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Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth

  • Lady Macbeth first appears when she reads the letter Macbeth sends ahead in the first Act, telling her of the witches’ prophecies and of Duncan’s imminent arrival in Dunsinane. Disturbing anti-femininity and her rant about wanting to murder a child.  She immediately responds with ambition.  The traditional view of femininity at the time would have been that women are gentle, weak and submissive to their husbands.  For example, Macduff refers to Lady Macbeth as ‘gentle Lady’.  Lady Macbeth at times plays up to this stereotype, for example, fainting when Macbeth is getting himself into trouble.  Yet at other times, Lady Macbeth defies this, opening the play by demonstrating her power, calling Dunsinane her ‘battlements’, and trying to persuade Macbeth to perform the heretical and violent action of murdering the King. 

  • When Macbeth arrives and greets her, she is angry and disappointed in his lack of motivation to kill Duncan, which shows Lady Macbeth’s unusual cruelty. Ideas of masculinity vs femininity are seen repeatedly through Lady Macbeth’s taunting of Macbeth.  She repeatedly emasculates Macbeth, telling him that he is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’.  By relating milk (a feminine product) to kindness, Lady Macbeth reveals that she does not believe that kindness is a masculine quality.  She believes that masculinity is brutality, cruelty and ambition.  At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is definitely strong and brutal - see the description of Macbeth killing an enemy soldier.  However, his inability to fulfil his ambitions makes him un-masculine in Lady Macbeth’s eyes.  The lack of Macbeth’s masculinity and Lady Macbeth’s own lack of femininity may go some way towards explaining why the two have no children - Lady Macbeth is too brutal a woman to be granted children, symbols of innocence in the play.  

  • To some degree by killing Duncan, Macbeth becomes more masculine to Lady Macbeth, even though he becomes increasingly cowardly.  

  • Lady Macbeth can thus be linked with the three witches in the play because they both show their brutality and their genders are not clear. The witches are described by Banquo as  “you should be women,/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so.” This shows that they initially appear female, yet are corrupted by masculinity.  For the witches, this shows their corruption of the natural world, yet Lady Macbeth’s masculinity shows her cruelty - though she too will corrupt the world by murdering Duncan.  Moreover, Lady Macbeth says “unsex me” and “ here/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty!’ This shows her misunderstanding of masculinity - she views it as something which is cruel and ruthless.  This view is later rejected by Malcolm and Macduff.  To some extent, the Witches and Lady Macbeth both show the danger of womanhood being corrupted by evil.  

  • Lady Macbeth’s sheer persuasiveness also shows her power and her manipulative nature, leading her to eventually successfully convince Macbeth to murder Duncan. ‘Why, worthy thane,/ You do unbend your noble strength, to think/So brainsickly of things.’  She is saying that Macbeth has noble strength but us still acting like a coward. This insult makes Macbeth willing to prove himself and thus he does what Lady Macbeth asks him to do.  An audience may, however, question the extent towards this is Lady Macbeth’s doing, and to what degree Macbeth would have killed Duncan anyway, moved by his own ambition.  

  • Lady Macbeth is also ambitious, and from the play’s opening worries about her husband’s kindness being their downfall.  She too wants Macbeth to be the King, and she wants to become a man (or at least not to be bound by the social expectations of womanhood.)

  • She is also extremely smart, and pretends to faint in order to get rid of the suspicions people would have towards Macbeth.  For instance, when after the murder Macbeth is talking unconvincingly towards Macduff, she purposefully faints, distracting them and playing on her feminine qualities.  When Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and acts madly, she attempts to cover it by saying “my lord is often thus”. This shows her quick thinking and how as a woman she is willing to protect her husband, who is her means of being Queen.  

  • Increasingly Lady Macbeth is isolated by Macbeth and is kept ‘innocent of the knowledge’, showing Macbeth’s increasing direction in his own works.  

  • Act 3 scene 2 start to show the weakness of her character in ‘Had he not resembled/  My father as he slept, I had done't.’  In these lines she shows she cares about people and that she is not inhumanly cruel, like she wants to believe.

  • We might see a foil for Lady Macbeth in the character of Lady Macduff.  The latter is a stereotypical woman in the Jacobean age, she is brave yet focused on her family above all others, and knows that a woman’s place is to be innocent and guiltless, even if this is not rewarded.

  • Her decreasing involvement in the play and downfall comes from her guilt towards Duncan and is shown in Macbeth’s increasing paranoia - he increasingly doesn’t even tell her when he is plotting murders, telling her to ‘be innocent of the knowledge’.   As an audience, we see less and less of Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder because of the reversal of roles between her and Macbeth.

  • Throughout the play Lady Macbeth has also shown weakness, particularly when she cannot kill Duncan because ‘he resembled my father as he slept’.  Even in the first half of the play, then, we might see that Lady Macbeth is not quite as cruel, or as unfeeling as she initially seems.

  • When Lady Macbeth reappears in the sleepwalking scene, she seems to be re-reading a letter in her sleep which shows how big an affect the murder of Duncan has on her. The letter she is re-reading is that which Macbeth sent her at the opening of the play, which began the events of the play.  Rereading suggests she notices that this is where everything went wrong, when she told Macbeth to kill Duncan.  It is now suggested that she regrets this and wishes she had done something else.   The fact that she must have light by her at all times shows her attempting to search for good in her own moral darkness, as well as her guilt regarding the many sins she has committed.

  • ‘In this slumbery agitation’ means she is troubled in sleep and shows her inner anxiety and turmoil.   Sleep throughout Macbeth is a good indicator of the subconscious.

