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Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and was first performed in 1611, however it was written in 1603. This was in the Elizabethan period, which despite the country being ruled by a woman; women had to be obedient towards their masters. Women of the time had to be the housewives who did the cooking and looked after the children, and the men were the breadwinners. From the aspect of theatre, all women roles were played by young boys, this proved difficult especially in Macbeth, where a woman is acting as though she is a man.
This is both ironic and complex as she is subject to a hyper masculine world.
Lady Macbeth is a very intricate character in that she has both masculine and feminine qualities that intertwine throughout the play. While being very authoritative when talking to Macbeth in the early scenes of the play, she is also quite easily distressed. This is apparent when she faints at the sight of the dead bodies of the guards and exclaims ‘help me hence, ho!’ Fainting in Shakespearean times was seen to be a very womanly attribute.
Shakespeare has used Lady Macbeth to show what it is like for a woman as she was frustrated with the restrictions put upon her gender. She is somewhat unconventional in her mannerisms as she is portrayed as a very commanding character and is seen to not be very maternal. In fact she declares ‘come you spirits…unsex me here.’ This reiterates the unconventional side of her persona, giving us an insight into her thoughts and feelings at the time.
We see Lady Macbeth first in Act 1 Scene 5 where, in the stage directions, she is described as; ‘alone, reading a letter.’ This immediately shows that she is well educated. In addition the letter she is reading is Macbeth’s letter, so Lady Macbeth’s first words in the play were Macbeth’s originally, this demonstrates male dominance from the beginning.
The reading of the letter, in terms of the theatrical view is read as a soliloquy, moreover this letter is used as a dramatic device, it informs the audience of what has happened and gives background information, and also it brings the audience up to the present time in the play. The fact that the letter is read as a soliloquy has significance in that it reveals the loneliness of Lady Macbeth. We can sympathise with her because it is understandable to think that it would be tough to live in these times as a women, with great restriction and certain guidelines to follow.
Witchcraft is also a major element in this play; this is because the play is set in the time of James I, who had a certain fascination with anything remotely witch-like. In fact James I wrote a book called Demonology which was solely based on witchcraft. Being a witch had terrible consequences; death by hanging of being burned at the stake, this cruel persecution amplified the superstition and misogyny of the time.
Act one Scene five is littered with references to witchcraft and spirits. When talking about Macbeth’s new position in the society she uses the word ‘metaphysical’ which means super-natural much like a witch. Something which is super-natural is not natural and possesses witch like traits. Shakespeare also uses ‘the raven’ which symbolises disaster and death and is regarded as an evil omen. Later on in the scene it Shakespeare has made it seem like Lady Macbeth is talking to someone or something, this can be interpreted as Lady Macbeth talking to the spirits, while doing this she says ‘come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts.’ She is inviting the spirits to have fatal and murderous thoughts, so that her husband Macbeth can be king. This is a principle of witchcraft and all its myths that is considered to be the most recognised.
Yet another convention of witchcraft is intelligence, and Lady Macbeth uses manipulation and deception to get her way with Macbeth. She refers to Macbeth as ‘living like a coward.’ This simile is both emotive and manipulative, in that it will provoke a sense of masculinity in Macbeth. This means that Lady Macbeth can get him to do anything for her, because Macbeth has a point to prove. Intelligence was seen as a masculine trait o any woman who was intelligent was deemed to be a witch.
Lady Macbeth makes plans for treason by wanting to kill Duncan which is a very unconventional thought. Moreover how she controls Macbeth in the use of language ‘art thou afeard’ shows that Lady Macbeth is questioning Macbeth’s masculinity. Additionally she is extremely unmaternal and quite independent especially towards the end of the play.
Lady Macbeth is an exceptionally complex character possessing both feminine and masculine traits, this is echoed by her willingness to be a devoted wife but also a controlling one too which is irregular for the time. She shows her devotedness when she is waiting for him to come home and give her the good news about his new position in the hierarchy she says ‘thou would have great glamis’ This shows that she would love him to be the thane of Cawdor. However she then goes on to say that he will need some help along the way, she wishes she was not a woman and instead in Macbeth’s position.
