Evil in Shakespeare's Macbeth - Lady Macbeth as a Second Eve

Evil in Shakespeare's Macbeth - Lady Macbeth as a Second Eve

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The Different Faces of Evil - Lady Macbeth as a Second Eve

Natural disasters in newspaper headlines, literature, video games, Hollywood movies, gapers at accidents, TV series in the afternoon - they all prove the our fascination about the evil, about death and violence.

The evil in Macbeth is clearly omnipresent and an almost endless theme for different analysis. The role of Lady Macbeth is interesting on many levels of interpretation, but I shall focus on her way of being evil and her way of interacting with other characters in the play. Lady Macbeth is characterized at least as complex as her husband, although she is not the traditional tragic hero in the play. She doesn't only show the trait of being the evil but also many other, very human, traits.


The above was provided to give the student an idea of the content of the paper.  The complete paper begins below.


Bosheit ist eine Art Delirium und verwirrt den Verstand.

                                                            Friedrich II von Preussen


Prüfe das Innere jedes beliebigen Menschen - in jedem wirst du wenigstens einen dunklen Punkt finden, den er verhüllen muss. (Bernick)

                                                            Ibsen, Die Stützen der Gesellschaft III


Natural disasters in newspaper headlines, literature, video games, Hollywood movies, gapers at accidents, TV series in the afternoon - they all prove the our fascination about the evil, about death and violence.

The evil in Macbeth is clearly omnipresent and an almost endless theme for different analysis. The role of Lady Macbeth is interesting on many levels of interpretation, but I concentrate on her way of being evil and her way of interacting with other characters in the play. Lady Macbeth is characterized at least as complex as her husband, although she is not the traditional tragic hero in the play. She doesn't only show the trait of being the evil but also many other, very human, traits. Her interaction with Macbeth and the other characters passes on different levels: She plays the charming serpent, she's a perfect strategist and she's probably, before her fall, the most self-confident and straight person in the play. And, she succeeds in achieving even more influence on her husband than the witches. Therefore it is worth to deal with  an analysis of her conduct, which will show that she has many faces - though all of them are a sign of her evocation of the evil and, make her to a second Eve in the fall of men.

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Through Lady Macbeth's first appearance in the play in I,v, the reader gets to know already many of her most important character traits. After having read the letter of her husband, she immediately understands the importance of it and knows what is to do. Her bloody plan and the strategy are already set. She knows her duties in saying: "That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, / and chastise with the valour of my tongue" (I,v,26-27). Already in these two verses it is getting clear that Lady Macbeth is a very strong person who is able to enflame her husband's mind and who is conscious of her convincing power through her tongue. And she knows that Macbeth is much weaker, "too full o'th'milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" (I,v,17-18) and her mind is already made up to lead him to fulfil the prophecies.

While in Lady Macbeth's first soliloquy (I,v,15-30) especially her strength and

intelligence are pointed out, in the second soliloquy (I,v,40-54) other traits of her character are accentuated.

"And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood, / Stop up th'access and passage to remorse" (42-44)

"That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, / Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, / To cry, 'Hold, hold!' " (52-54)

Violating language, maliciousness and not the slightest sense of guilt or remorse -

these are expressions that can describe this second, very striking, trait of Lady Macbeth. Her cruelty and violence have a quite shocking effect on the reader, especially because she mentions several times that any possibility to feel remorse must be eliminated. Also the very emphasized rejection of God and daylight can lead us to the assumption that she now is on the other side - the side of the evil.

            But not only her loss of religion and of her sense of remorse and the aspect of evil violence can be uncovered in her soliloquy, but also another very important aspect:

"Come, you Spirits, / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" (40-41)

"Come to my woman's breast, / And take my milk for gall, / you murth'ring ministers" (47-48)

The new aspect that can be found in here is Lady Macbeth's very clear denying of her womanliness. She wants to lose her sex and all the elements that are connected to it, to get even more stronger to fulfil her deed together with her rather weak and insecure husband. This wish to lose her sex renders her an unruly women, which has the loss of the most important traits of a woman during Shakespeare's time as a consequence, namely charity, submission to men and weakness. And the loss of these typical female characteristics is a clear sign that she overthrows the Elizabethan conception of the world in fighting against the naturally given order. And the ignoring of these  rules and orders is again seen as an obvious provocation of the evil.

            In contrast to her wish to be unsexed, Lady Macbeth is able to play the perfect wife and host - this means a woman fitting appropriately into the Elizabethan concept - during almost the whole play. As soon as she and Macbeth are not alone, she is playing the role of the innocent host in such a persuasive way that even Duncan himself is seduced and enchanted by her (I,vi,14-28). Especially in the first two acts, the reader gets the impression that Lady Macbeth even seems to enjoy and almost celebrate this deceiving of the other characters; she also points out more than clear that playing a role is part of the plan: "look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (I,v,65-66). 

