Is there enough evidence in the play to suggest that Lady Macbeth is a fiend- like Queen or do you retain a degree of sympathy for her?
I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question. I believe that Lady Macbeth did have some human emotions; however she had a dark side. Personally, I believe that she was fiend-like and power hungry, but she did have a human side, which we see later on in the play.
This play was written in the reign of James I. He was fascinated by the idea of magic and witchcraft, so he was enthralled by this play. This of course made the play very popular amongst the people in Great Britain, and is still very well known today. Even people that haven’t studied or read any Shakespeare plays before are still familiar with the story of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s primary source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The outlines of Shakespeare’s story are derived from Holinshed’s account of Kings Duncan and Macbeth. Although these characters existed, the story was purely fictional.
Lady Macbeth must have appeared to be completely un-feminine to an Elizabethan audience. At this time, women were expected to rear children and have a strong maternal instinct. Women were portrayed as being compassionate and kind-hearted. Lady Macbeth didn’t seem possess many of these qualities, so she must have seemed horrific because of her dark language and tone she used. Also because of the way she treated her husband, she was very dominant and controlling towards him, this was unheard of at this time. For these reasons, I can see why the audience at this time would have described her to be a monster.
The first time we meet Lady Macbeth is late in Act 1 Scene 5 when she is reading a letter, received from her husband. In this letter he refers to her as his “dearest partner in greatness” which shows that there is such a strong loving bond between the couple. The Elizabethan audience would have found this very strange because in these times, women were not regarded to be as important as men.
In Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy we can see that she has no hesitation in what action to take as she expresses that Macbeth “shall be what thou art promised.” But she knows that Macbeth is too kind to grasp the crown himself, her speech suggests that she will be the one who will commit regicide. She mentions the raven in her speech, which refers to death. She deliberately dedicates herself to evil by pleading with evil spirits to ‘posses her body’. She calls on demons and commands them to “unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty”. She wants these demons to remove any human qualities and emotions from her so she can commit this crime without feeling any remorse.
Alliteration is used in ‘murdering ministers’ to emphasise the dark tone in her speech. She is willing to cast off her femininity to make her capable of murdering King Duncan. At this point in the play the audience would detest Lady Macbeth and they would probably have absolutely no sympathy for her. The audience would have been very religious and at this time a King was considered to be God’s anointed on earth. So Lady Macbeth’s plans would have been seen as sacrilegious. Lady Macbeth appears to be heartless and evil at this point. It would seem that she is the more dominant character in the marriage.
She makes a constant call for darkness to hide the evil she intends to perform when she commands, ‘come thick night’. When Macbeth enters she refers to him as “great Glaims, worthy Cawdor!” and continues to say “Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!” These are the words that the witches used when prophesising to Macbeth. This could suggest that she is the fourth witch.
She is extremely impulsive as she doesn’t consider the implications or consequences that her actions may have. She orders Macbeth to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under ‘t.” She is telling him to look innocent on the outside, but to be venomous, like a serpent, underneath. She takes control and instructs him to leave everything in her hands and to let her deal with the planning. She is confident and efficient and has no sense of doubt or hesitation.
When Lady Macbeth greets Duncan she acts like a perfect hostess and shows great hospitality. She uses a lot of words when welcoming him to emphasise how honoured she is to have him staying in her home. At this point she is absolutely confident that her plan will not fail, perhaps she is being naive in assuming this. She underestimates the effects of her actions and the nature of evil takes place- where she can only see good consequences from her actions and not bad. She tells Duncan that she wants his servants to be comfortable in her home “to make their audit at your highness’ pleasure.” She is being very hospitable towards him.
Macbeth begins to have great doubts about this plan in Act 1 Scene 7 and he wants to ‘proceed no further in this business.’ Her response is very manipulative as she humiliates and teases him and uses questions to break him down. She questions his masculinity and accuses him of not loving her. She is pressuring him in every way she can to kill the King. She tells him, “when you durst do it, then you were a man.” This line is monosyllabic, which emphasises her angry tone.
An Elizabethan audience, and indeed a modern audience, would be appalled at her saying:
“How tender ‘t is to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this.” We are not sure, but this speech implies that she is familiar with a baby suckling on her. Could this mean that she has had a child in the past? If so, she could have lost this child which might contribute to why she has such a dark personality. Maybe the loss of this child has damaged her emotionally and mentally, which could result in her violence and determination.
This quote is so hideous that it can definitely convince and audience that she is indeed a monster. She uses such gruesome and violent imagery to show how devoted she is to Macbeth. She lists the actions that will take place in the process, and Macbeth agrees to take part in the great deed as he is so overwhelmed by her organisation and brutality. She in convinced that there will be no consequences to their actions and asks “what cannot you and I perform upon th’ unguarded Duncan?” She is certain that the murder will be a success, although she never refers to it as a murder. He has adopted her courage and absorbed her plan. A lot of people would consider her to be the fourth witch as she finishes what they began. Personally, I do think that she is an evil Queen, but do not think of her to be the fourth witch.
The first time we see Lady Macbeth is Act 2 Scene 2 when she enters filled with determination, caused by alcohol. “Hark! – Peace!” suggests panic and that she’s vulnerable to fear. She takes a pro-active part in arranging the murder by laying out the daggers. She was not the one to physically murder Duncan because “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” If this excuse is genuine it implies that she does feel some human emotions of sympathy and compassion. Lady Macbeth is left to deal with the aftermath of her husband’s killing and his emotional distress. Macbeth has realised that he has just killed a good, honest man.
