Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth in multiple ways in Macbeth which change throughout the play. Initially, we find that Lady Macbeth is shown as a strong, manipulative, and powerful character, who is able to push ‘brave Macbeth” her husband to do anything for her. This is particularly illustrated in Act 1 Scene 7 where Lady Macbeth tests Macbeth’s masculinity when she tries to persuade him to murder King Duncan. This shows she’s very much in control of their relationship. It is also important to remember the male and female dynamics when Macbeth was written in 1606 and how Lady Macbeth did not fit societal expectations for the role of a typical wife in this period. For example, she deliberately tries to suppress her feminine qualities to exercise power. Conversely, towards the end of the play, Shakespeare introduces a more vulnerable side to her character where Lady Macbeth develops a conscience and can’t face up to what she has done. This is especially evident when she becomes overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and tries to wash imaginary blood from her hands. End the play, her relationship and her life as a broken character. Arguably it could be suggested that Shakespeare wants the audience to feel a sense of pity toward Lady Macbeth even though she has been manipulated for her own gain. In the Book ‘Brutus and Other Heroines’ Dame Harriet Walter, a leading Shakespearean actress, who played Lady Macbeth touches on the unique way she sees the role of Lady Macbeth and what her likely motivations are.
In Act 1 Scene 5, Shakespeare paints a strong image of this murderous, tragic heroine. Alliteration is used to create powerful dramatic sounds, like ‘murdering ministers’ and ‘toe topful’, which convey Lady Macbeth’s power to control. Furthermore, uneven rhythm along with imagery such as croaking ‘raven’, blood, and ‘keen knife’ hint at the supernatural. Shakespeare depicts Lady Macbeth as a witch cursing. This can also be seen in Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy where she speaks to the supernatural with words such as ‘Come here you spirits…and fill me.’ The ease at which Lady Macbeth speaks to the supernatural perhaps highlights the similarities between Lady Macbeth and the supernatural and therefore evil. Additionally, her increased use of the verbs ‘come’, and ‘fill’ suggests her commitment to power. Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy mirrors the witches when she says ‘shalt be’. This arguably foreshadows the evil that is beginning to overcome her.
Lady Macbeth’s association with the supernatural therefore violates her expected role as a domesticated and passive woman; she is immediately going against all socially expected norms for the Jacobean era. For instance, in Act 1 Scene 5 she tells the spirits to ‘unsex her here’ This is her wish to rid herself of all emotion, which is further reinforced through ‘take my milk for gall’, also creating evil connotations, through her vast use of negative language and imagery. This further suggests how Lady Macbeth wants to be relieved of all feminine qualities, as she wants to rid herself of what facilitates life and replace it with toxic agents that destroy life. This arguably foreshadows her ultimate downfall, as in the same way she destroyed life around her, she ended up taking her own. Additionally, the reversal of gender roles taken through Lady Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 5 would’ve been foreign to a woman conforming to stereotypes in the Jacobean Era, which shows them living a life subordinate to men and not being inclusive of men’s choices regarding politics and violence. Although society expected women to be submissive to their husbands, Lady Macbeth not only undermines this idea of submission but also distorts gender boundaries sparking the audience’s interest from the outset. The confidence that Lady Macbeth has is further evidenced in ‘Hail, the king that shalt be.’ This expresses to the reader how confident she is and how Shakespeare allows the character to make these assumptions that her husband Macbeth will become king. We also see in this scene that Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth into deciding that they should kill King Duncan. This shows that Lady Macbeth has no remorse for what she plans to do and therefore could be seen as very inhumane and emotionless. However, Walter suggests that ‘In Act 1, scene 5, she needs to see herself as the braver of the pair whose role is to ‘pour my spirits in thine ear: And chastise with the velour of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round.’ Indeed, most of Lady Macbeth’s velour lies in her tongue. Words embolden her until they become deeds. As events progress she has less and less to say. Her courage slips as her words dry up’ This reflection on Lady Macbeth’s role is important because it reflects on how her role evolves throughout the play and how initially she had the majority of the dialogue and by the end, she is virtually silent except when she speaks in her sleep. This is suggestive of her power evaporating over time which in itself is dramatic and also shows how eventually their relationship does conform to Jacobean norms.
