Lady Macbeth’s character changes a lot during the course of the play. The character at the beginning is so different to the one presented in her final scene would not even be recognised as the same person. The play accurately depicts the progression of Lady Macbeth from a dominating, confident, ruthless killer, to a weak, mentally unstable, dying woman.
The first scene she appears in shows Lady Macbeth reading a letter from Macbeth regarding his encounter with the witches after they predicted he would become King.
This scene illustrates the immensely strong bond between her and her husband, in the way that she doesn’t doubt him for a moment. As soon as she finishes reading the letter, she immediately starts formulating and doesn’t question how or why or when he is to become king:
“Glamis thou art and Cawdor and shall be
What thou art promised”
This scene can also be said to display impatience in her character.
She accuses Macbeth of being:
“Too full o’th’milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way”
…instantly deciding that murder is the quickest (and therefore preferable) method to ensuring this prediction is made flesh. Rather than accepting that Macbeth would not be willing to go to these lengths whatever the reward, she continues toying with this idea, planning how it could be done despite this.
Just to prove how much this would mean to Lady Macbeth, she states that since Macbeth suggested it in the first place, she would rather:
“while [our child] was smiling in my face, have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out”
than allow Macbeth to back out now. This once again shows her shrewdness, as she’s obviously deliberately using very violent imagery as a shock tactic to guilt Macbeth in to submission. She knows that if they are going to murder Duncan they have to do it tonight, so she’s using every method she can think of to persuade him before it’s too late and the prospect of power becomes seemingly unreachable.
The audience since her first soliloquy has established that she has more ambition, and craves more domination than a woman (particularly at that time) is thought rightly to have. The notions that she has conjured up do not seem to be likely of a particularly feminine personality. She shows very little compassion or worry.
Lady Macbeth has powerfully changed Macbeth, using his moral weaknesses exposed by his ambition, to change his mind. Macbeth has let his wife’s iron will destroy his conscience and his somewhat ‘sophisticated’ moral sense. The audience are nevertheless left with sub-conscience doubts about Lady Macbeth’s appearance of unshakeable strength.
There is an obvious change once the actual murder takes place, however. Once she returns from drugging the guards with alcohol she says:
‘That which hat made them drunk, hath made me bold
What hath quench’d them, hath given me fire…’
…which shows a lapse in her confidence. Although this may seem like a obscure reference, I believe that up until her last scenes Lady Macbeth puts on a convincing front to cover up any weaknesses. She seemed enormously self-assured when trying to persuade Macbeth, but now considers alcohol as a way to gain the ‘boldness’ she feigned earlier.
Despite how much she obviously wants Macbeth to be king and the lengths she went to convince him he wanted it too, she refuses to kill Duncan herself. Previously, Lady Macbeth had said:
“Leave all the rest to me”
…so she had maybe intended to do the deed herself, but once faced with the actual opportunity to do so, she looses her nerve and says that:
“Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t”
This shows a very different attitude to the one she was hoping to adopt earlier on in the play. This is clearly not her being ‘unsexed’ as she is still showing compassion and sentimentality and must still have a conscience if it matters how much the victim looks like someone close to her. It seems surprising that the same woman who had previously stated that she would be willing to kill her own child than go back on her word, would be less willing to take the life of someone who merely resembles a family member, for which she would gain the reward of being Queen.
This action can show one of two things: she either honestly planned to let Macbeth ‘leave it to her’ or this is another exhibit of her scheming ways in the view that Macbeth most likely feel it’s too late to abandon the plot now and would probably be reluctant, due to Lady Macbeth’s constant persuasion, to allow power to slip away now after it was so nearly in his grasp. There is more evidence to suggest that she was building up a faï¿½ade to Macbeth to convince him that every deed she is ‘willing’ to undertake is completely necessary to their livelihood but is nothing worth being apprehensive about.
Not only did she contradict this by walking into the room in which Duncan was sleeping and walking straight back out again, but she is also obviously very nervous herself. A bird, which should be the least of her worries, startles her and the dialogue between the couple consists of very short broken-up sentences suggesting anxiety, and it is evident that they are both not listening to each other, practically talking to themselves. Lady Macbeth continues to suppress her unease with the situation and attempts to recover from the lapse of equanimity earlier, showing that she feels it’s important that Macbeth sees her as calm and collected in the hope that he will follow suit. She knows that she is the influential one in the relationship and so believes it is almost her duty to stay sane for Macbeth’s sake. She remains ever meticulous and tells Macbeth to wash his hands of blood and says:
“A little water will clear us of this deed,
See how easy it is then!”