  • ‘Out damned spot!’ This quotation shows the image of blood is haunting her continuously and suggests her inner fear has always come from guilt and regret of her decision.   Lady Macbeth now begins washing her hands, attempting to wash the blood off them. 'Out, damned spot', is also reminiscent of Pontius Pilate - spiritual blood and sin cannot be removed. Pontius Pilate was the man who gave Jesus to the crowd who said he should be executed.  Afterwards, Pilate tries to wash the blood from his hands metaphorically, but he’s still guilty.  'Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him' - images of seas of blood in the play stem from this one murder, blood spreading linguistically as well as literally.  The sin of the murder was so great that the ‘blood’ spread by Duncan’s corpse washes over everything,

  • To some degree we may see this scene as Lady Macbeth’s last confession, where she confesses what she has done to the audience, if not to God.

  • She ends her role here saying 'to bed', she cannot change what has happened and so she must die (sleep being the mimic of death). 'there's knocking at the gate', signalling her own impending judgement, as well as the death knell which has been sounding since the murder.


Macbeth’s character before murder of Duncan

  • Macbeth is introduced as a brave and loyal soldier in Duncan’s army: ‘For brave Macbeth--well he deserves that name--’

  • He is also seen to be capable of extreme violence, which at the beginning of the play is a good thing, yet which will become one of his brutal qualities towards the end of the play.  ‘Like valour's minion carved out his passage/ Till he faced the slave;/ Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,/Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,/ And fix'd his head upon our battlements.’  This may be considered as foreshadowing Macbeth’s later violent actions.

  • During his encounter with the witches, he is seen to be ambitious, although he tries to hide it.  Banquo says of him, ‘he seems rapt’ showing that Macbeth is bewitched by the promises they have made him.  His repeated questioning of Banquo also shows how obsessed he is, and how he is already becoming paranoid about Banquo’s possible usurpation of the throne.

  • Yet Macbeth is also ‘too full o’the milk of human kindness’, and constantly hesitates between whether he should kill Duncan and get what he wants, or whether he can rely on fortune - ‘chance may crown me without my stir.’  He seems torn between ambition and his better instincts. 

  • Macbeth is also shown to be easily influenced during the opening sections during the play, both by the witches and by Lady Macbeth.  The latter successfully persuades him to kill Duncan by taunting him about his masculinity, and about how much he loves her.  ‘Art thou afeard/ To be the same in thine own act and valour/ As thou art in desire?’

  • Ultimately, the dagger scene before the murder of Duncan shows Macbeth’s inability to repress his ambition, and his desire to kill Duncan which may be seen as manifested as a hallucination.  ‘The handle towards my hand’ shows that the dagger is already pointing him on his way, allowing Macbeth to reach out and grasp it.  Moreover, the fact that the dagger develops spots of blood on its blade as he speaks of murdering Duncan shows that mentally, Macbeth has committed the deed before he actually physically does so.


Macbeth’s character immediately after the murder

  • Macbeth becomes increasingly paranoid after the murder of Duncan.

  • He becomes paranoid about the way in which he has damned his soul - ‘I had most need of blessing/But Amen stuck in my throat’

  • He becomes paranoid that other people suspect him, especially as he originally regrets what he dead. ‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!’  He becomes scared of the people knocking on the door - which is justified, as this turns out to be Macduff who will later kill him.

  • Macbeth’s increasing ability to lie to himself is seen in the Porter scene, where the Porter talks of somebody who is good at ‘equivocating’, talking ambiguously, but who ‘cannot equivocate to heaven.’

  • The way in which Macbeth becomes more concerned with increasing his power, and cannot be satisfied with what he already has. ‘To be King is nothing but to be safely thus’ - Macbeth becomes increasingly worried that he has taught ‘bloody instructions’ and somebody will similarly usurp him.  Therefore, he decides to kill all those that may be a threat to him, e.g. Banquo whose children as supposed to be Kings.Macbeth’s growing brutality is shown in his murder of those who were once close to him.The more he kills, however, the less human he becomes.

  • During the middle part of the play we also see a role reversal with Lady Macbeth, who started as the more brutal and ambitious of the two characters, but Macbeth rapidly becomes the more tyrannical, going so far as to commit murders without her knowledge.  


Macbeth’s character at the end of the play

  • From the moment he goes to see the witches again, Macbeth becomes increasingly paranoid and oxymoronically both overconfident and extremely depressed.  

  • ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ Creeps on this petty pace’, saying that every day is slow and painful, and he sees no meaning in the rest of ‘recorded time’.  This shows that Macbeth is suffering immensely at this point, we may question whether Macbeth has ever been able to enjoy the thing which he wanted so badly.

  • Perhaps Macbeth feels stuck - he has nothing to lose, which he believes because of what the witches tell him - yet also nothing to gain anymore, and those things which he has gained haven’t brought him any joy.

‘I have lived long enough: my way of life

Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have;’  

  • This shows Macbeth’s loneliness and lack of normal human relationships, and his regret that due to gaining this power he has chosen to lose all of these things.  In the quote ‘I have lived long enough’, Macbeth shows that he no longer cares about life itself, he is simply fighting on until the end.

  • Yet he is also convinced that he cannot die, due to what the witches have told him.  

  • This leads to his overconfidence on the battlefield and when he finds that the army is marching on Dunsinane, he fights his way through the battlefield hacking everyone out of his way until he finally realises that the witches have betrayed him.

  • There are small instances towards the end where he does think the witches have betrayed him - ‘I begin to doubt the equivocation of the fiend’, yet he ignores this until it becomes unavoidable, showing his short-sightedness as a character.

  • How Macbeth is remembered by others at the end of the play - ‘this dead butcher’.  The audience is meant to think this is slightly reductive.We feel sympathy for Macbeth despite knowing all the terrible things he has done, leading to our own inner-conflict and confusion at the end of the play.  

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