Shakespeare has portrayed Lady Macbeth as a woman with immense power who is more ambitious than her male counterpart – Macbeth – and is willing to do any ruthless act to achieve her desires.
This is evident immediately in Act 1 Scene 5 where she first appears to her audience, revealing her dark and terrifying nature through her soliloquy where Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth a male role of dominance through her words:
‘Come you spirits…unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty…’
She continues to ask for her blood to be thickened so all compassion can be removed, suggesting that she does not want any pity to reach her heart, in order for her to carry other terrible plan. The use of repetition of the phrase:, ‘come’: ‘Come, you spirits…Come to my woman’s breasts…Come, thick night,’ demonstrates the urgency of the repeated commands and allows the audience to feel her desperation but also witness a woman who does not present herself as a Jacobean woman, but rather one who adopts masculine qualities of power and strength. This shocks her audience. She has supressed her feminine qualities and the audience see her as a sinister character who wants to exercise her power as a man would. The audience would have been uncomfortable with her character as women in those days were supposed to be submissive to their husbands.
Instantly, Lady Macbeth has dreamt of becoming the Queen and thus has realised the need to kill. This evil nature has been cleverly created by Shakespeare through the technique of assonance whereby Lady Macbeth is presented with serpentine qualities through the use of the constant hissing of the ‘s’ sound: ‘Stop up th’access and passage to remorse.’
This evil nature is presented to the audience and Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a frightening and powerful woman, whose thoughts of murder are perhaps even more ambitious than that of Macbeth. It is clear that Lady Macbeth feels that Macbeth might be hesitant over killing King Duncan. ‘Yet I do fear thy nature…It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.’ Here Shakespeare successfully conveys that idea that Lady Macbeth is perhaps more determined to kill than her husband and that his nature might stand in the way. Shakespeare has foreshadowed the persuasive techniques that Lady Macbeth will subsequently use on Macbeth towards the end of the scene, putting her in an even more powerful position than Macbeth.
Her masculine nature is further developed in Act I Scene 7 where she challenges Macbeth’s indecisive nature to kill King Duncan. She is portrayed as the stronger and more dominant character, which would have been interpreted by the audience as unnatural and therefore a symptom of disorder and illness. Once Macbeth has painfully agonised over killing Duncan in his soliloquy, he tells Lady Macbeth that there will be no murders. Without any hesitation, Lady Macbeth uses strong language through metaphors to manipulate Macbeth into agreeing to the murder, pushing him to go against his moral decision. This is a prime example of how Lady Macbeth is presented as the dominant figure and Macbeth as the weaker character who is easily influenced. She carries out this manipulation through giving him a choice to be brave or a coward and playing on his emotions. She even goes onto threaten her marriage if he does not go ahead with the plan. The ridicule of his masculinity by calling him a ‘coward’ and ‘art thou afeard..?’ and Lady Macbeth repeatedly questions his manliness: ‘What best was’t then…? When you durst do it, then you were a man.’ Eventually Macbeth has to say that ‘I dare do all that may become a man’. He has been persuaded to commit murder to prove himself. It is as if she has stripped him of his masculinity and he now has to prove it with killing Duncan. Obviously, we see that Macbeth relies heavily on his wife’s thoughts and her opinions matter. Although Macbeth is the man in the relationship, he still needs Lady Macbeth’s praise and acceptance which goes against the stereotype of Jacobean society, therefore lady Macbeth is more than the normal Jacobean woman. Shakespeare therefore presents her as an overpowering character who cannot be trusted, particularly by the males in the audience.
Shakespeare uses imagery to allow Lady Macbeth to reignite Macbeth’s passion for killing; she does this with such ease and cunning power through her clever choice of words. Her terrifying image of infanticide emphasises her malodorous character: ‘I have given suck and know how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me: I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipples from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out.’ This vivid description of how she would be prepared to kill an innocent baby truly exposes the masculinity role of power and ambition in Lady Macbeth. Furthermore, the fact that she is speaking significantly more than Macbeth illustrates that she has the dominating role in the marriage where she can easily shape and direct Macbeth’s behaviour. She even goes onto to decide the precise details of the murder as Macbeth stands by and listens. This sign of weakness in Macbeth and the strong, dominant role in Lady Macbeth would have unsettled or maybe even horrified the audience as society did not allow women to have such influencing power and it is goes against the stereotypes of women in those days.
