towards the killing of others in order to cease his craving for power. Throughout the drama, Macbeth progresses from being cowardly and remorseful to become even more power hungry and unapologetic. Lady Macbeth has a completely opposite transformation; she goes from being manipulative and not showing any signs of guilt, to become extremely sorrowful and much less power hungry. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s attributes of power hunger, guilt and willingness to kill completely change between the two throughout the drama but are never present in the two at the same time.

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