Characters in Macbeth and The Laboratory

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Characters in Macbeth and The Laboratory

Macbeth is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Written sometime between 1603 and 1606, the play is strongly written with King James the first’s of England’s interests in mind; the supernatural. Because of this we are introduced to the idea of the paranormal and witchcraft straight way in the play with the three. This would have scared a Jacobean audience as they feared the supernatural; it also foreshadows the likeliness of disturbed characters to be introduced later in the play. In comparison, The Laboratory, a poem written by Robert Browning in the 1800’s and set in aristocratic France- before the revolution, when the old regime of the monarchy was still in place. This was a time of great diversity between the social classes, so seeing the narrator of the dramatic monologue, an affluent woman, liaising with a poor alchemist would have deeply shocked a 19th century audience, as they would believe her to be troubled, or maybe even disturbed.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy; this means that the play has no sub-plots and only concentrates on the story, and the disturbed mind, of the main character, Macbeth. The full focus on Macbeth himself emphasises his evil nature and thirst for power, portraying him as the ultimate tyrannical and disturbed character. “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other” . The metaphorical language used as the reference to ‘spurs’, used to make horses go faster, shows that Macbeth feels his ambition to gain power is being limited by the king. Macbeth is shown to have great respect for the king and sees the king as almost a friend, so to describe him as a mere obstacle to overcome shows he has no moral boundaries, making him a disturbed character. Similarly, The Laboratory is a poem written in the form of a dramatic monologue, this means we hear everything that’s going on from the view of the narrator.

In this case, it’s high class woman who is obsessed with getting revenge on her husband and his lovers. Her single-mindedness is shown by the poem only being about her thoughts and her fatal flaws, jealousy and revenge. These themes are shown in the poem right away. In the first stanza, the topic of poison and murder are mentioned quite blatantly. “Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?” The reader doesn’t yet know that there’s a revenge plot, however Browning wants the reader look into the narrators disturbed mind early into the poem. He uses this fourth line like a hook to pull the reader into the poem and make them wonder why the speaker would want to kill someone. In Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth, we are introduced to the three witches, showing the audience that the play has a strong supernatural theme. This would have scared a Jacobean audience much more than a modern audience as witchcraft was feared much more intensely than it is today.

Shakespeare used catalectic trochaic tetrameter and rhyming couplets to make the witches words sound like a spell, “Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.” The oxymoron shows that the witches don’t know the difference between good and bad. This foreshadows a play of contrasts and disturbed minds. Macbeth’s words also echoes the witches in Act 1, Scene 3 “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” We recognise the oxymoron from when the witches said it in the opening scene; this gives the audience the impression that Macbeth shares similar qualities with the witches, such as he doesn’t know the difference between good and bad, and therefore had no moral boundaries. It also foreshadows that Macbeth will have more to with the witches in the future. This makes Macbeth a disturbed character to the audience, particularly a Jacobean audience, because of his association with the supernatural. On the other hand, the subtitle to Robert Browning’s poem “The Laboratory”, “Ancien Regime”, tells us that it is set in France before the revolution, when the old regime of the monarchy was still in place.

The narrator appears to be an upper class woman, a fact which is not apparent in the opening stanza, but becomes so as the poem develops; this is seen by the lexical field of wealth, “Gold, Kings, Jewels”, who is in a laboratory brewing up a poison to kill her rivals. For a 19th century audience this poem’s setting alone would be very bizarre. In aristocratic France, it was way rare for the social classes to mix, so seeing an upper class lady in the setting of a poor laboratory was very strange. The disturbance in the setting would have deeply confused the audience. The narrator even flaunts her wealth to the chemist when she begins to fantasise about what she will hide the poison in with the exclamatory sentence, “To carry pure death in an earring, a casket, A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree-basket!” This would have shocked a 19th century audience and they would have believed her to have been a very disturbed character. A Jacobean audience would think that Macbeth is more of a tragic hero than a modern audience would. This is because a Jacobean audience would feel more sympathy towards Macbeth because of his fatal flaw, ambition.

In the 1600’s the idea of succession and promotion would be much more topical than it is today, this is because one of the two main monarchs in Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth, remained the ‘Virgin’ Queen throughout her reign and therefore had no successor, creating great instability. Macbeth was promoted to Thane of Cawdor and the King called him brave “for brave Macbeth- well he deserves that name”. This would have been a massive compliment to Macbeth, so naturally he would enjoy it and want more, A Jacobean audience would have sympathised with his feelings because of the situation of their monarchy at the time. This makes him a tragic hero as he was once a great war lord that was brought down by his fatal flaw, ambition. Also, a Jacobean audience were much more likely to believe in the idea that the witches were taking over Macbeths mind. In Shakespeare time, witchcraft was a major issue as people fully believed that it was possible to be possessed by the supernatural and demonic natures as the knowledge that the women supplied was like a drug to Macbeth, and it is obvious he was fascinated by it at the start, “would they have stayed”- and continually wants more.