All these traits, or faces, of Lady Macbeth mentioned so far - strength, the wish to deny her sex, violence, the ability to play the role of a charming serpent and the strategic intelligence - have been discovered in these few lines of her soliloquies in I,v. Most of those traits can also be found in the dialogues with her husband. In analysing the interaction between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth it is quite important to mention again that she knows him very well ( "Your face, my Thane, is as a book" (I,v, 62) ) and therefore it is rather easy for her to convince him of her ideas concerning the prophecy. She even tells him that he should "put this night's great business into my dispatch" (I,v,67-68) and "Leave all the rest to me" (74). With these two sentences Lady Macbeth provokes that the reader assumes that she herself is going to commit the crime, which actually is not the case, but which creates a strong tension for the reader.

            In act I scene vii, a new 'face' in her character is emerging. Macbeth justfinished his long soliloquy and tells his wife that he "will proceed no further in this business" (31) and Lady Macbeth's interaction with these news shows us this new aspect: She is very disappointed and begins to blackmail him with his manliness. She accuses him of living like a "coward in thine own esteem" (43) and tells him that "When you durst do it, then you were a man" (49). With these accusation she hopes to reach his obsequiousness and his will to do the murder. And again Lady Macbeth plays with the role of the unsexed woman in claiming that she would have "dash'd the [baby's] brain out" (58) if she had promised it - all just to prove to Macbeth that there is no way back, that he has to do the deed. Also her strategic way of thinking plays quite an important role in interacting with Macbeth. As soon as she uncovers her detailed plan (61-78), he is "settled, and bend up" (80) to do the murder, although it remains "terrible" (81) for him. So, also in her interaction with her husband, Lady Macbeth's strength, authority, intelligence and her way of blackmailing him with his promise and his manliness work to achieve her aim and the murder is done (II,ii).

            Although the murder of king Duncan is the most important turning point in the whole play and all the characters are affected in their development, Lady Macbeth is an exception. She doesn't change her conduct at all after this bloody night, all her characteristics stay the same. She is still very self-confident, even after having seduced the king's servants with a wassail, and she feels "bold" (II,ii,1) and on "fire" (2). In the lines 9-16 she appears to be slightly nervous, but as soon as she knows that her husband has done the deed, she falls back into her 'normal' pattern of behaving: Macbeth is almost in panic and completely confused, but she is the strong one and tries to help him to get out of this confusion. And here a new aspect in her way of interacting with other characters emerges:

            "A foolish thought to say [the murdered Duncan] a sorry sight" (21)

"Consider it not so deeply" (29)

            "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways: so, it will make us mad"


The tone of these sentences is not that harsh as usual; she really wants to console and calm him down. The most appropriate expression for this kind of interacting would probably be a sort of mother-child relation. This kind of dialogue, where she talks to him as if she were his mother, re-emerges several times in the whole play. In line 53-54 she even tells him explicitly that is "the eye of childhood / that fears a painted devil" and she carries angrily the bloody daggers to the servants.

            The first sign of her human (and female?) weakness is shown as she collapses after she found out that Macbeth acted on his own and killed the servants, which did not belong to her plan (II,iii,106-122). And very soon other signs of her weakness will follow in the play. After the murder, Lady Macbeth disappears more or less from the events of the plot. Macbeth is left alone, without the authoritarian help of his wife, and he starts to think on his own and deals with his feelings of guilt and remorse by committing other 'necessary' murders. The very last scene where Lady Macbeth supports her husband and shows us her typical pattern of conduct, is the banquet scene (III,iv): Although she ordered Macbeth to "Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night" (III,ii,28), he is unable to suppress his fear and guilt and is tortured by the appearance of Banquo's ghost during the banquet. He seems to lose control completely and to be driven to madness - and all this in front of his subjects. And here Lady Macbeth intervenes to save him from a complete disaster in playing the role of the very polite host ( or serpent ) and excusing her husband's behaviour.

            In the whole forth act, Lady Macbeth is missing; nobody talks about her, so the reader doesn't know anything. But as her character is re-introduced in V,i, the reason for her disappearing from stage is getting clear: She has gone mad. She lost all her character traits from the beginning of the play: no strength, no straight thinking and no violence anymore in her conduct. Instead, her mind is full of remorse and guilt - both symbolized in the blood-smeared hand. The act of trying to wash away the sins that she committed under her excessive evocation of the evil, is absolutely vain. In lines 33-38, her use of language is very different from before her madness; the sentences are stammered, almost without any sense for the reader and seem to be "the only voice of truth" 1 for her.

