One of Shakespeares most captivating characters from Macbeth; one of the four tragedies, is that of Lady Macbeth. It could be said that perhaps all that cast eye on her, instantaneously react to her as if all the machiavellian tactics and murderousness in the universe bond to create the quintessential image the femme fatale. She brings out a plethora of conflicting emotions and different attitudes. Many people may see in Lady Macbeth a cold and cruel woman, who beguiles and bullies her husband to appease her demoniac aspirations; some could say that Lady Macbeth is a “nefarious” woman, who appeals to Macbeth to murder an innocent man. For other readers she is a loving woman and wife, who passionately cares for her husband and with her whole heart wishes the absolute best in life for him. However, looking back through time, such deeds of violence being brewed here, were somewhat common; succession to the throne was often broken by the mantra that “might was right”; the thinking of the time was not overly friendly, particularly when so much was to be played for. Swift retribution may or may not come; the victory in battle was everything, and what would be called murder was often heroically seen as an act of valour. Lady Macbeth had been brought up amongst such murderous scenes, and perhaps one murder at that time seemed of little consequence to her.
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However, Little did Lady Macbeth know what it was to be personally embroiled in the act of murder, nor could she foresee through the “dunnest smoke of hell” (Act I, Sc. v) that clouded her mind; that the nemesis of guilt that would pursue her waking hours, and fill her dreams; day and night with visions of the old man, Duncan’s blood spotted over her hands (Act V, Sc. i) before her very own guilt filled eyes.
Lady Macbeth first appears in Act I, Sc. v, strong, controlled, a woman in love as she reads the exciting news of the weird sisters’ salutations and prophecies. With a dark, malelovant, determination Lady Macbeth decided to make the foretelling of the witches come to fruition. However, at this point it could be said that Lady Macbeths’ over riding motivation could clearly be Macbeth’s hesitant nature:
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
what thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full of the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it.” (Act I, sc. v)
Lady Macbeth, set fast in mind that she is to be the driving force in the murder of Duncan, intones a prayer to prepare herself both physically and mentally for the dark deed ahead of her:
“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
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,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!” (Act I, Sc. v)
In the prayer, Lady Macbeth intones dark and powerful images which itself suggest that Lady Macbeth was not a cold calculating predator, working in conspiratorial concert with the dark spirits. She wishes to be unsexed, released from her feminine gentility; she abjures all compunction and remorse, and in perhaps a feminine and delicate way she displays her thoughtful and honourable nature. In doing so, Lady Macbeth conveys that she is not going to allow herself to be diverted by the weakening taunts of conscience which troubled Macbeth during the early stages of their scheming and plotting. Ironically, however, after the dark deed of murder, it is the perceived hardened Lady Macbeth who begins to succumb to the first smoky tendrils of guilt upon her uneasy conscience:
“These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.” (Act II, Sc.i)
Similar to the haunting deaths of the sleeping Duncan and her own father, Lady Macbeth slides desperately towards the pitiful moments of insanity which lead to her sad and lonely death. As for this slide into insanity, it is evident from the above quotation that Lady Macbeth initially fears the awaiting madness, and then experiences the desperate emptiness of their victory, ridden with an underlying sense of guilt:
“Naught’s had, all’s spent,h
Where our desire is got without content:
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” (Act III, Sc, ii)
During the banquet scene, Macbeth himself is haunted by the apparition of the murdered Banquo (Act III, Sc, iv), with this act Shakespeare further advances the Lady Macbeth’s loss of control and steadily towards the ever creeping madness. However, consistent with Lady Macbeths’ earlier behaviour, Lady Macbeth skilfully retrieves her husband’s honour by discharging the banquet guests before the stricken Macbeth is carried further into ghoulish hallucinations. Throughout this stricken story, Lady Macbeth has always been by Macbeth’s side, beguiling and bullying him into action. But, after the discharging of the guests, it is wholly evident that she is in a transition of change of power in her relationship with Macbeth. Lady Macbeths tongue-lashing from the first act, where she persuaded her Lord Macbeth to contemplate Duncan’s murder finds no parallel here, and as if to confirm this, her actions calls for a cautionary rebuke from Macbeth “Do not muse at me” (Act III, Sc, iv). Instead of scornful anger, Lady Macbeth speaks in brief sentences to her husband “Did you send to him, Sir?” (Act III, Sc, iv). in words which suggest resignation and subservience rather than chastisement especially with the use of “Sir”. This itself, could be seen as perhaps one of the most touching and interesting moments in the Macbeths sad tragedy.
