I have been asked to analyse and compare the way Shakespeare has portrayed the reactions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to the murder of King Duncan. For this I will be using act 2 scene 2 and act 1 scene 5 as well as quotes from other scenes in the play.
I will start with analysis, first of Lady Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth has always been cold and calculating in previous scenes. A good example of how Shakespeare portrayed Lady Macbeth’s character is in act one scene five. Here I have quoted her speech from this scene –
“The raven himself is horse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncanâ€¦
You shall be what you have been promised. Yet I’m worried about your nature. You are too tender hearted to take short cuts. You want greatness. You are not without ambition. But you lack the ruthlessness that’s needed… Come home quickly, so that I can inspire you with my passion. My brave words will overcome the scruples standing between you and the golden circle”
Here she talks about Duncan’s entrance into Macbeth’s castle as being fatal. She then talks about Macbeth’s wishes to become king but she also talks about his lack of courage to kill Duncan so that he may rise to the throne. She then tells the audience about how she will attempt to talk Macbeth into murdering Duncan.
“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe-top full of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood”‘
Here she is starting to ask the spirits to take away her feelings of compassion
“Unsex me here” she is asking for her womanly qualities or weaknesses to be removed. By this she means feelings of remorse, pity, guilt and compassion.
This next part is spoken as though said to Macbeth.
“He that’s coming serve the thoughts of mortals: rid me of the natural tenderness of my sex, and fill me from head to toe with direst cruelty! Thicken my blood. Make me remorseless, so that no feelings of conscience can alter my foul plans, nor stand in the way of what must be done. Come to my woman’s breasts and turn my milk sour, you abettors of murder, wherever you lurk invisible, awaiting evil deeds!
Come, dark night, and shroud yourself in the blackest smoke of hell, so that my sharp knife won’t see the wound it makes, nor heaven – peeping through the blanket of darkness â€“ cry ‘Stop! Stop!’
Here she is again asking the spirits to remove her softness “Rid me of the natural tenderness of my sex”. She repeats the part about shrouding herself in shadows to conceal what she is going to do from heaven. Maybe she is talking about how she will make Macbeth murder Duncan rather than do the deed herself.
Another one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches which depicts the character Shakespeare intended her to be is from act one, scene seven.
“I have given suck, and know
how tender ’tis t love the babe that milks me â€“
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 to you
Have done to this.”
Here she is comparing her womanliness to her husband’s manliness. Shakespeare uses quite shocking imagery in Lady Macbeth’s speech here to further depict her ruthlessness.
Now I have shown a couple of examples of the character of Lady Macbeth I will continue onto my analysis of the murder scene.
Lady Macbeth is nervous, paranoid as she waits for Macbeth to return after she has sent him to perform the murder.
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it:”
She’s jumpy. The sound of the owl’s hoot scares her. Lady Macbeth is imagining her husband killing Duncan â€“ “He is about it”.
She then hears Macbeth shouting something from outside the room. She is then very afraid.
“Alack! I am afraid they have awak’d,
And ’tis not done; the attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss ’em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.”
Here she worries about getting caught. We also see a side of Lady Macbeth which has not been shown before. She is vulnerable, nervous and not at all like her former self. She also shows some emotion
“Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.”
She could not have performed the awful deed herself as it would have felt like she was murdering her father.
When Macbeth enters both she and he are nervous. One word sentences heighten the sense of urgency between them immediately after he enters. Macbeth is obviously not in a stable state of mind. He is wrapped up in his own guilt and is not capable of doing anything. Macbeth heard voices shouting whilst he was killing Duncan.
“Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’ â€“ the innocent sleep”
Macbeth feels his guilt so much more because he killed Duncan whilst he slept and therefore he perceives him as innocent. Macbeth then feels that as he has murdered Duncan, who was innocent as he slept, he can no longer sleep as he can no longer even be considered innocent.
Lady Macbeth is very quick to realise that Macbeth is hearing things and is not speaking the truth however much he may think he is.
Macbeth talks about how he could not say ‘Amen’ when the voices he heard talking said ‘God Bless Us’. He is saying he could not ask god to bless him when he has just committed such a huge sin. Macbeth’s extensive use of religious language is an attempt to show how greatly he feels his guilt. It’s as if he knows he is damned for his terrible sin.
Lady Macbeth on the other hand simply says
“Consider it not so deeply”.
Macbeth feels his guilt immediately while Lady Macbeth feels nothing in the early days. While Macbeth is too afraid to look upon what sin he has committed again Lady Macbeth returns the daggers which Macbeth has bought back from the murder which were supposed to be left there to frame the guards.
“I’ll go no more.”
This is when Lady Macbeth’s hold on his starts to disappear. She can no longer order him around.
While Lady Macbeth is offstage Macbeth further considers his heinous act.
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my
hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.”
Here he is saying that his hands are so stained with Duncan’s blood that all the water in the ocean could not wash them clean. He says that his hands have so much blood on them that they would stain the green seawater blood red. He is so overwhelmed with guilt that while he is hearing knocking in the back round that rather than wash his hands to hide his act he stands there and contemplates how bloodstained they are. He has lost his ability to properly function in his mind.
Lady Macbeth then returns and mocks her husband’s manhood as she has done in many previous scenes.
“My hands are of your colour but I shame to wear a heart so white.”
She then goes on to say;
“A little water clears us of this deed.”