His obsession with the witches would have made a Jacobean audience believed he had a disturbed mind, but they would have also have felt sympathy toward his as they believed he was being possessed, making him a tragic hero. However, a modern audience are more sceptical about the supernatural and would therefore see Macbeth as more of a disturbed character as we find it harder the feel sympathy towards him and see him more of a weak willed character as he frequently talks himself out of murdering his friends for his own gain, yet he does it anyway. “yet I do fear thy nature; it is too full o’the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way.” It is shown that Mabeth doesn’t dislike Duncan as a king, in fact he sees him as a friend, but he is in the way of Macbeth’s fatal flaw, ambition, and so has to be killed. The upcoming murder is described as inevitable. The focus on his fall, as well as his rise demonstrates Shakespeare’s moral message that tyrannical reins will come full circle and end in their demise. Shown also through the divine right of kings, as Malcolm finishes up on the thrown.

However, in The Laboratory, as soon as we hear of the narrator’s motive we feel sympathy towards her. She is also a victim as her husband has cheated on her, leaving her heart broken and distraught. However as we learn more of her fatal flaws, jealousy and revange, the audience realised that she does not only want to kill her emimies, but she wants to make them suffer too, “Not that I bid you spare her the pain! Let death be felt and the proof remain.” This quote from the 9th stanza shows that she wants her rivals to know that they are dying, and that she doesn’t care if she is caught to be the one responsible for their murder. A 19th century French audience would call this a ‘crime of passion’ because the persona has been wronged by the husband and would naturally want to take revenge. They wouldn’t believe that it was okay, however they would have understood why she wanted to do it more than a modern audience would, and would therefore view her as a tragic hero. A modern audience would mostly see her actions as outright murder and would feel less sympathy to the disturbed mind of the narrator and so would see her as less of a tragic hero and more of a disturbed and jealous maniacal killer.

In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth, after being told what the witches told Macbeth about him become king, “and king here after!”, and upon receiving word that King Duncan of Scotland will be arriving that night, begins sharpening her talons. She isn’t sure there’s enough manhood to go around between herself and her husband, so she calls upon scheming spirits to “unsex me [Lady Macbeth] here.” This is her vivid way of asking to be stripped of feminine weakness and invested with masculine resolve. She imagines herself as a vessel which may be emptied out and refilled “from the crown to the toe.” One thing nobody, spirit or otherwise, has ever poured into her is “the milk of human kindness”. Lady Macbeth’s speech is very shocking to the audience as it shows the inner workings of her mind and what she really desires, power. This suggest to the audience that she may be the one with the ultimate disturbed mind as she has no doubts that she I prepared to kill her king for her own gain.

The narrator shows her power over the alchemist as she frequently dominates him and gives him orders, “Quick- is it finished? The colour’s too grim!” The idea of a woman telling a man what to do would have been unheard of in a patriarchal society such as then. However the alchemist doesn’t seem to mind as it is revealed that the disturbed woman who has come for his service is prepared to give everything, “Now, take all my jewels, gorge gold to your fill, You may kiss me old man, on my mouth if you will!” The fact an upper class woman is prepared to let a poor alchemist kiss her shows how much this poison means to the narrator. However she pushes him away to avoid any repercussion of the poison, “but brush this dust off me, lest horror it brings”. Her quick change of mind shows the giddiness in the thought of killing her rivals. After Lady Macbeth strengthens her husband’s resolve by mocking his perceived weakness, she convinces him that king Duncan will be murdered than night and explains her plan to him.

In the beginning of Act 2 Scene 1 the setting is clearly dark (use of touch bearers) and “the candles are all out” metaphor, which is a reference to the heavens, suggests that with the physical darkness there is also a moral darkness. Shakespeare uses pathetic fallacy to set the dark scene. This foreshadows the likelihood of death and also likes with the darkness of Macbeth’s and his wife’s disturbed mind. Later on in the scene Macbeth’s soliloquy reveals for the first time the extent of Macbeth’s disturbed mind. He begins to see things that others cannot, a dagger. He asks if it is real or a “false creation/ Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” This intensifies the atmosphere of evil but is also a symbol of the start of Macbeth’s mental torment and psychological breakdown. Just as inward debate and talk of murder is about to stifle his courage, Macbeth’s intense illusion is shattered by the bell, a signal from Lady Macbeth that Duncan’s chamberlains are asleep, “I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.”

Macbeth races away to commit the heinous crime almost saying he has no choice since the “bell invites” him, taking the responsibility away from himself. This leaves the question in the audience’s mind of weather a few more moments of deliberation would have changed Macbeths disturbed mind. On the other hand, The Laboratory is written in anapaestic tetrameter, which is an upbeat rhythm that shows her calm and confident one track mind. This is also emphasised by rhyming couplets and regular quatrains, “..Tightly.. Whitely,”; “..Smithy… Prithee?” However, Browning switches to dactyls on line 5, “He is with her, and they know that I know.” This change in rhythm emphasises her paranoia and makes the audience wonder whether her husband’s affaire is all just in her disturbed and paranoid mind In Macbeth’s eyes, the murder of Duncan has now made the murder of Banquo and his son a necessity and the witches predicted that it would be Banquo’s children that end up on the thrown.

