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Shakespeare’s Macbeth documents a man’s desire for power, and the murderous acts that he commits in order to gain it. Nevertheless, it equally focuses on his power-crazed wife and her amplified drive for control. Macbeth and his wife are joined by more than holy matrimony. Shakespeare creates an intriguing relationship that traces the downfall of not a single person, but an entity comprised of two. The concentration is directed on this oneness through the plot progression within Macbeth, in which the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are reversed.
Even upon the first introduction of the Macbeths, it is evident that they do not represent the stereotypical men and women of Shakespeare’s day. In public, Lady Macbeth plays the traditional housewife and hostess while Macbeth is acknowledged by his colleagues as a fierce and loyal warrior; however, the Macbeths behave quite the opposite when in only each other’s company. Lady Macbeth blatantly distinguishes herself as the dominant force in the relationship. For instance, when Macbeth is unsure of how to manage Duncan’s visit to Inverness, Lady Macbeth instantaneously seizes control of the situation, demanding that Macbeth “put/This night’s great business into my dispatch” (1.6. 79-80). This type of behavior from a woman was unheard of in Shakespeare’s time according to Roland Muschat Frye, who states, “This evil consists in Lady Macbeth’s usurping, as a wife, that conjugal authority which Shakespeare’s age regarded as naturally and irrevocably assigned to the husband” (102). Macbeth, however, displays no interest in assuming command and is portrayed as subservient to his overbearing wife, as Frye confirms, “While Lady Macbeth ‘unsexed’ herself, Macbeth profaned his sex by submission to her” (104). Hence, even from the start, the Macbeths’ personalities reflect the inverse of the social standard of that time. As the play proceeds, however, the balance of this relation will reverse.
Macbeth and his wife clearly exchange roles in terms of the amount of ambition they display. Although both characters blatantly crave power, it is Lady Macbeth who is initially presented as the driving force in the relationship. Her intentions are purely directed toward obtaining immediate power. For example, upon first learning about the witches’ predictions, she immediately devises a murder plot and takes charge of the situation. This is made evident as she coldly explains to her husband, “Only look up clear,/To alter favor ever is to fear.
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Are less than horrible imaginings
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical.
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not. (1.3.150-155)
However, later in the play, Lady Macbeth begins to lose her edge and assumes the more submissive role, while Macbeth assumes the assertive position. She no longer has to instigate or persuade him to murder; he does so on his own. Whenever someone stands in his way, he instantly develops plans for their assassination. This is made evident through his lack of concern for Banquo when arranging his murder:
Ere the bat hath flown
His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night’s yawing peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note. (3.3. 45-49)
Furthermore, Lady Macbeth’s first scene in the play depicts her abandoning her humanity, in which she states, “unsex me here” (1.5. 48); yet even upon the murder of Duncan in Act Two, her position begins to weaken in correlation with Macbeth’s mounting ambition. Lady Macbeth is perceived as a bit more human and not so dictatorial, marked by her explanation for not murdering Duncan herself, “Hark!—I laid their dagger ready;/He could not miss ‘em. Had he not resembled/My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2. 15-17). This act relates to the notion that Lady Macbeth may not be as committed in her evil ambition as originally depicted. According to Edith Whitehurst Williams:
Here is the first evidence that her dedication to evil (I.v. 41-55) is not going to sustain her, and it is an index of her motivation that filial piety restrained her. Had she been able to murder her father or, in this case, a father surrogate, she would have been an entirely different person. It is made clear that Macbeth has an intuition of her incipient frailty when he does not make her a party to the murder of Banquo but urges her to ‘be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’ (III. ii. 45). To evaluate the character of Lady Macbeth both in terms of her expressed intention before the murder of Duncan without regard for the radical alteration afterward is to misread the character. (Williams 222)
Therefore, as Lady Macbeth’s ambition increases, there is a noticeable alteration in her behavior. Yet, her strength does not increase with this change; instead, she begins to unravel, while Macbeth becomes the stronger force.