Conversely, in Act 1 Scene 6, we see another side to Lady Macbeth where she appears to be playing the perfect role of hostess welcoming King Duncan. The king appears to feel comfortable in her company as he refers to her as ‘Honour’ d hostess’ This illustrates that he is at ease with Lady Macbeth and highlights to the audience that he has no idea of the plan to murder him. Although this scene highlights her playing a role more typical of a woman in the Jacobean era it also makes the audience aware of her ability to change her character like a chameleon to suit her agenda and to get what she wants.
In Act 1 Scene 7, we see Macbeth reflects on what his wife asks him to do by saying ‘I am…his host who should against his murderer shut the door, nor bear the knife myself’ Here we see Macbeth realize that as a guest he should protect King Duncan and not be the person that murders him. He later declares to his wife that they ‘will proceed no further in this business ‘but this does not discourage Lady Macbeth as we see her proceed to use a range of persuasive and manipulative techniques to convince Macbeth to Kill King Duncan. This can be seen when Lady Macbeth says ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ in order to display her disappointment in Macbeth and to try and manipulate him into doing what she wants. The repetition of the word ‘you’ is direct and sounds intimidating. Additionally, she insults her husband by saying ‘Art thou afeard?’ in an attempt to embarrass her husband into submission. Macbeth takes offense to that by declaring ‘I dare do all that may become a man’ Lady Macbeth continues to dominate him by criticizing Macbeth for going back on his promise to kill King Duncan. Further, in Act 1 Scene 7, we can consider further the role of Lady Macbeth in Jacobean society. Walter best identifies this when she states ‘Lady Macbeth says ‘I have given suck’ Macbeth is tormented by the idea of Banquo being ‘Father to a line of kings’ while he himself is lumbered with a ‘barren scepter’ and a ‘fruitless crown’. This is all the data Shakespeare gives us on the subject, but from this, we constructed a theory that would end up motoring my performance’ Walter dismisses the idea that Lady Macbeth is mocking his manhood. Instead, she interprets this as referring to Macbeth losing a child and how Lady Macbeth cannot fulfill the societal role that would have been expected of a noblewoman. Her inability to provide an heir to the throne could be viewed as a failure by the audience. Additionally, Walter ‘as she sees it, would have loved to be full of the milk of human kindness, but life has hardened her through no fault of her own. Macbeth’s moral equivocation is a luxury she resents. He can still hold his head up in his field’ Walter seems to imply that although Macbeth can still be someone to look up to for his soldiering she cannot be admired as a mother and could arguably be pitied as a childless wife. Furthermore, this shows that she may feel that her life is worth nothing as she has no emotional fulfillment from becoming a mother.
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Act 2 scene 2, represents the aftershock of King Duncan’s murder where Lady Macbeth is presented initially as controlled and considered. For example, ‘consider it not so deeply’ illustrates that she isn’t going to spend time worrying about the deed. In contrast, Macbeth frets about what he has just done. Lady Macbeth soothes him and tells him to wash his hands, but notices he’s still carrying the daggers he used to kill King Duncan. Macbeth refuses to return to the scene of the crime. Lady Macbeth, furious, runs off to plant the daggers. This is the first time we see Lady Macbeth in a dramatic panic as this was not part of her plan and therefore is a turning point in the play as Lady Macbeth is now clearly implicated in the murder and the audience can interpret this as such. Lady Macbeth returns, her hands now as bloody as Macbeth’s. But she’s calm and she says: a little water clears us of this deed’ and tells Macbeth to go and put his nightgown on so no one will suspect them. Although Lady Macbeth appears calm she is naïve, thinking water can wash away her guilt. This shows that she is trying to control her emotions perhaps to comfort Macbeth. We do start to see signs that she starting to become overwhelmed by guilt. She claims that she would have killed King Duncan herself except that he resembled her father sleeping. This is the first time Lady Macbeth shows herself to be vulnerable and it also foreshadows her future feelings of guilt. Additionally, ‘these deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.’ shows the audience that she regrets her wrongdoing and that she realizes the mistake that she has made. Shakespeare also uses a metaphor ‘and wash this filthy witness from your hand.’ He uses the metaphor to signify that the blood is a reason to find them guilty and the blood saw what happened. This is a drastic change in character for Lady Macbeth as we see a more human side to her.
