Negative decisions in life prompt disastrous outcomes on both a moral and psychological level. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both lose their mental ground due to their uncontrolled ambition, ultimately leading to their demise. Both characters begin their quest for power differently and react uniquely to the strain of murders. However, Lady Macbeth’s decline is the more dramatic of the two.
To begin, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have contrasting natures and weaknesses, with Macbeth being naturally good and Lady Macbeth being naturally evil. Macbeth is initially a noble man who is seen as King Duncan’s loyal general. Before Duncan’s murder, Macbeth is a well respected person within the kingdom, even being called a “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman” (1.2.24) by the king himself. Duncan is impressed with Macbeth’s hard work during a previous battle. Not only is Duncan appreciative of Macbeth’s efforts, he is also fond of Macbeth’s character and proud to have his allegiance. After showering Macbeth with compliments, Duncan grants him the title Thane of Cawdor, furthering his status within the land. However, once told by the witches that he will inherit the crown, an ambitious Macbeth faces an array of violent thoughts advising him to do whatever it takes to steal the crown. When faced with these malicious thoughts, Macbeth thinks to himself,
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings (1.3.133-137).
It is in Macbeth’s loyal nature to quickly dismiss these “horrifying imaginings”. Although he wants to be king, he is disgusted at the thought of harming an innocent life to take the title. Nevertheless, Macbeth’s ambition soon outweighs his moral code. In contrast, Lady Macbeth possesses an evil nature in which she calls upon darkness to complete her wicked tasks. Her ungodly nature can be expressed as she exclaims,
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see bit the the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, ‘Hold, hold’ (1.5.49-58).
Lady Macbeth summons darkness in order to hide from God as she fills Macbeth with poisons. She wishes to convince her husband to give in to her unnatural nature and kill Duncan so they can further exalt their status. Moreover, despite the fact that Lady Macbeth is naturally evil, she consistently relies on her husband to perform her evil deeds. After revealing her dissatisfaction with her husband’s gentle ways, Lady Macbeth expresses her desire to switch sexes. She explicitly describes the painful process she would undergo in order be metaphorically perceived as a man thus showing her resolve to be more aligned with evil. Lady Macbeth’s hatred for her own womanhood is what pushes her to manipulate Macbeth to follow her demands. All in all, Macbeth is ultimately a good man at the start of the play, while Lady Macbeth is pure evil; yet their weaknesses are significant to their downfall.
Following the murder of Duncan, Macbeth is first hit with guilt which sends him on a murderous rampage, while Lady Macbeth is able to put up a strong front until she is later alone. Macbeth is originally taken over by a sense of paranoia after killing the king. Leaving the room where the crime took place, Macbeth overhears a voice cry, “Sleep no more: / Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep” (2.2.38-39), revealing his wrongdoings and frightened state. In reality, however, no such thing happened – Macbeth’s delusions get the best of him. Macbeth immediately recognizes his error in judgement as a crime not only against Duncan but God as well. His paranoia plays a role in his downfall, as he is repetitively reminded of his sins. Furthermore, Macbeth’s time as king soon becomes one similar to one of a tyrant. Macduff summarizes the horror caused by Macbeth, explaining, “each new morn, / New windows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face” (4.3.4-6). In an effort to dethrone Macbeth, Macduff visits Malcolm, who is taking refuge in England. He begs for him to return to Scotland and end Macbeth’s tyranny as he explains Scotland’s bloody conditions. Macbeth resorts to murder, thinking it will fix all of the issues caused by killing Duncan. The murder of Duncan blurs Macbeth’s morals as he is deprived of the sanctity of human life. In contrast to Macbeth’s immediate breakdown, Lady Macbeth is able to put up a strong front as she gives her husband explicit orders. For instance, when Macbeth returns from killing Duncan, she guides him through his anxiety, explaining the precautions needed to be taken such as putting on his nightgown, washing his hands, and more. Knowing her husband is in a state of panic, Lady Macbeth instructs him on the actions necessary subsequent to committing murder. It is in her much hated feminine nature to mother him through this traumatic event. Although Lady Macbeth is able to hold a strong exterior, she reveals her true feelings when later speaking to herself. When she is alone, Lady Macbeth is able to admit,
Nought’s had, all’s spent
Where our desire is got without content.
’Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy (3.2.4-7).
She confesses she would rather be dead than go through the anguish she is facing. Instead of the luxurious life she was hoping for in the castle, Lady Macbeth realizes her guilt and paranoia is keeping her from happiness. Macbeth’s fear drives him to experience delusions which develops into a murdering rampage, however, Lady Macbeth is able to maintain a strong front, even though she is truly suffering on the inside.
Although Macbeth’s decline is dramatic, Lady Macbeth’s decline is the most drastic out of the two. When Lady Macbeth takes her own life, Macbeth does not seem to care as he is too caught up in his own metaphorical hell. After the shriek of a woman is heard, Macbeth explains his true feelings, admitting, “The time has been, my senses would have cool’d / To hear a night-shriek and my fell of hair / Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir” (5.5.10-12). Before Duncan’s murder, Macbeth would have been horrified at the sound of a woman falling to her death, much more his wife. However, he is now unfazed at the thought of death and has lost the loyalty he initially held for his wife. Ironically, Macbeth struggles to kill Duncan in the first act of the play, however, he is now desensitized to murder as he accepts his wife’s horrific fate with ease. Furthermore, not only does Macbeth lose hope for the lives of others, he also shows disregard from caring for his own life. In preparation for his final battle, Macbeth reveals his true thoughts on living. His hatred for the circumstances he is under in which he may soon die causes him to compare life to “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-27). Macbeth has come to the conclusion that life is meaningless. He is no longer fazed by guilt and is internally numb from all of the bloodshed he has caused.
This numbness is contradictory to all of the positive traits Macbeth possessed at the start. In comparison to his naturally good beginning, Macbeth’s nature is now rotten and cannot be saved. Macbeth is thus remorseless and is consumed with evil as he takes the metaphorical image of the Devil. At the same time, Lady Macbeth loses her medium for evil. This can first be seen when Macbeth starts treating her more stereotypically as a woman. When asked about his future plans, Macbeth explains to his wife, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed” (3.2.45-46). Not long after Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth is shut out by Macbeth. Rather than considering her his partner in crime, Macbeth starts to treat Lady Macbeth as an object. The amount of power she holds over him lowers and lowers before finally coming to an end. She is forced to become the stereotypes she initially despised such as fragile and emotional. Finally, Lady Macbeth loses her mind and does anything to get rid of the darkness inside of her. In the final act of the play, a maid is concerned over Lady Macbeth’s strange sleeping habits. She explains to the doctor, “She has a light by her continually, ’tis / her command” (5.1.20). Lady Macbeth clings to a candle in order to receive light from the Lord. This is in stark contrast to when she called out for darkness at the beginning of the play, showing how anxious and frantic Lady Macbeth is reduced to. Shakespeare utilizes darkness as a metaphor for death throughout the play.
When Lady Macbeth summons darkness in the first act, she is wishing death upon Duncan for her own benefit in hopes it will conceal the sins she is committing. While witnessing the continuous string of murders caused by her own husband, Lady Macbeth soon becomes aware of the importance of life. She feels guilty of her past sins and is desperate for any signs of God in the form of light. Unable to do this, Lady Macbeth resorts to suicide as her method of escape from the dark environment she initially crafted for herself. In conclusion, Lady Macbeth’s decline was the most dramatic at the end of the play.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s initial contrasting nature and weaknesses correlate to their reactions to Duncan’s murder. Macbeth’s loyal and worthy nature was destroyed by his strong ambition, causing him to lose all hope for life. In comparison, Lady Macbeth was consumed by an evil nature as she relied on darkness to perform her wicked deeds. However, the trauma caused from killing Duncan drives her into madness, wishing for only light. In conclusion, even the best people can be lead astray by darkness, while the worst of people can become desperate for light.
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