From the beginning she explains how Macbeth would be ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,’ in this extended metaphor it illustrates Lady Macbeth’s thinking of Macbeth, she believes that he is too kind and that he is too womanly to undertake a role such as a king. Milk is representative of females as it refers to the breast milk that a mother would lovingly provide for her child. It implies that she needs to help him to succeed as he is too gentle, a very unconventional thought. This is very eccentric and to a certain extent not very maternal. This is the first major antithesis of the play as there is a major contradiction between what her first thoughts are and her final thoughts are. At first she is a loving wife with great envy for her husband and then later on this envy turns into jealousy and bitterness.
The other chief paradox in the play is the theme of being maternal, Lady Macbeth expresses her feelings about the sweetness of babies, explaining that she knows ‘how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’ This shows Lady Macbeth’s conventional side, showing that she can be loving and caring, it also tells the audience and readers that Lady Macbeth have some kind of a child and that she has lost that child because there is no mention of it thereafter this section. The contrast to the conventional side is that she would ‘dash the brains out’ of the baby. This is very shocking and unconventional language that stirs up mixed emotions inside the readers and listeners of the play.
Shakespeare has complicated the role of Lady Macbeth by making her seem more masculine in both her language and her actions. Lady Macbeth rejects femininity yet again when saying ‘make thick my blood’. This shows her need for strength, it could also be interpreted as her saying that she wants menstruation to stop, as it is a reminder of being a female. Another metaphor for the menstruation is ‘that no compunctions visitings of nature’.
This also shows that she is rejecting femininity and wanting menstruation to stop. Also the extended metaphor of milk is used again in this section when she begs ‘take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.’ Alliteration is used to make the sentence flow, in addition ‘gall’ was thought to promote rage or malice, not a conventional desire from a woman, this adds to the complexity of the character. Moreover this segment relates back to the invocation of the spirits, Lady Macbeth gives the impression of talking to spirits or in this case the ministers, refusing traits of womanliness in favour of masculinity.
Linking with the spirits, Lady Macbeth says she will ‘chastise with the valour of my tongue’. This is quite a complex phrase out of context, however it refers to Lady Macbeth stopping herself saying anything to Macbeth about the circumstance he is in. This adds to the dramatic effect of this piece because as the audience later finds out, she could not be controlled, this is dramatic irony. Using the word chastise indicates that she should be punished if she says anything out of turn. However it is with the valour or bravery, which is a masculine trait, and her tongue or speech, a feminine trait.
Adding to Lady Macbeth’s unconventional nature, she is very controlling over Macbeth, something that in the time of the play was punishable. In the later stages of Act One Scene Five she is explaining that both her and Macbeth should look welcoming to Duncan when he arrives, however there is a certain essence of deception when she deviously proclaims to Macbeth that he should ‘look like the innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t’ This reveals her devious nature and manipulation and cleverness of speech as this is a well coordinated metaphor. The serpent is regarded as a symbol of evil adding to the deviousness of the quotation. As Macbeth tries to speak about the situation he has been put in he utters ‘we will speak further-‘ Shakespeare has used the hyphen to suggest that Lady Macbeth has interrupted him, now controlling how long he has to talk. Lady Macbeth has the last word by saying ‘Leave all the restto me’ which emphasises her controlling nature as she is in command of the occasion.
Throughout the play Lady Macbeth is extremely clever with her tongue, in that she provokes Macbeth to feel uneasy and this spurs him on to become king later on. Her cleverness of speech in magnified in Act one Scene seven when she is trying to persuade Macbeth to take the opportune moment. Using clever language hinting at bad judgement and using the colours ‘green and pale’ when referring to the way he is approaching becoming the king, as she describes the crown as the ‘ornament of life’ another metaphor indicating that the throne is all there is to live for. Lady Macbeth also relates to a bible passage wherein she talks about the ‘cat i’ th’ adage’ This proverb is about a cat that does not want to get its feet wet when searching for a fish, this shows both her education and ingenuity when it comes to her manipulation of words.
Lady Macbeth then ignores Macbeth’s attempt to calm her down with ‘prithee peace’ and carries on in the same manner she started. The alliteration was meant to calm Lady Macbeth however it did no such thing. Towards the latter phase of the scene she uses words such as ‘we, you, our’ and ‘I’ this gives the impression of togetherness of the couple as she is trying to avoid separation. Macbeth then uses a pun when saying to Lady Macbeth that she should ‘bring forth men children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose/nothing but males’. The play on words is with the word mettle, it means both courage and strength as in armour, and this shows that he thinks she is a vey strong woman with a strong personality, which should not be played with.