Lady Macbeth remains composed during the rest of this scene, and is ensuring nothing seems out of the ordinary. She realises that if Macbeth answered the knocking at the door in his normal attire at this time in the morning it would seem suspicious and so tells him to get changed. This shows that even under the pressure Lady Macbeth is thinking of every possible clue that could be held against them.
In the scene set the morning after the murder, it is debateable if the character of Lady Macbeth has drastically changed or not as once again, it can be read two ways. She could faint because of the shock of Macbeth’s vivid descriptions, the murder itself or the following murders of the guards (She had only prepared for Duncan’s murder and was not expecting anyone else to be killed) are proving too much stress for her to take, or she’s remaining entirely in control and is merely trying to distract the attention away from her husband in case he starts to crack under the weight of suspicion upon him. Just before she faints she says:
“Help me hence, ho!”
…which to me suggests it’s the latter, as this would divert the congregations attention effectively if delivered in a theatrical way, whereas realistically she probably would have not thought to make it so known that she was about to faint.
Lady Macbeth is understandably fearful that homicide now is becoming way too easy for Macbeth. In my opinion she’s starting to feel guilt but not entirely about the murder itself, more for warping Macbeth. She is aware that he now finds it necessary to kill everyone in his way, and it was her allegation of being a coward that sparked this attitude as a way to prove his masculinity:
“When you durst do it, then you are a man”
The next few scenes mark the beginning of the deterioration of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship. In the first scene that Lady Macbeth appears in, they seem -as previously mentioned- to understand each other perfectly and not doubt each other’s judgment. Now, however, he fails to consult her or even inform her on his actions which puts a great strain on their relationship as neither of them are used to the role they are taking on. Lady Macbeth is slowly becoming the weaker of the two. Now it is Macbeth who is scheming, and his failure to discuss any of his plans with her. The breakdown in communication between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is illustrated in Act Three Scene Two where Lady Macbeth feels that it is required for her to ask permission to speak to her own husband. She says to a servant:
‘Say to the king, I would attend his leisure
For a few words.’
This formality would not be unusual heard from anyone else due his rise to the throne, but from his wife, this impersonal use of ‘the king’ rather than ‘my husband’ or his name suggests a mutual feeling of detachment. In Lady Macbeth’s four line soliloquy, she says:
‘Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content’
Here she is saying that nothing is gained, everything is lost when what they had wished for was brought without happiness, leaving her without the loving relationship demonstrated in the first half of the play and without any hope of it returning.
The Banquet scene is the first scene in which we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth together as a couple in the public eye. There is obviously going to be another side shown of Lady Macbeth, the one she wants her people to see. There were certain expectations a Queen was meant to live up to and so it would be in her interest to conform to these as much as possible. Lady Macbeth sees their public image as imperative and she expresses this to Macbeth telling him to:
“Sleek o’er your rugged looks, be bright and jovial
Among your guests tonight.”
She also wants to make certain nothing seems dubious about the death of Banquo.
Lady Macbeth is trying not to let the details of her failing marriage be known to the congregation, as this may show weakness and although they don’t converse throughout the scene except to reprimand each other, they ensure this is done in private. The passion has left their relationship and leaves it on a totally formal basis. Lady Macbeth refers to her husband as “My Royal Lord” whereas much more colloquial terms would be expected from a wife in normal circumstances.
When Macbeth starts to see the apparition of Banquo, this worries Lady Macbeth. It is a possibility that his guilt-ridden mumblings will cause the guests to doubt him. If it doesn’t arouse suspicion surrounding the murder of Banquo, it may instigate people questioning his suitability as King. When he first begins speaking to the ghost, she almost immediately comes up with the excuse that it is a frequent occurrence, and that the guests should take no notice of him.