            But in this scene, which shows her madness very explicitly, we can not only see how weak and confused she is and how much she repents her evilness, but also that she's has fallen back to her sexuality. She even is pitying the wife of the Thane of Fife and asks herself: "Where is she now? - " (V,i,40-41). And she concludes that "all the / perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" (47-48), which doesn't only present us a very 'female' language, but also forms a perfect contrast to "Go, get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand" (II,ii,45-46). Lady Macbeth seems to be completely turned around and exchanged; nothing reminds us of her characteristics that had lead to this terrible sin that she committed to her soul.

            Macbeth gets to know about his wife's madness and wants the doctor to cure her of that, although he is actually concentrating on saving himself from his fall. But the doctor states truthfully that "Therein the patient / Must minister to himself" (45-46). Both seem to know already that her soul cannot be saved anymore. And also Lady


1 Introduction of Macbeth, Arden edition, page lxi                                                                         


Macbeth herself is unable to deal with the overwhelming amount of guilt and kills herself (V,v,8). Her fall back to sexuality, to weakness and madness catalysed her own fall and death. Also Macbeth's reaction to her death is cold and static ( "She should have died hereafter: / There would have been a time for such a word. - " (17-18) ), as though everything had lost its sense. Probably, Lady Macbeth's death can be seen as a kind of prolepsis for Macbeth's fall at the end of the play, because after her death everything works against our tragic hero - her fall was the first concrete sign of his fall.   

            Their is still one aspect of Lady Macbeth's character that is quite important for her evilness and above all for her fall, namely the idea of contrast.  Lady Macbeth is a character that is chained up in different contrasts inside herself: She is a woman who wants to lose her womanliness. She fulfils her dream of being queen but dies of the consequences. Her way of being evil and remorseless starts the whole tragedy but exactly her remorse and feeling of guilt cause her fall. She accuses her husband of being weak and ends her life in complete weakness. Even other examples of her contradictory inside could be added...

            But Lady Macbeth is not only forming contrasting elements inside her, but also together with her husband. They both seem to complete, or more exactly contradict, each other: In the beginning, she is full of ambition to fulfil the prophecy, while Macbeth is full of doubts and fear. But the germs of fear after the murder of Duncan develop much more distinctively in her than in him. And, as soon as Macbeth gets used to the evilness of his own soul and actions, Lady Macbeth is getting mad because she cannot stand her own maliciousness anymore. So, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth can be seen as two counterparts that complete the whole range of possibilities of reactions to the crime. And this would also prove the theory that Shakespeare tends to split a character up into two personages1.

            Although Lady Macbeth and her husband do experience very similar stages of development, there is one thing that clearly separates them: While Macbeth's development of his mind is elaborated very exactly, Lady Macbeth's fall, and all the changes in her mind that caused it, are not explicitly described. She disappears from view and re-enters the story as an already mad woman who is consumed with


1 Internet: William Shakespeare critisism - Freud on the Macbeths;  http://web.singnet.com.sg/~yisheng/notes/shakespeare/mbeth_f.htm


remorse. And I think that this shows us that Shakespeare was mainly interested in Macbeth's tragedy and not in the fall of his wife. And therefore she doesn't get away that smoothly as Macbeth, who still is claimed a tragic hero, while she is 'only' an evil influence in his life.

But in what way, to sum up, does she bring in evilness? Through her different character traits - or faces - she manages to persuade Macbeth to start the whole tragedy in killing Duncan. She mainly seduces her husband through her strength, intelligence and cruelty, but also through blackmailing him and playing her roles.  In extending all these ideas to a biblical sense, Lady Macbeth can be seen as a kind of second Eve. Only through her power Macbeth gets to choose the wrong way, because the appearance of the witches only would never have lead him to go too far.

 Lady Macbeth herself is seduced by the evil and  passes on this 'gift' to her husband. And exactly this concept is absolutely identical to the story of Adam and Eve in the Genesis, where Eve is tempted by the snake to taste an apple from the forbidden tree and then gives the evil fruit to Adam. And this parallelism can even be extended to the idea of shame and guilt that both couples have to suffer after the sin.

            So, Lady Macbeth is definitively no flat character that just is evil, although she clearly personifies a kind of evil. But she is active; her character moves, creates, provokes and reacts on situations. She is complex, and contradictory, in her inside and in her way of interacting with other characters. And she is the main force in Shakespeare's metaphor of the second fall of men.


"Das Negative interessiert mehr als das Positive. Das hat schon Shakespeare gewusst. Im Grunde ist das erfreulich; denn es beweist, dass das Negative immer noch die Ausnahme ist."

                                                                                    Tennessee Williams



Primary source:            

SHAKESPEARE, William, Macbeth. Edition Kenneth Muir, London: Arden edition, 1984.


Secondary sources:  

 Introduction of Macbeth, Edition Kenneth Muir, London: Arden edition, 1984.

 William Shakespeare critisism - Freud on the  Macbeths; http://web.singnet.com.sg/~yisheng/notes/shakespeare/mbeth_f.htm
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