Macbeth treats the murder of his best friend as a facile task, which tell the audience that the trace of humanity under the “vaulting ambition” and the moments of reflection and regret are now gone. After the deed had been done and Banquo is now dead Macbeth sees his best friend’s ghost, ironically during his celebratory banquet after becoming king. This is the first time Macbeths friends and subjects see his disturbed minds and Macbeth begins to panic and shout at, what seems to them, to be nothing. “Prithee, see there! Behold! Look! Lo! How say you? Why, what care I? If thou canst nod, speak too.” The repetition of short exclamatory sentences and rhetorical questions shows Macbeths panic at the disturbing sight of his “gory” best friend’s ghost. To a Jacobean audience, this would be Gods punishment for committing murder and treason. The divine right of kings lead people to believe that the royal family is put there by God so to kill Royalty is much worse than normal murder.

So therefore god has sent the image of his dead friend to torment his disturbed mind for what he has done. On the other hand, a modern audience would argue that this is result of Macbeth’s guilt for ordering his best friend to be killed for no reason other than to keep his status as king for eternity. This shows his deluded and disturbed mind as there is no way that killing Banquo and his son would leave Macbeth on the thrown forever. It shows how is power hunger and disturbed character has poisoned his mind is his sub-conscious guilt has finally gotten too much. In contrast, in The Laboratory, because of her husband’s love affair with other women, “he is with her”, we can see the narrator’s mental state become more and more disturbed as the poem progresses. This can be seen through the pleasure that the speaker is feeling when talking about the imminent death of her two rivals; “grind away moisten and mash up thy paste”.

These verbs show the pleasure the speaker is taking in plotting death. This is unsettling to the reader as we wouldn’t expect to see such evil thoughts in a society filled with luxury, portrayed by the lexical field of wealth “gold, kings, jewels.” The narrator frequently refers to poison with positive connotations “treasures… pleasures”, this shows that she doesn’t know the difference between good and band and therefore (like Macbeth) had no moral boundaries. Browning also includes alliteration of plosives, “Brand, Burn up, Bite into its grace-“ This makes the verbs sound violent and aggressive and also makes the narrator sound very disturbed when she says them. Finally, Macbeth who, by Act 4, is far along the path of insanity becomes paranoid and feels the need to make the witches tell him more. He returns to the Witches and boldly demands to be shown a series of apparitions that tell his future. The first apparition is the disembodied head of a warrior who seems to warn Macbeth of a bloody revenge at the hands of HYPERLINK


Macduff. The second is a blood-covered child who comforts Macbeth with the news that he cannot be killed by any man “of woman born.” The third is a child wearing a crown, who promises that Macbeth cannot lose in battle until Birnam wood physically moves toward his stronghold at Dunsinane. Encouraged by the news of such impossibilities, Macbeth asks, “Shall Banquo’s issue ever reign in this kingdom?” The Witches present an image of a ghostly procession of future kings, led by Banquo. All this serves only to enrage Macbeth, who, trusting in his own pride reveals in an aside to the audience his determination to terminate Macduff as he is now a threat to Macbeths rein. Macbeth realises that he cannot kill Macduff at that moment in time as Macduff is off with his army in England. So instead he chooses to damage Macduff emotionally, in the hope that he would crumble in grief after hearing of the slaughter of his loved ones. This shows that Macbeth has now been completely in engulfed into his disturbed mind as he is now killing innocent women and children in his decent into ultimate tyranny.

To both Jacobean and modern audiences his disturbing actions are unforgivable. However Macbeth’s actions do the opposite of when he intended- Macduff is spurred on by his anger and eventually takes Macbeth’s life for it. The focus on his fall, as well as his rise demonstrates Shakespeare’s moral message that tyrannical reins will come full circle and end in their demise. In conclusion, I think that Shakespeare uses the disturbed mind of Macbeth effectively to keep the audience engaged. Macbeth’s confused and disturbed mind is always flickering back on forth to what is right and what isn’t. Shakespeare presents this through his use of soliloquies and short sentences, keeping the audience fascinated and following every turn and twist of Macbeth’s disturbed mind.

Contrasting to The Laboratory where Browning presents the character of the narrator as truly disturbed, yet not mad like Macbeth and she keeps a one track mind and urge to kill throughout most of the poem. This theme of revenge leaves the reader able to sympathise with the narrator. They understand her motives and that she had been driven to this outcome. The relationship that browning builds between the narrator and the reader is effective because the reader can easily look into and understand the narrators disturbed mind, allowing the reader to stay engaged with the piece.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 24 May 2016

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