Although Act 1 ends with Lady Macbeth as being portrayed as a malevolent woman who has deceitfully persuaded Macbeth, one could argue that she was not totally evil as she herself had to ask for assistance from the spirits. She does not naturally possess the zeal and violence to undertake her plan and has to seek the power of ‘murth’ring ministers’ to strip her of her femininity and help her to carry out her devious plan. Perhaps, Shakespeare did this to add a touch of vulnerability to Lady Macbeth’s character which becomes more apparent as the play moves forward, foreshadowing the changes that will appear in her character.
Whatsmore, by talking to greater beings suggest that she has some supernatural powers and gives her witch-like qualities. Again, this was another belief that was hugely criticised in Jacobean times. Belief in witches went against the Christian society and the devil was thought to work through the actions of the witches. So, Lady Macbeth’s call to the supernatural beings would have connoted she had a relationship with evil spirits and maybe even be a witch herself. This would have again put her in an unfortunate and uncomfortable position with the Shakespearean audience who would have regarded these dealings as a sin.
In Act 2, scene 2 we finally come across the first sign of Lady Macbeth’s character wavering when she returns to put the daggers in Duncan’s room as Macbeth brings them back with him. ‘Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t’. Here, we see some emotion displayed in Lady Macbeth. Despite this, Lady Macbeth is the one who stays calm after Macbeth has murdered Duncan and takes control of the situation. He is feeling delirious and full of guilt that he does not have the strength to take back the daggers. Not only does she take back the daggers but also has the wit to think rationally of smearing the servants with Duncan’s blood so they may be accused of the crime: ‘I’ll lid the faces of the grooms withal, For it must seem their guilt.’ Again, lady Macbeth is presented as the one with more control and is able to steady Macbeth’s nerves. She repeatedly commands him to let go of his guilty thoughts otherwise they will drive him mad.
What is interesting to note is that it is Lady Macbeth herself that becomes mad. Shakespeare creates a slow change in Lady Macbeth from someone who is in supreme power and is heartless to someone who becomes fragile and delicate.
In Act 3 we can see that there is a growing separation between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth as she begins to feel the emptiness of her achievement, seeing only “doubtful joy’. Lady Macbeth appears increasingly isolated and this is evident in her change of language, in Act 3 Scene 2 , where she says “where our desires is got without consent” followed by rhyming couplets “line 6-7” where she gloomily talks about her feelings. When Macbeth enters, her language and tone changes- either she is trying to appear positive and strong or this is all because the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth has deteriorated and is being sawn in half. At the beginning of the play, the Macbeths were close and loving, but after Macbeth has been crowned King he goes off and becomes occupied in his own duty and lady Macbeth is left alone, so she needs the comfort of Macbeth as without him she just falls apart turning her from independent to dependent. However, she does not let Macbeth know this as she goes back to her commanding ways when he is around.
As Shakespeare creates the impression that Lady Macbeth is still more powerful and dominant in her relationship, by changing the line structure. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have a conversation in Act 3 scene 2- where lady Macbeth interrupts with Macbeth twice, showing she is still more overpowering- and perhaps Macbeth is like a magical object which seems to make her powerful when he is close but when Macbeth is gone she becomes very weak.
This explains why in Act 5 scene 1 Lady Macbeth is no longer the devious and dominant person she was in Act 1,2 and 3/: she is now afraid of the dark” she has light by her continually. Tis her command.” And demands to have the light by her at all times.
Lady Macbeth turns from overwhelmed with power to overwhelmed with guilt: “Out damned spot! Out I say! One, two: why, then,’tis time to do’t” this shows that guilt has taken over her so much that even in her dreams she can’t get her hands clean, which contrasts to her attitude in Act 2 Scene 2”line 65-67”
Shakespeare uses a many techniques and language variants to enhance the change of characteristics in Lady Macbeth. The irony of her reign as a queen and the motif of remorse “what’s done cannot be undone’, after she becomes queen, something she so desired, she finds no pleasure in and goes crazy.
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