This shows the difference in the ways that Shakespeare has portrayed the ways Lady Macbeth and Macbeth feel their guilt initially. While Macbeth talks about his bloodstained hands turning the sea red Lady Macbeth has no such worries.
They both then hear the knocking that Macbeth was hearing during his seas speech and retire to their chamber so they will not be found awake and appear suspect.
As the play progresses Macbeth increasingly loses his conscience. He is made king after Duncan’s death is discovered. He continues killing as though all feelings of remorse have been removed from his being. He murders Banquo and the thane of Fife’s McDuff wife and child. The killing of the woman and child is uncalled for and particularly brutal on Macbeth’s part, as it served no purpose. Banquo’s ghost revealed himself to Macbeth at a banquet. I think this is a sign of Macbeth’s own escalating madness bought on by guilt and fear of being damned.
McDuff rebels and goes to England to ask for their assistance is overthrowing Macbeth. While he is gone is while Macbeth murders his family.
Lady Macbeth is descending into madness. Act 5, scene 1 is the most obvious example of this. A waiting gentlewoman and a doctor are discussing Lady Macbeth. She then enters, sleepwalking.
“Out damned spot! â€¦ Yet who would have thought that the old man would have so much blood in him?”
She is still seeing the blood of Duncan on her hands. She is haunted by the image of her bloodstained hands, much in the way Macbeth was in act 2, scene 2.
“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”
Here she is saying how she thought that after the murder of Duncan everything would be okay. She never thought there would be more killings.
“Hell is murky! Fie, my lord â€“ fie! A soldier, and afeared?”
She is thinking about hell. She is now afraid of damnation, as Macbeth was in act 2, scene 2. Earlier she had asked evil spirits to assist her and now she is terrified of hell. She is remembering mocking Macbeth. Maybe now she feels bad for pushing him into the first murder.
“The thane of fife had a wife: where is she now? No more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar with all this starting.”
She is thinking about McDuff’s wife. Macbeth no longer talked with Lady Macbeth about his plans after Duncan’s murder. She is supposed to be unaware of these murders. She is annoyed at Macbeth for his continued killing and she has realised that she no longer has power over him. It’s almost as if she’s asking him to stop.
“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes
Of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh!
Again she is showing how haunted she is by the blood on her hands. This speech is very similar to Macbeth’s earlier “Multitudinous seas incarnadine” speech.
He cannot come out on ‘s grave.”
This is a reference to the earlier ghost scene when Macbeth saw Banquo’s ghost at the banquet after he had him killed.
Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness has taken longer than Macbeth’s and her guilt is expressing itself in a much more subconscious way than Macbeth’s did. Earlier she talked about a little water clearing them of the guilt but now she is haunted and terrorised by what they did. Lady Macbeth and her husband appear to have switched roles with their expressions of their guilt. While Macbeth appears to feel nothing and continues to murder Lady Macbeth is slowly going mad. Shakespeare tries to evoke feelings of pity in the audience for Lady Macbeth. The words “this little hand” are an example of this.
Macbeth expresses his guilt in a conscious, public way, his continued killings are the main sign he has been driven mad by guilt. Lady Macbeth on the other hand shows her guilt in a private way. Her sleepwalking is a subconscious expression of her innermost tormented feelings. This is her sign of madness. Lady Macbeth’s madness has also taken longer to manifest itself. Macbeth’s guilt was immediate but Lady Macbeth has taken several scenes to show hers.
Macbeth spoke about no longer being able to sleep in the murder scene but several scenes later we see it is in fact Lady Macbeth’s sleep which is disturbed. This could be Shakespeare trying to show us how Lady Macbeth was a lot more open to suggestions that she ever appeared to be before the murder scene, when she was a very cold, hard woman who used a lot of shocking imagery and was really quite a scary person.
Act 5 scene 1 is a performance of Lady Macbeth’s guilt. Until this time she had suppressed her feelings. She even asked the spirits to take away her feelings of compassion so she would feel no guilt. It would appear that this had no effect and she feels terrible and that manifests itself in her sleepwalking and talking.
Macbeth was originally paralysed by his guilt and was unable to even wash his hands clean of the blood without Lady Macbeth’s instructions to do so. Later on Macbeth seems to have taken control to the extent where he is continuing to kill without first talking with Lady Macbeth about it.
The blood symbolises the guilt felt by both plotters. Macbeth was earlier scorned by his wife for his guilty feelings.
Lady Macbeth’s fragmented language in act 5 scene 1 makes her harder to understand than she had been in previous appearances. I believe that Shakespeare is using her language to show her mental breakdown.
Macbeth’s guilt was shown then suppressed and the opposite is true for Lady Macbeth.
As the play continues Lady Macbeth’s madness gets to the point where she can no longer live with her guilt and she eventually commits suicide.
Macbeth and his allies prepare for battle with McDuff. After Lady Macbeth’s death a messenger informs Macbeth that Birnam Wood â€“ Malcolm’s army is approaching. The battle begins and in the final showdown McDuff kills Macbeth and Malcolm is hailed as the new king.
In both the case of Macbeth and the case of Lady Macbeth their guilt eventually killed them but in different ways. While Lady Macbeth was driven mad by her guilt and killed herself, Macbeth went on a killing frenzy from his guilt and was eventually killed by someone who was his friend in the beginning when he went too far.
In conclusion, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth may have shown their reactions to Duncan’s murder in totally different ways both of them got their comeuppance eventually.