She reassures him, “these deeds must not be thought after these ways: so, it will make us mad.” She tells Macbeth not to worry as it will drive him insane. He is too distraught to lay out the daggers, so she takes matters into her own hands by doing it herself. Her courage and cool-heartedness must be admired. Moral justification for the murder doesn’t bother her; she only cares about the end result. Because of this she could be viewed as a monster, but perhaps she is simply being naï¿½ve in thinking that she will not suffer any consequences after the murder has taken place.
When there is a knock at the door, Macbeth is worried about the blood on his hands, she tries to comfort him and says ‘a little water clears us of this deed.’ So she means if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. She seems naï¿½ve at this point for believing that they will not feel guilt for what they have done.
In the next scene Duncan’s murder is discovered. Upon hearing the news from McDuff, Lady Macbeth faints. The audience is left to decide if this was genuine realisation of what she had done or if it is faked to divert suspicion from them. I, however, think that Lady Macbeth staged this ‘performance’ as she has shown no remorse throughout the play so far- why would she start now? I believe that it was an expert move to shift the focus from Macbeth so he is not discovered. If this is the case, does it mean that she is just being a caring wife and has a desire to protect her husband, or is she being selfish, knowing if he gets discovered then she might become a suspect also?
In Act 3 is the central act in the play. Scene 1 Macbeth realises that in order to cover up one murder, he has to kill more. As Banquo knows who has murdered the king, Macbeth decides to kill him.
Lady Macbeth begins to envy Duncan in Scene 2, as he has peace and she feels guilt. This is when she begins to feel the consequences of her actions. She did not consider this to happen beforehand.
Lady Macbeth is losing control of her husband as he excludes her from any further planning. When she asks what to do next, he replies “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, till thou applaudst the deed.” There is now an unstoppable chain of events. She has shown him how to murder, and now he’s doing it himself, and leaving her behind.
Sometime later, a banquet is held to celebrate Macbeth and Lady Macbeth coming to the throne. All of the main thanes of Scotland have been invited to the celebration. It has been revealed to Macbeth that Banquo has been killed, in Elizabethan times it was thought that if you saw the ghost of a murdered person, then you would be accused of being the murderer. At the banquet, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost sitting at the table. Lady Macbeth notices his reaction, takes control and tries to restore the calm by telling the guests to ignore him as he is ‘ill’ and has had this ‘illness’ since he was a child. She is very resourceful and improvises to cover it up. She attempts to dismiss his outburst, and then turns to him and scorns him:
“O! these flaws and starts (impostors to true fear) would well become a woman’s story at a winter’s fire,” once again questioning his masculinity. She feels agitated by his childish behaviour which has ruined the celebration. Lady Macbeth has now lost control over Macbeth. This is in great contrast to when we first met her. This was the woman who could get Macbeth to do anything that she wanted and was cold and heartless and here she is now, tired, afraid and unimportant to Macbeth. The audience would probably have sympathy for her now as we learn that she is not heartless, and she does show emotion. This does not portray her to be a monster anymore, but we still remember her character earlier in the play.
Lady Macbeth makes an unusually pleasant comment to Macbeth at the end of the scene, “You lack the season of all natures, sleep.” This is a surprisingly considerate comment considering how she was teasing him before.
Lady Macbeth does not appear in Act 4 and her last appearance is in Act 5 Scene 1. A doctor appears- which we can only assume was sent by Macbeth- to check on Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks on a nightly basis. Whilst sleepwalking, she carries paper with her. An Elizabethan audience would have understood this action as in this time they believed that writing relieved a guilty conscience. A gentle- woman tells the doctor that she constantly carries a light with her, this is ironic because earlier in the play she calls for darkness.
She also mimes washing her hand whilst demanding, ‘out dammed spot’ even though her hands are clean. She imagines that the sees traces of blood on her hands that she cannot remove. This is irony with her previous line, “a little water clears us off this deed”, because water cannot wash away guilt and it is guilt that is taking the form of the blood on her hands. We originally met a very strong. Courageous woman and now we can see an image of a lonely, broken woman. We now have full sympathy for her as she feels so guilty for what happened to Duncan. Guilt has now destroyed her, even though she never considered this at the beginning of the play. The doctor claims that he is not needed for her problems as there is no medical problem with her, it is guilt she feels.
In scene 5 it is announced that “the queen, my lord, is dead.” This is a very unspectacular announcement of the death of a woman who had such an impact in the play. Macbeth’s response is “she should have died hereafter.” This shows that he doesn’t want to mourn at this time which implies his love for her is not as great as it once was.
The last reference to Lady Macbeth is at the closing lines of the play, where Malcolm- the rightful heir to the throne- refers to the couple as a “dead butcher and his fiend- like queen”
We can see that she was not completely emotionless as she feels guilt later in the play. She didn’t have the emotional strength to deal with the guilt.
Personally, I felt pity and sympathy for Lady Macbeth towards the end of the play. She may just have been a loving wife, trying to do -what she saw as- the best thing she could for her and her husband to lead a and happy life. On the other hand, I think she was power crazy and wanted prosperity and control. I enjoyed reading the play and doing coursework on it. I also enjoyed studying Lady Macbeth as I thought she was a very complex character. However I did find Shakespeare’s language slightly challenging and couldn’t really understand it at first, but I can understand it more after reading the play and think it is very poetic.