In addition, the Macbeths also gradually adopt each other’s general behavior. Upon Shakespeare’s first introduction of Lady Macbeth, it is evident that she often manipulates people for her own benefit. One of her frequently imposed techniques is challenging Macbeth’s manhood, which she employs in convincing him to kill Duncan:
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. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. (1.7. 56-62)
Through hurling such insults at him, Lady Macbeth is easily able to persuade him to murder. However, after becoming king, Macbeth utilizes the same strategy when meeting with the murderers he hired to dispose of Banquo: “Not i’ th’ worst rank of manhood, say’t,/And I will put that business in your bosoms” (3.1. 115-117). Whereas earlier Macbeth was reluctant to murder and was pushed to do so by his wife, he rapidly evolves into an individual eager to kill, while Lady Macbeth insists, “Come on, gently my Lord,/Sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial/Among your gusts tonight” (3.2. 30-32) and even, “You must leave this” (3.2. 40), which diverges with her former desire for him to take immediate action.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth also exchange roles in terms of their expression of guilt. Initially, Lady Macbeth is completely unaffected by the prospect of murder, and even directly following the killing of Duncan she remains unmoved by the act. This is established through the manner in which she handles Macbeth when he forgets to leave the gory daggers at the scene of the crime:
Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures. ‘Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. (2.2. 68-71)
In contrast, Macbeth is portrayed as a physical and emotional mess, so much so that he refuses to re-enter the room in which the murder took place, “I’ll go no more./I am afraid to think what I have done./Look on’t again I dare not” (2.2. 65-67). Macbeth is clearly disturbed by the killing and is troubled by the thought even before executing the plan. When considering Duncan he states,
He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his 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 myself. (1.7. 12-16)
Macbeth’s expression of reluctance exists in contrast to his impending guiltless conscience.
Conversely, as the play begins to reach its conclusion, Lady Macbeth finds herself plagued by guilt. She has become delusional, and she is so upset that, in her sleep, she relives Duncan’s murder each night, rambling to herself:
Why then, ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my
Lord, fie, a solder and afeard? What need we fear
who knows it, when none can call our power to
account? Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him? (5.1. 37-42)
To bed, to bed. There’s a knocking at the
gate. Come, come, come, come. Give me your
hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to
bed, to bed. (5.1. 69-72)
Macbeth, however, is no longer distressed by the guilt of murder, which he makes clear through the increasing number of people he has slain, including Macduff’s entire family:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th’ sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool;
This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool. (4.1. 171-175)
This depiction of Macbeth’s evident lack of guilt directly corresponds to Lady Macbeth’s prior attitudes at the opening of the play.
The completeness of the Macbeths’ reversal is apparent in the degree to which the depiction of guilt corresponds with the matter of clearing their consciences, or rather, conscience. Immediately following Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth is untroubled, while her husband is visibly distraught, declaring, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red” (2.2. 78-81). Not quite comprehending Macbeth’s anguish at his deed, Lady Macbeth responds simply, “A little water clears us of this deed./How easy it is, then!” (2.2. 86-87). Her statement is, therefore, quite ironic, for by the end of the play, while Macbeth continues his massacre free of guilt, Lady Macbeth finds herself, at least in her mind, unable to remove the blood from her hands, muttering, “Out, damned spot, out I say! One. Two” (5.1. 37) and “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All/the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little/hand. O, o, o!” (5.1. 53-55). Williams interprets this modification in Lady Macbeth as a woman “whose madness is the heart-rending devastation brought about by the remorse whose access and passage she was unable to stop up as she had anticipated. Her despair that her hands will ‘ne’er be clean,’ her whimsical moment of tenderness for the dead Lady Fife, her longing to ‘sweeten this little hand’ speak of a conscience far from dead” (Williams 222). Thus, as the play begins to conclude, Lady Macbeth is no longer capable of restraining her guilt-ridden conscience.
Throughout Macbeth, William Shakespeare chronicles the drive for power and the lengths one is willing to go through in order to obtain it. Upon reviewing the plot more closely, however, a concise relationship among the play’s pivotal characters is evident. Shakespeare creates a fascinating link within the significant alterations of the Macbeths, and this link serves to reinforce the balance that is carefully maintained throughout the play. As a shift is evident in Macbeth, a shift must occur in Lady Macbeth in order to sustain the equilibrium. By the conclusion of Macbeth, it is clear that the title character and his wife have exchanged roles, and by doing so, the sinister balance is preserved.
Frye, Roland Muschat. “Macbeth’s Usurping Wife.” Renaissance News 8 (1995): 102-105.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Williams, Edith Whitehurst. “In Defense of Lady Macbeth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 221-223.