Lady Macbeth shows a certain amount of deterioration when it comes to controlling what Macbeth decides, she is reserved to her bed where she is constantly trying to wash the blood of her hands. However the blood is not physically there and she is just imagining it a problem that increases until she chooses to commit suicide, just as Macbeth reaches the height of his power. I believe Shakespeare shows this decline as an act of misogyny, because it shows that a woman cannot cope with the pressures of a man.
The other women in the play such as Lady Macduff are more conventional, as she is the house wife, who looks after the children and cooks the meals, unlike Lady Macbeth as she is very independent and has no children. This paradox shows the key differences between them and highlights the effect on the husband in the situation. At the end Macduff wins the fight against a possessed Macbeth, possibly possessed by the death of Duncan which resulted in the suicide of his wife, a chronological downfall constructed by his wife.
An audience of the modern day would respond to Lady Macbeth in a different way to a Shakespearean audience. This is due to women having a higher role in society, in that they are no longer looked down upon. Therefore a woman partaking in manly activities is not frowned upon, many women nowadays are choosing occupations instead of settling down with a family, and they are certainly allowed to have a say in any relationship they are in. Consequently an audience of today would see Lady Macbeth as a normal woman in that she is intelligent and independent in her own right, however they would be disapproving of her plotting murder against the monarchy but the reaction would not necessarily be so intense.
Shakespeare has presented Lady Macbeth as a clever and controlling woman that is confused by the hyper masculine world she is subject to. However from the audience’s point of view it could be seen as misogynistic, as it is showing a woman to be like a man, it shows that it does not work, as Lady Macbeth eventually breaks down. Therefore it could reveal what Shakespeare thinks would happen if a female acted like a male.
Throughout this tragedy Shakespeare builds up the character of Lady Macbeth from the first word she says to the last few words before her suicide. Shakespeare has created a domineering and intellectual character which is ready to face the prejudices of the Elizabethan era. To a tee she overcomes these chauvinisms and cleverly reverses the convention that a woman should do as a man says the basis for the entire play.
Creating a character like Lady Macbeth who is ahead of her time, domineering and so far away from the 16th and17th century stereotypical women, is a fantastic achievement for Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth’s character is not too dissimilar to that of a witch as many aspects of the things she does and the language and imagery she uses have led me to believe that she may well be one. This could well have been the response if a Jacobean audience, There are also frequent times when she appears to call on spirits.
At the time when Macbeth was written the public were becoming increasingly pre-occupied with witchcraft. A law was even put in place to ban it. It was also estimated that at least a staggering 8,000 witches were burned at the stake just in Scotland between 1564 and 1603 (which would have supported the Jacobean view at the time). As witches were used in the play it would have made it all the more intriguing to the audience and to James I. Another point of attraction is the fact that Lady Macbeth appears to have some witchlike features, or that she could be working in sync with them. This only adds another fascinating dimension to her character and so would have broadened her appeal as a dramatic character at the time.
When Macbeth was written, women were believed to be inferior to men. Lady Macbeth contrasts to this belief in numerous ways. She, for example, has more control over Macbeth than he has of her. She also seems able to manage and manipulate effectively and uses these skills in act 1 scene 7 she does a great job of persuading Macbeth to go through with the murder of Duncan and in act 3 scene 4 when she attempted to stop Macbeth from giving away that he murdered Duncan.
I also believe that the impact of the witches, especially at the very beginning of the play provides an excellent building block for her to manipulate, control and domineer him. One of the most important factors in being able to control Macbeth are the witches. Without the information and ambition that the witches feed him, Lady Macbeth’s persuasive powers wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective. In addition Lady Macbeth seems to be undecided whether she is good, evil, somewhere in between or indeed what ulterior motive she has. Maybe she acknowledges she is human after being taken over by spirits, but ultimately she cannot defeat her humanity.
Lady Macbeth’s portrayals in the Polanski and ‘Estate’ film version contrast greatly. In the Polanski portrayal, Lady Macbeth is seen to reflect the way Shakespeare intended her to manifest. She also is seen to be devious and conniving just as Shakespeare intended. However in the ‘Estate’ version, Lady Macbeth gains sympathy from the audience and we are certainly more sympathetic towards her, because as the film indicates she lost her child earlier in life. This is also why many characters in the film look upon her differently in comparison the Polanski version.
The evidence we have of Lady Macbeth being portrayed in two different ways shows what an impressive, dramatic and intriguing character Shakespeare has created, and I’m sure that numerous other interpretations can be made, and will be made in the future.
