Women's Sinister Roles in Shakespeare's Macbeth

Women's Sinister Roles in Shakespeare's Macbeth

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Women's Sinister Roles in Macbeth

 
      In reading Shakespeare's tragic drama Macbeth, one meets only one good woman - Lady Macduff. The remaining female characters are basically evil. Let's consider mainly Lady Macduff and only briefly the three witches.

 

Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants that Macbeth's wife had considerable leverage over her husband's mind:

 

This was her opportunity to do as she had promised herself she would do after she had read the letter - to pour her spirits into his ear, to chasten with the valor of her tongue all that might impede him from the golden crown. We may be sure she took this opportunity to use all her monstrous powers of persuasion. Thus he goaded himself, or was goaded by his wife, into searing the terrible oath, whether he had any clear purpose of keeping it or not. (48-49)

 

In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson mentions the very wife-like manner in which the queen fulfilled her essential role in the tragedy:

 

It requires an extraordinary exertion of will and persuasion from Lady Macbeth to strengthen his wavering purpose. Professor Kittredge used to point out to his classes that Lady Macbeth, in urging Macbeth to act, uses the three arguments that every wife, some time or other, uses to every husband: "You promised me you'd do it!" "You'd do it if you loved me!" "If I were a man, I'd do it myself!" But Macbeth's mind is made up by her assurance that they may do it safely by fixing the guilt upon Duncan's chamberlains. (72)

 

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye shows that a lady is the actual driving force in the play:

 

That Macbeth is being hurried into a premature act by his wife is a point unlikely to escape the most listless member of the audience, but Macbeth comes to regret the instant of fatal delay in murdering Macduff, and draws the moral that

 

The flighty purpose never is o'ertook

Unless the deed go with it. From this moment

The very firstlings of my heart shall be

The firstlings of my hand.

 

That is, in future he will try to attain the successful ruler's spontaneous rhythm of action. (91)

 

L.C. Knights in the essay "Macbeth" describes the unnaturalness in the thoughts and words of the plays dominant female force, Lady Macbeth:

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Thus the sense of the unnaturalness of evil is evoked not only be repeated explicit references ("nature's mischief," "nature seems dead," " 'Tis unnatural, even like the deed that's done," and so on) but by the expression of unnatural sentiments and an unnatural violence of tone in such things as Lady Macbeth's invocation of the "spirits" who will "unsex" her, and her affirmation that she would murder the babe at her breast if she had sworn to do it. (95)

 

The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious and contradictory "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Futilely, Banquo cautions, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths," but Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies.

 

At Inverness in Macbeth's castle, his lady, after appreciating his letter detailing the witches' prophecies, reacts with, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised," yet she fears that her husband's nature is "too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" - words whose meaning becomes clear in her subsequent statement: "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements."

 

Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." When Macbeth has a change of heart, and says to his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business," she responds with an accusation of cowardice, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?" Her cold cruelty stands out as she re-converts Macbeth to the murder:

 

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 pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this. (1.7)

 

Lady Macbeth will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. Macbeth is forced to recognize her total lack of maternal sensitivities: "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males."

 

In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Immediately he is striken with guilt as he exclaims, looking on his hands, to his wife, "This is a sorry sight," and "I had most need of blessing." At this point Lady Macbeth reveals the direction of the play with her response: "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad."

 

Confidently, after placing the incriminating daggers next to the sleeping chamberlains, Lady Macbeth utters the supreme ironic statement: "A little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it, then!"

 

The next morning Macduff and Lennox arrive to awaken the king. Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan; he informs Malcolm. Macbeth kills the chamberlains, next to whom the bloody daggers are found. Lady Macbeth feigns illness: "Help me hence, ho!" What an actress she is! Malcolm and Donalbain flee.

 

As Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office, the queen is lamenting the state of "doubtful joy" in which the royal couple is living. Both she and he are nightly afflicted by "terrible dreams," and his mind is "full of scorpions," so that the king thinks it "better be with the dead."

 

In "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth," Sarah Siddons comments on how the feminine role of the leading lady is not a typical one as regards attitude:

 

[Macbeth] announces the King's approach; and she, insensible it should seem to all the perils which he has encountered in battle, and to all the happiness of his safe return to her, -- for not one kind word of greeting or congratulations does she offer, -- is so entirely swallowed up by the horrible design, which has probably been suggested to her by his letters, as to have forgotten both the one and the other. It is very remarkable that Macbeth is frequent in expressions of tenderness to his wife, while she never betrays one symptom of affection towards him, till, in the fiery furnace of affliction, her iron heart is melted down to softness. (56)

 

Fanny Kemble in "Lady Macbeth" finds that the main female role could have ended in madness due to the evil tendencies of the lady:

 

Lady Macbeth, even in her sleep, has no qualms of conscience; her remorse takes none of the tenderer forms akin to repentance, nor the weaker ones allied to fear, from the pursuit of which the tortured soul, seeking where to hide itself, not seldom escapes into the boundless wilderness of madness.

