Up to this point, we have seen many indicators that the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is close and loving. Macbeth refers to his wife as “My dearest partner in greatness”, and she greets him, “My dearest love”, suggesting a degree of equality in their relationship, and, of course, mutual love.
By Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth has changed his mind and decided against going through with the murder. He is worried about what the consequences of it will be “If th’assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success.” He knows that simply murdering Duncan will not be the end of the matter. However, Lady Macbeth, seeing her well thought out plans coming apart, manipulates him, by essentially calling him a coward, that his pride might prevent him from backing down. “Wouldst thou…live a coward in thine own esteem, letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”…?” It is she who is dominant, not him – she is still the one in control.
Lady Macbeth is unusual in this respect. She is the one who is always in control in their relationship. Her dominance and her cruelty make her the opposite of what we expect of an Elizabethan woman or wife; submissiveness and meekness. She is the dominant one in their relationship, and has psychological power over her husband. In Elizabethan times the role of the woman was to support her husband, but not for her to act independently or give him instructions. In other respects, however, she does portray an Elizabethan wife when we see her waiting at home for her husband to return from battle, or acting as the gracious hostess to her guests; even Duncan commented on this, “See, see, our honoured hostess.”
The imagery used here by Lady Macbeth is disturbing and violent and it demonstrates effectively her “fiend-like” qualities, “I have given suck and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.” Alliteration is used here “tender ‘tis to”, “milks me”, again to make the reader slow down and emphasise the words being said. The imagery used is tender and loving, but is then juxtaposed with a most disturbing image, “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.” Different devices are used her; consonance “while…smiling”, cacophony, “plucked”. These convey an impression of harshness – the language reflects the cruelty of the thought. Her willingness to commit such cruel deeds shows her coldness and callousness. This violent imagery, personal to Lady Macbeth, is symbolic of the widespread violence in Scotland because of the now “unnatural” order which reigns.
It is the night of the murder, Act 2, Scene 2. Lady Macbeth has planned out the murder to the smallest detail, but Macbeth subverts this by returning with the “bloody daggers’. He, traumatized by the experience and is unable to return to Duncan’s chambers, “I’ll go no more: I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on ‘t again I dare not.” Lady Macbeth is angry and decides to go back herself, “Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead but are as pictures.” It is here that Lady Macbeth again demonstrates her own inhumanity. She is able to separate herself from the reality of a sleeping king, a human being, living, with friends and family, and view the sleeping “but as pictures”. At the same time she appears to be the dominant one, giving Macbeth orders and instructions, “Go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand.”
However it is in this scene that she shows some glimmer of compassion and humanity – the only thing stopping her doing the deed herself was that Duncan bore a resemblance to her father, “had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done‘t.”
When Macbeth tells her in this scene that he could not say “amen” as the guards were praying he is making another reference to the beliefs of the time, that those who were possessed by the devil showed an inability to pray. To commit such a grave crime, regicide, was considered an offence against god and against the natural order as the King, it was believed, was appointed by god and was his representative on earth.
In the next scene when the news of Duncan’s murder has come out, we learn that Duncan’s guards have been killed by Macbeth. Lady Macbeth had not planned this, and is the first indication that their relationship is beginning to unravel. Lady Macbeth, still needing to be in control of the situation, faints in order to divert attention away from her husband. It is possible that she did, in fact, faint on hearing of their murder, but considering the control she has shown she had over her emotions, we consider this to be unlikely.
By the next Act, we begin to see the aftermath of Duncan’s murder. Macbeth is agitated and full of regret about the murder; Lady Macbeth is not content either, believing that it has all been worthless, “All’s had, naught’s gained.” Yet she still gives instructions to her husband in what to do and how to act, “Come on, gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial among your guests tonight.” She is still very much in control – instructing him to hide his feelings, lest he give them away. There still remains a trace of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s affection in this scene; where she refers to him as her “lord” and he calls her his “love”.
Later on in the Act, the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth during the banquet being held to celebrate his becoming king. When Macbeth, distressed by the sight of the ghost of Banquo, begins to act strangely, she makes plausible excuses for him, “My lord is often thus and hath been from his youth...the fit is momentary; upon a thought he will again be well.” She remains totally calm and in control during the scene – again showing us how much power she has over her own emotions, or indeed suggesting whther she has any emotions at all. However, Lady Macbeth learns that Macbeth had had Banquo murdered – a deed that she had neither planned or instructed Macbeth to have done. We see that Macbeth is beginning to act independently of his wife; she is losing her control.
We do not hear of Lady Macbeth again until Act 5, scene 1. Until this point, she has clearly acted as the ‘fiend’, but in this scene we begin to see a dramatic change in her behaviour. Now she must always have a light beside her, to protect her from the power of the devil, whereas earlier she had called on darkness to hide her actions and thoughts. She has lost control of her mind and her actions – we see her sleepwalking, a total contrast to the tightly controlled, disciplined actions we had seen of her before. In Polanski’s film adaptation, Lady Macbeth is portrayed sleepwalking naked, symbolising how she has begun to lose her mind and does not keep the basic rules of modesty. She talks incessantly, reliving the night of the murder, and giving away all her secrets to her doctor and maid. She goes through the motions of washing her hands repeatedly, unable to cleanse them, “Out damned spot! Out, I say!” Earlier in the play she had said, “a little water will cleanse us if this deed.” He words have now become ironic.
Inconsolable and guilt ridden, she seems like another person – “a lady of remorse”. She is also aware of the murder of Macduff’s wife and children, and feels some responsibility for this too: “the thane of fife had a wife. Where is she now? –What, will these hands never be clean?” The reference is poignant – she feels there is blood on her hands. Her and Macbeth’s violence has only led to more violence. The instability in Lady Macbeth’s language, which is full of fear and terror, is a parallel to the social instability and chaos having arisen in Scotland since Macbeth became king. This is demonstrated by her use of short, abrupt sentences, ”Out, damned spot; out, I say. One, two, -why then ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.”
We have not seen Macbeth and his wife together since Act 3, scene 4; he has not even mentioned her, as they have begun to grow apart. Now, in Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth is informed that Lady Macbeth is dead, and he displays no grief, not or any emotion. He only says, “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word.” His only thought on the death of his wife is that it would have been more convenient for her to have died later, or, more likely, that her death was untimely, premature. In the last scene of the play we are informed by Malcolm that Macbeth’s “fiend-like” queen had taken her own life. We can only assume that it was her feelings of guilt and remorse that drove her to it, as her doctor commented, “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles.”
In conclusion, it appears that in the first half of the play, lady Macbeth is portrayed as a “fiend-like monster”, but as we move into the second part of the play her behaviour begins to change and we see her portrayed, somewhat, as a “lady of remorse”. We can clearly see the downfall and deterioration of her character, how she begins to lose control over her life, and how her relationship with her husband begins to fall apart.
I believe, however, that Lady Macbeth’s displays of remorse are not entirely genuine. Her regret only begins to be displayed when her ambitions for Macbeth are not realised, “Naught’s had, all’s spent.” Her failure, both moral and worldly, ultimately leads to her suicide. I do not believe she deserves our compassion or pity – her moral poverty is too great, and her remorse too contemptible.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
Shows understanding of Lady Macbeth's character with textual support. Lacking in empathy for her character. Some references to language.