In Act 3 Scene 2 at times we see two characters are both in sync for the first time in the play. For instance, neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth seems to be entirely at ease. Lady Macbeth talks of her ‘doubtful joy’ and Macbeth of his ‘restless ecstasy’ this illustrates that in the world that the Macbeths have created for themselves peace no longer exists. What we do learn is that there is a power change. This is evident when Macbeth fails to inform Lady Macbeth of his plans to kill Banquo, even though she has been shown to be consistently loyal to him. Lady Macbeth is affectionate with her language such as ‘gentle my lord’ and ‘so shall I love’ being suggestive of traditional stereotypes of this era. Furthermore, Walter notes ‘The next time we see the couple (Act 3, Scene 2) they are crowned, and we watch their positions reverse…(they) use more than tenderly usual language to one another…but this seems a means of control rather than an expression of love…a new lack of trust has crept under their dialogue.’ This also confirms the suggestion of a power change and a rebalancing of power in favor of Macbeth.
Previously we see that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are there for each other and have a close relationship, this was shown when they helped each other after King Duncan’s murder. In Act 3 Scene 4 however, we see the characters start to go their separate ways. Macbeth murders Banquo and plans to murder Fleance without Lady Macbeth knowing. This shows a change in the routine of their relationship as usually, Macbeth would consult Lady Macbeth before taking action. This illustrates that he now has the confidence to act alone. We can see this In Act 3 Scene 5 when Macbeth states ‘Only look up clear. To alter favor ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me.’ Macbeth’s language recognizes the power shift and the use of the words #leave the rest to me’ highlight how Macbeth is totally in control in this scene and that he no longer requires the help of Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is redundant.
The expectations of men and women and how they behave are constantly explored throughout the play by Shakespeare. We learn that Lady Macbeth throughout the play is removed from any maternal instincts which are diametrically opposed to women within the Jacobean era. This is further evident when Lady Macbeth is compared to Lady McDuff in n Act 4 Scene 2. Lady Macduff is presented as a stereotypical Jacobean motherly figure, who was defined as a mother and reliant on her husband. Lady Mcduff uses language that is motherly such as ‘poor monkey’ which is in stark contrast to Lady Macbeth who in Act 1 Scene 7 had said she would rather ‘have had plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I sworn so’. The whole idea of female dominance directly challenges the social norms and as a result, demonstrated Lady Macbeth’s importance as Shakespeare’s device to cause dramatic appeal amongst the audience.
Shakespeare writes this play in the form of a tragedy to entice the audience to keep watching. A tragedy is where the writer is concerned with human suffering in which the hero is of high status and possesses only good qualities. However, amid these virtues, there is a fatal flaw that leads to the hero’s destruction and ultimate demise. This is shown by Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s plan to kill King Duncan and karma occurs when Lady Macbeth dies. This expresses the view of Lady Macbeth that she initiated the murder and therefore she should suffer. However, it could be argued that Lady Macbeth herself can be seen as a tragic heroine and this is another illustration of how this is opposed to Jacobean expectations.
In conclusion, Shakespeare utilizes powerful language and masculine traits to present Lady Macbeth as very atypical for this time period. Shakespeare also uses the balance of relationships in the play as an anchor to express his views on the perception of what it means to be masculine and how a murderer must live with his or her conscience. It is clear that the character of Lady Macbeth is complex and although the audience may initially feel she is evil and manipulative, it is also clear that there is more to her character than the audience may appreciate at first. The way Shakespeare structures Lady Macbeth as becoming less relevant throughout the play and how the audience learn to pity her as they are exposed to her vulnerabilities shows just how tragic the play of Macbeth is. It could be argued that she is possibly a victim of the era in which she exists. Her inability to fulfill the main role of a noblewoman and produce an heir allows the audience to sympathize with her as they watch her demise from a powerful, manipulative woman at the beginning of the play into a fragile weak Lady who was reliant on others.