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Lady Macbeth, the diminishing, unfortunate wife makes her next appearance in the last act of the play. Possessed by a guilt ridden conscience that is slowly but methodically pulling her into a dark vacuum of despair and self loathing, Lady Macbeth wanders aimlessly through the castle in her haunted sleep, reliving the dark deeds of Duncan’s murder. Lady Macbeth’s final scene stood in front of the Doctor and gentlewoman, suggest a state of utter admission of guilt and self loathing to the point of madness as the spectre of a once powerful woman is transformed into a shuffling mumbling husk of her former self:
“Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale; I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave. . To bed, to bed; there’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand: what’s done cannot be undone: to bed, to bed, to bed.” (Act V, Sc. i)
Throughout this scene there is a sense that the original character of Lady Macbeth; the stronger, beguiling and powerful woman is contrasted with the dark and brooding spectre of the guilt ridden conscience that makes these breath taking moments some of the most memorable in the play. There is a strong and tangible reminder of the controlled woman who belittled and ridiculed her husband Macbeth’s bravery and manhood:
“was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?..But screw your courage to this sticking place,” (Act I, Sc. vii) in order to cajole him into action; it is Lady Macbeth who had to take control of the situation at the peak of its danger, it is the wife, who had to lead her husband with threats and beguilement through the dark deed of murder. And, as this takes place, Shakespeare presents to all a heart rendering picture of a woman, a loving wife, who has been destroyed by her daring and ambition. She is the one who must be led away now; she is the stricken, weaker, broken party.
During the course of the tragedy, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reverse characters. Macbeth grows from a reasonable, loving, loyal nobleman and husband to a brutally murderous husband and subject. He abandons all morality after his tumultuous battle of conscience. Unlike Lady Macbeth, who descends boldly into the fray. She prays to the “Murdering Ministers” (Act I, Sc. vi) not to let her own good “Compunctious visitings of nature”, even for one moment, diluting the fierce determination she must claim as hers to achieve her desired goal. However, gradually human nature asserts itself within her character, and when it does, the burden of guilt of the dark deed of Malcolm’s murder becomes all consuming and proves too much for her mind. Lady Macbeth becomes the moral recluse while Macbeth continues his lone struggle for conquest and power. In this light, the character of Lady Macbeth becomes more understandable or perhaps acceptable and certainly much more convincing. Her coldness and depravity of heart seems born out of the desperation of the moment rather than a natural instinct within her nature. In times of great crisis, someone must always be the pillar of strength; Lady Macbeth was that pillar. Unfortunately, her strength transpires to a tragic dimension. One other point which perhaps has not been made as evident as it might be, is the special bond or relationship that exists between any husband and wife. This relationship is itself the cornerstone of the tragedy. As the events unfold, Macbeth and his wife are torn apart by the consequences of their actions. She spirals into inaction and guilt-ridden dreams while he lusts for more confirmed power, thus becoming his own pillar of strength and driving force. Earlier, however, it was not so. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth loved each other and respected the bond of their marriage vows. The greatest tragedy of Macbeth is enhanced by the understanding that love eventually brought dishonour and death to them both. Macbeth and Lady Macbeths who lived as loyal, loving partners in the early part of the play demonstrate an intrinsic humanity, and additionally, the inherent fallibility of them both. It could be said, if one ignores the gorier particulars to this story, that this is a tale of ambition turning into a murderous frenzy, which suggests success and happiness is perhaps everyone’s greatest test in life.
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