‘Macbeth’ was written during the reign of King James I of England and VI of Scotland 1605-6. It was written by William Shakespeare for the King. It is known as one of his ‘greatest tragedies.’
The play was considered ‘different’ at the time of its creation due to the character ‘Lady Macbeth’ who enters the play as a strong and determined character. It was seen as ‘different’ because women at that time were portrayed as ‘weak’ and ‘feeble.’ During the play we see Lady Macbeth’s character deteriorate until her world crumbles around her and the ‘Macbeth’ empire comes to an end.
The first time we see the strength in Lady Macbeth’s character is in act 1, scene 5. She receives a letter from her husband telling her of three strange women chanting prophecies to him. He tells of how they called to him and named him ‘Thane of Cawdor’ and ‘King of Scotland.’ Lady Macbeth is enchanted by this letter and begins plotting and scheming. This indicates the beginning of her obsession to be in power. She then automatically assumes that Duncan needs to be killed and she is much more ruthless than her husband, Macbeth. He returns home and she orders him to ‘murder the King’ but in doing so, she explains how she fears his nature is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness.’ In saying this, Lady Macbeth is saying she fears her husband is too nice and will not be able to go through with the murder. She’s also leading him to believe that his kind nature is obvious to all and therefore he will go unsuspected after the crime is commited. This is early evidence of her strength and understanding of his character.Order now
During act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth calls upon evil spirits. For example, she says
“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.”
Here, she is calling on evil spirits for help to commit the ill deeds. She continues to say
“Unsex me here!” and “Stop up the access and passage to remorse.”
In saying ‘unsex me here;’ she is trying to rid herself of her ‘femininity.’ This is no surprise, as in this period women were under-estimated. When she says ‘stop up the access and passage to remorse,’ she is basically saying ‘don’t allow me to feel sorry for anyone.’ She wants to be ruthless and feel no remorse. Another quote is
“Take my milk for gall.”
This has a double meaning as not only is she wanting to turn good to bad, she is again trying to rid herself of her femininity. Femininity illustrates softness and kindness- two things that are not present in her character in this scene.
Lady Macbeth is speaking in blank verse throughout this scene, as she is sane and very important. However, later in the play this changes to prose, which symbolises the decline in her state of mind.
When Macbeth enters, she bears news that Duncan is coming, tonight. Lady Macbeth’s manipulative side takes over here as we see her successfully persuade Macbeth to kill the king. She tells Macbeth
“Your hands look like the innocent flower.”
This statement shows clearly how she has the ability to make her husband do anything she asks. She’s telling him he’ll get away with it. She later goes on to say
“Which shall all our nights and days to come.”
This shows her determination and how she will think of nothing else until the deed is done.
At the end of this passage, Macbeth says
“We will speak further” but Lady Macbeth is reluctant to do so and states
“Leave all the rest to me.”
This, being the last line in act 1, scene 5, leaves us with the understanding that Lady Macbeth is ambitious and dominant over Macbeth.
We have further evidence of her strength in act 2, scene 2 when we see her place the daggers used to murder the king next to the servants as Macbeth is in a traumatic stupor. She also orders Macbeth to wash his hands. This is therefore another example of her domineering nature.
Lady Macbeth’s dramatic and clever side is also brought to life as we see her pretend to faint in act 2, scene 3. She faints at the news that Macbeth killed the guards in order draw attention to herself and not the fact that Macbeth has just killed the guards. This is clearly faked as she had just seen Duncan’s body and planted the bloody knifes on the servants so she would not have been squeamish.
As the play continues, we see how her insanity illustrates her inability to cope with her wrongdoings. Act 5, scene 1 shows how Lady Macbeth’s character has deteriorated. The scene includes a ‘doctor’ called in to cure Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and a ‘gentlewoman’ who is a friend of Lady Macbeth’s.
The scene begins with a conversation between the doctor and gentlewoman, discussing the actions of Lady Macbeth during her ‘trance-like’ sleepwalking. The gentlewoman explains how she has seen Lady Macbeth ‘rise from her bed, throw her night
Gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, write upon it, read it, afterwards seal it and again return to bed; yet all this in the most fast sleep.’
This passage tells of how her presence has deteriorated from being strong and domineering to being weak and paranoid.
When we do see Lady Macbeth rise from her bed, she speaks. Before doing so, she rubs her hands over and over again as if in a state of panic. She then shouts
“Out damned spot!” and “Hell is murky.”
‘Out damned spot’ refers to blood. Lady Macbeth is paranoid and claiming to see blood on her hands. ‘Hell is murky’ is a surprising statement as she previously called on evil spirits in act 1, scene 5 and she now fears them.
Lady Macbeth’s character is now weak and feeble. The doctor begins to doubt that she is asleep and therefore implies to the gentlewoman that
“Her eyes are open”
and she replies,
“But their sense is shut.”
In this statement, the gentlewoman is trying to explain how Lady Macbeth is a ‘trance.’ She also tells of how Lady Macbeth ‘has light by her continually. ‘Tis her command.’ The fact that Lady Macbeth insists on having light by her shows fear of darkness, as it is associated with evil. This is ironic as in act 1, scene 5 she called upon darkness.
As the scene progresses, Lady Macbeth begins to feel guilty and horrified. She begins muttering things such as
“Yet who would’ve thought the old man to have so much in him,” and “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?”
These are more surprising statements, this time due to her previous statement ‘stop up the access and passage to remorse.’ They are childlike and resemble riddles.
Act 5, scene 1 goes on to show Lady Macbeth’s confused and paranoid side. Evidence of this is
“All the perfume in Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” and “I tell you again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on his grave.”
She is confused as she goes from speaking of her guilt to thinking she is speaking to her husband. The ‘Arabia’ quote states that nothing will rid her of this blood. This is ironic because in Act 1, scene 5 she explains that ‘water will rid us of this deed.’ Therefore, this is another example of the deterioration in her character.
As the scene concludes, Lady Macbeth adopts a suicidal disposition. The doctor advises the gentlewoman to
“Remove from her the means of all annoyance” and claims “My mind she has mated and amazed my sight.”
This shows he is shocked by what he has seen/heard.
The gentlewoman then thanks the doctor and the scene comes to an end.
Lady Macbeth later goes on to commit suicide. This a shocking conclusion due to her previous strong side, illustrated perfectly in Act 1, scene 5. However, it is expected after seeing her weak side in Act 5, scene 1.