A very able article, published some years ago in the National Review, on the character of Lady Macbeth, insists much upon an opinion that she died of remorse, as some palliation of her crimes, and mitigation of our detestation of them. That she died of wickedness would be, I think, a juster verdict. Remorse is consciousness of guilt . . . and that I think Lady Macbeth never had; though the unrecognized pressure of her great guilt killed her. (116-17)

 

Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare contradict the impression that the female protagonist is all strength:

 

Lady Macbeth is of a finer and more delicate nature. Having fixed her eye upon the end - the attainment for her husband of Duncan's crown - she accepts the inevitable means; she nerves herself for the terrible night's work by artificial stimulants; yet she cannot strike the sleeping king who resembles her father. Having sustained her weaker husband, her own strength gives way; and in sleep, when her will cannot control her thoughts, she is piteously afflicted by the memory of one stain of blood upon her little hand.  (792)

 

In "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action" Francis Fergusson enlightens the reader concerning the fears weakening Lady Macbeth:

 

 I do not need to remind you of the great scenes preceding the murder, in which Macbeth and his Lady pull themselves together for their desperate effort. If you think over these scenes, you will notice that the Macbeths understand the action which begins here as a competition and a stunt, against reason and against nature. Lady Macbeth fears her husband's human nature, as well as her own female nature, and therefore she fears the light of reason and the common daylight world. (108)

 

In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed. At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. The queen attributes her husband's psychological problems ("Strange things I have in head") to the fact that "You lack the season of all natures, sleep." She contrives plausible responses in such a facile manner that it seems almost diabolic. Her role is very unfeminine.

 

Later, when the "midnight hags" utter their incantation,

 

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)

 

Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. Like supernatural entities, the witches have access to the future.

 

At Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" Macbeth requests of the doctor, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased." The doctor voices the moral nature of the queen's problem, and thus arrives at the root of her problem:

 

Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds

Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds

To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:

More needs she the divine than the physician. (5.1)

 

When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts to the relentless pace of ongoing time:

 

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5)

 

As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the messenger announces that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane, causing Macbeth to hold onto the one tiny morsel of hope, "What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none." With Lady Macbeth deceased, he has to rely entirely on his own weak, ambivalent self.

 

When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return with the head of Macbeth. Malcolm declares his intention of facing the future as king of Scotland with the help of God. Would that the sinister women characters in this drama (Macduff's wife excluded) had learned the lesson of reliance on God rather than on their own machinations!

 

Lily B. Campbell in her volume of criticism, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion,

discusses how strong-willed is Lady Macduff:

 

Lady Macduff is distinctly of the opinion that her husband fled the land from fear, even without having done anything which should make him fear retribution. To Ross she says:

 

His flight was madness. When our actions do not,

Our fears do make us traitors.

 

As Ross argues that she cannot know whether it "was his wisdom or his fear", she very pertinently argues against the wisdom that will make a man fly from the place in which he leaves his wife and children, and she instances the courage of the wren that will make it fight the owl to protect its young ones in proof that Macduff's fear has made him unnatural in his actions.(230)

 

A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy demonstrates Lady Macbeth's inflexibility of will which enables her to dominate her husband:

 

Sharing, as we have seen, certain traits with her husband, she is at once clearly distinguished from him by an inflexibility of will, which appears to hold imagination, feeling, and conscience completely in check. [. . .] On the moment of Macbeth's rejoining her, after braving infinite dangers and winning infinite praise, without a syllable on these subjects or a word of affection, she goes straight to her purpose and permits him to speak of nothing else. She takes the superior position and assumes the direction of affairs - appears to assume it even more than she really can, that she may spur him on. (336-37)

 

In The Riverside Shakespeare Frank Kermode enlightens the reader regarding roles of women in the play:

 

 The role of the Weird Sisters is, then, to represent that equivocal evil in the nature of things which helps deceive the human will. But they are not mere allegories or the abstractions they might be in a modern play. Whether or no Shakespeare believed in demonic powers, in black and white magic, as King James did, he means the Sisters to be really there, visible to whom they wish, and endowed with the powers appropriate to demons. (1309)

 

In his critical volume, Macbeth: a Guide to the Play, H. R. Coursen reveals the truth about the awesome power wielded by the female co-protagonist within the play:

 

Macbeth, according to Adelman, is "terrifyingly pawn to female figures" (1987, 93). They influence him, no doubt, but do they make him a pawn? He is alienated from his anima, or contrasexual androgynous energy, but if he is to construct a self independent of their manipulations, he is subtragic, a figure more like Theodore Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths than the heroic figure of myth that early descriptions make of him. (106)

 

WORKS CITED

 

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

 

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

 

Clark, W.G. and Aldis Wright, eds. Introduction. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., n. d.

 

Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.

 

Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: a Guide to the Play. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1997.

 

Fergusson, Francis. "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.

 

Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

 

Kemble, Fanny. "Lady Macbeth." Macmillan's Magazine, 17 (February 1868), p. 354-61. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.

 

Kermode, Frank. "Macbeth." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

 

Knights, L.C. "Macbeth." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.

 

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. http://chemicool.com/Shakespeare/macbeth/full.html, no lin.

 

Siddons, Sarah. "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth." The Life of Mrs. Siddons. Thomas Campbell. London: Effingham Wilson, 1834. Rpt. in Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900. Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997.

 

Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.
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