The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is dominated and manipulated by Lady Macbeth. She controls Macbeth’s emotions e.g. when trying to persuade him to kill Duncan she accuses him of being a ‘coward,’ asking ‘art thou afeard’. This shows that to be a bold and fearless warrior is important for Macbeth; he does not want to be seen as a coward, and calling him such clearly affected and offended him (and interestingly, he taunts Banquo’s murderers with similar jibes of being cowardly). Shakespeare uses this to show how easily Macbeth bends to the will of others; he not only takes on the predictions of the witches, but also the ideas, views and vocabulary of his wife. This again hints to the audience that Macbeth might not be the strong, noble hero that we saw in act 1; it reveals that he can be easily swayed, his emotions change rapidly and that he already has insecurities.
Macbeth’s weakness is evident when he and his wife plot to kill Duncan. It is Lady Macbeth who gives the orders of what to do and how to do it, using a lot of imperatives, ‘go get some water’, ‘go carry them’. Her authority and control of any situation is evident, with her even saying things like ‘Leave all the rest to me’. Shakespeare shows that Lady Macbeth dominates the relationship. A Jacobean audience would have not only been astonished to see ‘brave Macbeth’ take orders, but to take orders willingly from a woman would have truly shocked them. They would have believed it showed weakness. It would have made them question and scrutinise his character more thoroughly. This would mean that they were more likely to pick up on his quickly changing state of mind. One moment Macbeth is strongly against killing Duncan, saying that ‘We will proceed no further in this business’ and the next strongly for it ‘Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell That summons thee to heaven or to hell’. This is a key scene where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship emphasises Macbeth’s emotional exhaustion, confusion and conflicting thoughts.
Macbeth agonises over the killing of Duncan. However, directly afterwards Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are completely in tune with each other, and rely on each other. At this point their relationship is not so loving but has become functional; they are working in perfect harmony as demonstrated by continuously finishing each other’s sentences, sharing the beats in a line (Act II, scene II). Their self-satisfaction however is non-existent, as their short lines indicate how nervous and jumpy they both are. Shakespeare also starts the scene with the shriek of an owl interrupting Lady Macbeth, the sudden noise would cut through and almost break the tension on stage, it would also be used to symbolise Duncan’s death to the audience. A Jacobean audience would have thought that to kill the king is against nature, so for a creature of nature to shriek and cry out when Duncan is murdered, is not only clear symbolism from Shakespeare, but a confirmation to the audience that what Macbeth is doing is not only wrong but unnatural. It shows how conflicted and misguided Macbeth’s actions are. His extreme emotions are also portrayed through emotive language and strong imagery, ‘Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleep of care…’ This is the first scene where Macbeth is distraught, his actions have altered his mental state and his reliance on Lady Macbeth is no longer sufficient to resolve his insecurities. Macbeth stops confiding in Lady Macbeth, for example when he plots to have Banquo murdered. He becomes obsessed with power and increasingly paranoid and volatile.
The last time Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are seen on stage together is at the end of act 3. At the beginning of the act Shakespeare uses antithesis (the opposition of words or phrases against each other in balanced contrast) in phrases like ‘Noughts had, alls spent’ to emphasise Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s anxieties. In the same scene (scene 2) he also uses dark and violent imagery to further depict Macbeth’s merciless, darkened mind, ‘We have scorched the snake, not killed it’. Indeed Macbeth is now using a lot of sibilance (‘restless ecstasy’, ‘nor steel nor poison, Malice domestic…’), Many of the words are pronounced with a hissing sound; this would have been associated with snakes, witchcraft and evil, especially in Jacobean England. It also almost represents a role reversal between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as it was originally Lady Macbeth who used this witchy language with dark imagery. This once again highlights the parallels between their relationship and Macbeth’s emotional turmoil for the audience. They mirror each other, therefore emphasising the extremes of their characters. Macbeth’s character has changed from someone, who by his own wife, was described as ‘too full o’th’milk of human kindness’ to someone who orders the murder of his best friend. Similarly, Lady Macbeth who originally used strong imperatives to order Macbeth around, in Act 3 has become less certain, and asks Macbeth ‘What’s to be done?’ and refers to him as ‘my lord’ highlighting the change in the balance of power.
It is interesting that Lady Macbeth and Macbeth still refer to each other lovingly during their final scene together, saying ‘my lord’, ‘love’ and ‘dearest chuck’. This tenderness is juxtaposed against the dark language and imagery that they use to reveal what they have lost from killing Duncan (in respect of both their relationship and their mental health). Shakespeare uses the deterioration of their relationship to depict Macbeth’s turbulent emotions.
The character of Lady Macbeth enables Macbeth to speak his true feelings and helps the audience to see the internal conflict and the battle that plays out in his head. After that the internal conflict has gone; Macbeth becomes sure of his intentions and all his actions, misguided though they are, are driven by his desire for power. He no longer has the insecurities seen earlier in the play. Shakespeare has used Macbeth’s relationship with Lady Macbeth to signpost Macbeth’s emotional conflict, and once this has drawn to a conclusion, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are never seen on stage together again.