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In William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth which character is more imaginatively created than that of Lady Macbeth? Can a lady actually think in this manner without being called insane. We examine the various dimensions of her character in this paper.
L.C. Knights in the essay "Macbeth" describes the unnaturalness of Lady Macbeth's words and actions:
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)
Samuel Johnson in The Plays of Shakespeare underscores how ambition by the protagonists leads to detestation on the part of the readers:
The danger of ambition is well described; and I know not whether it may not be said in defence of some parts which now seem improbable, that, in Shakespeare's time, it was necessary to warn credulity against vain and illusive predictions.
The passions are directed to their true end. Lady Macbeth is merely detested; and though the courage of Macbeth preserves some esteem, yet every reader rejoices at his fall. (133)
In "Memoranda: Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth," Sarah Siddons comments on the Lady's cold manner:
[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. (56)
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson describes the role of Lady Macbeth:
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.
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The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three witches who greet Macbeth 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.
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 reconsiders 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 she 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." The crime continues to haunt Macbeth: "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! / Macbeth does murder sleep'" and "'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'" He acts as a type of his wife's subsequent reaction when, alarmed by a knock at the door, he exclaims: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?"
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!"
In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye shows that Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind her husband, who resolves to "get with it" in the future:
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)
Clark and Wright in their Introduction to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare interpret the character of Lady Macbeth:
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. (792)
In "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action" Francis Fergusson specifies the fears within Lady Macbeth: "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).
Fanny Kemble in "Lady Macbeth" depicts the character of Macbeth's wife:
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. (116-17)
The next morning Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan; Lady Macbeth feigns illness: "Help me hence, ho!" She is quite an actress.
Even after Macbeth's investiture at Scone, 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 a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head", but Fleance escapes. At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Very imaginatively, 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."
Later, 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:
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 not to her but to the relentless pace of ongoing time.
As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the messenger announces to Macbeth that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane. Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he is able to return to Malcolm with the head of Macbeth. Malcolm declares his intention of facing the future as king of Scotland with the help of God; had Lady Macbeth relied on God rather than on her selfish machinations, her life would have been a happier one.
In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack shows how Lady Macbeth complements her husband:
Her fall is instantaneous, even eager, like Eve's in Paradise Lost; his is gradual and reluctant, like Adam's. She needs only her husband's letter about the weyard sisters' prophecy to precipitate her resolve to kill Duncan. Within an instant she is inviting murderous spirits to unsex her, fill her with cruelty, thicken her blood, convert her mother's milk to gall, and darken the world "That my keen knife see not the wound it makes" (1.5.50) (189)
Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants evaluates the character of Lady Macbeth:
A woman who could speak as Lady Macbeth does, who could call upon the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts to unsex her and fell her from head to foot full of direct cruelty, who could entreat these same spirits to stop all avenues of remorse so that no compunctions of conscience will interfere with the carrying out of her purpose, who could call upon the night to wrap itself in the murkiest, gloomiest smoke of hell in order to hide, even from the keen knife she would use, the wound she would make when she herself stabs the sleeping King, such a terrible, frightful woman would not scruple at telling a little wife-to-husband lie to accomplish her purpose. (52)
In Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley interprets Lady Macbeth's character through her speech:
Her husband is in a sense her child, fed with the milk which is natural to her, and when the word recurs in the Senecan speech which follows, she calls on the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, schemes of murder, to turn her milk to gall. She will feed him on that to produce an appropriate response, as the armed men in the tale sprang from the sowing of dragon's teeth. (187)
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy explains wherein lies the greatness of Lady Macbeth:
The greatness of Lady Macbeth lies almost wholly in courage and force of will. It is an error to regard her as remarkable on the intellectual side. In acting a part she shows immense self-control, but not much skill. (340)
In The Riverside Shakespeare Frank Kermode enlightens the reader regarding the murderous mind of Lay Macbeth:
The fatal dismissal from consideration of "the life to come" disables the case for the real as against the apparent good to such a degree that Lady Macbeth, even less aware of the spiritual issues and ridiculing as effeminate the merely human reasons against murder, and showing, as against her husband's view, that the thing is possible. (1309)
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
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.
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.
Johnson, Samuel. The Plays of Shakespeare. N.p.: n.p.. 1765. Rpt in Shakespearean Tragedy. Bratchell, D. F. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990.
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.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
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.