The very first time we are introduced to Lady Macbeth is when she has received a letter from Macbeth informing her about what the witches had told him. What is interesting is that she never dwells on the letter for a moment. She just gets straight into devising a way of how to get Macbeth to be king (and of course herself queen) by killing. She immediately knows he isn’t capable of committing the murder as she says “It’s too full of the milk of human kindness”. Using the work milk means she views Macbeth as young or inexperienced and definitely incapable of murdering Duncan. Also it initiates a sense of images connected with motherhood and femininity.
She then does on to say “I pour my spirits into thine ear” which is a reference to the fact that she’ll have to use her persuasive powers to influence him.
It is immediately clear Shakespeare intended to give her power, and the way she has already started to devise a plan instantaneously in her mind is astonishing. She clearly thinks she is powerful already when she says “Under my battlements”. In Lady Macbeth’s mind the Macbeth’s castle is hers. This view is completely in contrast with events at the time as any normal stereotypical woman in this time period would never claim to own her husband’s property.
We as an audience already know that Lady Macbeth is an extraordinary powerful woman. But she thrives for more power. When she says “Unsex me here” this means that she feels restricted and wants to have mens’ power. She may also believe that a woman can only have so much power and to gain more she would have to become a man. I believe she feels jealous of Macbeth’s power and longs to feel what it is like to me a man like him.
Immediately when Macbeth has met his wife after sending the letter, barely any pleasantries are exchanged and she quickly sets upon overwhelming him. Lady Macbeth’s sharp innovative thinking has already devised a plan to kill Duncan and she wastes no time in unleashing it upon Macbeth Duncan “That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan”. She has concocted that the murder will be covered up “And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell” and that the murder will happen under the “Blanket of dark”. She also tells him that she will poison the guards in order for him to get to Duncan “And take my milk for gall”.
The way Lady Macbeth has already pieced together a plan of how to get herself into the powerful position of queen so rapidly is a prime example that power and domination are the main features of her existence. She clearly thrives on power and her last statement in act 1 scene 5 only underlines this fact “Leave all the rest to me”. She is telling Macbeth that she has complete control over the situation and that instead of her relying on him, he can rely on her. This would be shocking to the audience as it challenges beliefs about society’s roles at the time.
Although Lady Macbeths plan seems convincing, Macbeth is still a bit wary of it. He puts forward the view that doing more than what is natural for a man to do, no longer makes him a man. In other words it would make him unnatural as it could almost be construed that Lady Macbeth is trying to mould Macbeth and make him into a somewhat supernatural character. Although we know Macbeth kills Duncan, he may not have done so if it had not been for his love and affection for his wife, as in the letter he wrote to her he called her “My dearest partner of greatness”. We also know that he trusted her with his life, as if the letter he had written to her had been seen by anybody else; it may have been seen as treasonous. Without Macbeth’s love and trust for his wife Lady Macbeth may not have been able to persuade him to commit the murder.
In act 1 scene 7 Lady Macbeth hits her husband where she knows it will hurt by making him feel like a coward when she continues to “Pour my spirits into thine ear” and she says mockingly “Poor cat”. The image of the cat is designed in to re-inforce the fact that Macbeth is being cowardly for having second thoughts over the murder of Duncan. Another even more damaging persuasive technique Lady Macbeth uses is to insult Macbeth’s manhood. When Lady Macbeth says “When you dur’st do it, then you were a man” it appears to demolish Macbeths futile attempts to convince himself that he shouldn’t murder Duncan by mocking his masculinity and contrasting it to her commitment to him. Anxiety
Lady Macbeth seems hell-bent on persuading Macbeth to murder Duncan, but could she have done it herself? She claims Duncan looked like her father so she couldn’t do it. But she also said she would kill her own baby if she had to “I would while it was smiling in my face”. I think she isn’t quite as powerful as she appears on the surface and she is too scared herself of the consequences of killing a king. Although if this was the case it would be ironic as the guilt of Macbeth killing Duncan affects her a lot more.
On waiting for Macbeth to commit the murder, Lady Macbeth is triumphant and bold and is confident having played her part by drugging the guards. Here Macbeth makes a foolish mistake by bringing the two bloodstained daggers back from the scene of the crime. Lady Macbeth quickly notices his mistake and decisively orders him to put the daggers beside the drunken guards. Macbeth is too overcome with the fear of guilt to do this, which forces Lady Macbeth to carry out the deed for him. Without Lady Macbeth’s readiness of mind and strength of purpose, Macbeth may have been exposed. We see Lady Macbeth has the initiative and grasps the situation; however after persuading Macbeth to murder Duncan she has turned a great warrior into a guilty wreck.