She tries to cover this episode up and pass it off as “momentary fit”. This mirrors some of the qualities seen in Lady Macbeth in the murder scene, where even under pressure she manages to do everything in her power to avoid the suspicion, for example realising that Macbeth should change his clothes before answering the door. She tries to use the same techniques of persuasion she put in to practice successfully previously in the play, but as the situation has changed, so has Macbeth. She has no influence over him anymore and whereas before he strived to prove his masculinity once she challenged it, in this scene he responds to the question “Are you a man?” with:
“Ay, and a bold one”
This frustrates Lady Macbeth, as this is not the way he should be reciprocating. She continues to try to use this technique, but it becomes apparent that it’s not accomplishing anything and in desperation, she requests the guests leave before Macbeth makes even more of a spectacle of himself.
This scene is the final scene in the play where Lady Macbeth displays her quick witted nature, with the possible reasons for this becoming apparent in the next scene. As always, she delivers her excuses perfectly timed and without any sign of hesitation. She manages to completely rationalize Macbeth’s inner turmoil to their guests. This once again emphasises this side of her character, and leaves the audience convinced beyond reasonable doubt that despite the recent adaptations in her role she is nonetheless still the sharper of the two.
Almost to contradict this statement, Lady Macbeth goes in completely the opposite direction in her final scene. Although her wavering sanity has been subtly suggested throughout the last few scenes she appears in, it is only made concrete now, such as her overly nervous gesticulations shown in Act Two Scene Three and her confession later one to regretting the murder, which is unexpected for someone who had planned it so thoroughly.
Although after the murder she was assuring Macbeth that as soon as they wash their hands of the blood they are free of the guilt, ironically this is the subject of her hallucinations. She is sleepwalking in this scene and delivers one of the most famous lines of the play:
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
…referring to the blood that was so easily washed off in the murder scene. What is not so effortlessly removed is the guilt and the dawning realisation of what she has done. her mind has rekindled the association with the blood on her hands, and this has made itself apparent in her fitful sleep.Lady Macbeth has finally been crushed under the weight of her own suppressed remorse. This proves that she does indeed have a conscience, contrary to her cold, unfeeling exterior.
There many reasons why Shakespeare could have chosen to make Lady Macbeth change so dramatically through the play. One possibility is that he is simply mirroring the attitude towards women at the time, which was they are not emotionally or physically capable of anything remotely strenuous or stressful. Lady Macbeth having to ask to be ‘unsexed’ to be able to carry out the murder could support this idea, along with her being reduced to what we see of her nearer the end after she carried out actions that were associated with men. This could be perceived as a kind of punishment for denying her femininity. Although this is a possibility I think that from what we see of women in other Shakespeare plays such as Twelfth Night his attitude seems to be very advanced for the time, and he does pretty much present the two sexes as equal throughout his work, and so I feel that he probably isn’t trying to convey a negative attitude to Lady Macbeth because of her gender.
Another suggestion is that he is trying to illustrate how emotions can be vulnerability in the way that the murder was a success until Lady Macbeth started to cave under the guilt and allowed her more emotional side to take control. Personally however, I feel that it’s simply exemplifying how everything has consequences and has the ability to escape your control. I think this because Lady Macbeth was an extremely important part in the beginning of the play but wasn’t even on stage for her death, which is unusual because without her the murder of Duncan would have probably not happened at all and so the whole plot is dependant on her character.
One way to explain this is that Lady Macbeth ‘created a monster’ so to speak, and although their relationship was matriarchal (which was very unusual for the time), Macbeth started to break away from her and she began to lose control of him; for example, the murder of Banquo. She presents an outwardly stable foundation of control in which she grasps. As Macbeth becomes less dependent on his wife, she loses more control. She loses control of her husband, but mostly, of herself, proving her unstable truth. She no longer matters to Macbeth and it becomes impossible for her to finish what she started. The consequence of Lady Macbeth’s insistence to make Macbeth more ambitious and to take the life of the King was that it made him feel he had to prove his bravery even more and ended up seeing murder as the only way to achieve what he wanted and he slowly but surely became a slave to his own ambition.
Ironically, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth died because of the very things they saw as the most important, whether directly or indirectly. In conclusion, the ultimate reason in my opinion that Shakespeare chooses to allow Lady Macbeth’s character to change so considerably, leading to her seemingly inconsequential death, is to demonstrate that although some people may be easily influenced, it is impossible to control someone. Lady Macbeth tried to control Macbeth for her own means to become Queen, but made it so he got to a point where no-one mattered, and once she couldn’t make him prove his love for her anymore, she was left with nothing but her guilty conscience to contend with, which became the death of her.
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