After Duncan’s death Macbeth kills the guards in a false display of loyalty, however Macduff questions this and although Macbeth justifies his actions it still seems unconvincing. Lady Macbeth conveniently faints after seeing the dead bodies. I believe she fakes to faint as she is afraid that Macbeth wasn’t convincing and this provides the perfect way to draw the attention away from Macbeth. Nevertheless I believe that Lady Macbeth may be genuinely shocked by her husband’s quick ruthless actions and maybe before she thought that he wouldn’t be capable of murdering again. She may be shocked at what he has turned into, and not realize how omnipotent she has been. Also, with Macbeth acting so spontaneously this could be conceived by her as him challenging her power
Lady Macbeth becomes uneasy as her husband seems to spend his time alone “Desire has got without content”. She is also not enjoying her new found role as queen. It seems the position she so wanted in life hasn’t lived up to her high standards. When Macbeth eventually does see her she pretends she is at ease with the current situation. In addition in this scene Lady Macbeth begins to lose her power over Macbeth and from her being so dominant now the situation and balance begins to shift. He is beginning to formulate a plan without her, but he won’t tell her what it is. Macbeth despite calling her “Dearest chuck” clearly feels he doesn’t need her. Whereas in the first act, Lady Macbeth is overpowering Macbeth, now their roles have changed.
In act 3 scene 4 Lady Macbeth grasps control over the situation for one last time. Banquo’s ghost ironically occupies Macbeth’s seat as Banquo’s descendants will do the throne. Only Macbeth can see the ghost and he is terrified. Lady Macbeth’s quick thinking to draw the banquet to a close and dismiss everyone is another example of how much influence she has had throughout the play, and without her Macbeth surely wouldn’t be in the position he now currently finds himself in. However he seems to only talk of himself alone “For mine own good”. He even admits that he wants to visit the witches again. Lady Macbeth results in keeping “Her state” which means she is going to remain and sit on the throne. On the throne is where she should be able to enjoy her role as queen but it somehow feels hollow and empty for her without Macbeth by her side. And maybe it is no wonder that Lady Macbeth begins to question what has become of her.
In Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinaine a doctor and a waiting gentlewoman discuss their patient, Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and it must finally dawn on the audience that she has lost all control and is on the verge of insanity as sleepwalking was seen as a supernatural sign of being possessed. Earlier in the play she said “What’s done is done” meaning she is suggesting that killing Duncan would not be of concern once it had been accomplished. However now what’s done is not in the past put present in her mind. She now goes on to say “What’s done cannot be undone” Which is the complete opposite to her earlier statement.
She says “Who would have thought the old man would have so much blood in him?” while in her dream-like state. I think this means that she didn’t realize so much guilt would overwhelm her after Macbeth had murdered Duncan, also that she didn’t think there would be so many deaths after they had killed Duncan.
What is fascinating about Lady Macbeth’s situation now is she set about trying to influence Macbeth and it appears she has influenced herself into her own death. Lady Macbeth’s death could almost be viewed as a sacrifice for Macbeth. She may have felt that she was becoming a burden for him and that he would do better without her. Furthermore she could have killed herself as she had lost control over herself and more importantly over Macbeth, who seemed to be acting spontaneously without her dramatic impact over him. Macbeth’s reaction may also come as a surprise to the audience as when he says “She should have died hereafter” it feels like he is being offhand and has more important things to worry about than his wife’s death. Or does the word hereafter suggest he may dwell and mourn over the matter later?
In conclusion the dramatic power of Lady Macbeth is at first influential and rewarding to her and her husband, but then spirals out of control. Shakespeare has created an iconic and revolutionary character and one who seems to have numerous personalities on-the-go at once. At first she seems supernatural with her uncompromising desire for her husband to take the throne, but then she shows aspects of humanity- she would have killed Duncan herself if he hadn’t have reminded her of her father. Finally, it seems that Shakespeare created the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to compliment each other. As when Macbeth is weak and hesitant, Lady Macbeth is strong and dynamic; when Macbeth is diligent and determined, Lady Macbeth is tormented and slowly disintegrates. Without the relationship they provide for each other they wouldn’t have got to the stage of their downfall.
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