Reading in the English Literary Heritage-response to Shakespeare

Write an essay, which focuses on the character of Lady Macbeth as presented in act five, scene one and the scenes leading up to the murder of King Duncan.

In act five, scene one the audience sees one of the many facets of Lady Macbeth’s complex character as she is seen to be sleepwalking, while being carefully observed by her waiting gentlewoman and a doctor of physic. Her gentlewoman introduces this deranged behaviour, when she says, “Lo you, here she comes.

This is her guise and, upon my life, fast asleep.” There are many possibilities to be explored that could be found to be the impetus bringing Lady Macbeth to sleepwalk. The first being that in Shakespeare’s time a person found to be sleepwalking meant that evil spirits and demons possessed them.

Lady Macbeth played a forceful role in the scheming, leading up to the murder of Duncan and was heavily involved in the event itself. In act two, scene two; exasperated with Macbeth, Lady Macbeth takes the daggers to smear Duncan’s blood on his servants’ faces.

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The sight of Duncan’s blood has had a profound effect on her and in act five, scene one this becomes apparent when she says in her sleep, ” Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” In saying this line she is remembering and reflecting on the moment of when she placed the bloody daggers next to the guards. She is thinking about how much Duncan bled.

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The image of Duncan’s blood on the daggers and on her hands has stuck in her mind and is plaguing her thoughts, so much so that she is desperate to be cleansed. The crime is lying very heavily on her conscience and her heart and she longs to be cleansed of the blood, which is symbolic of her guilt at the deeds she has committed. While in a frantic, frenzy she says, “Out damned spot! Out, I say!” Whilst delivering this line, Lady Macbeth excessively rubs her hands in a washing motion. Although this is not a stage direction in the play, it is implied by the gentlewoman’s line, “It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands.”

This action of Lady Macbeth suggests that her conscience and imagination are deceiving her causing her to have an illusive image of her hands covered in blood. She is trying to erase herself of the guilt she now feels at murdering Duncan. Although in Act two, scene two Lady Macbeth, says to Macbeth, “A little water clears us of this deed.” By this she means that with water the blood will wash off and they can forget that the murder ever happened. However, in act five, scene one she is distressed because she can’t get rid of the vision of blood and the feeling of guilt. She says, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” This rhetorical question is almost a statement from Lady Macbeth in a state of desperation questioning whether she will ever be able to be rid of the guilt at what she has done.

All throughout this scene Lady Macbeth is in a state of mental turmoil and most of her deepest, most private thoughts and feelings are revealed. Subtly this illustrates how men and women in Shakespeare’s time had vastly different roles. Lady Macbeth has no one to talk to with a head full of anxieties, regrets and confusion. She is isolated and alone. Her thoughts about the murder and how distant Macbeth has become are driving her mad, which is manifested by her sleepwalking.

Whereas Macbeth’s fears are displayed in act three, scene four at a banquet, when Macbeth is unnerved at his mind’s illusion of Banquo’s ghost. These feelings of Macbeth are shown at an extremely public event, a banquet surrounded by all his lords and important men in society. However Lady Macbeth’s fears are revealed in the private setting of her bedroom. She has to be much more conservative than Macbeth as it is her role to be publicly stable. Macbeth is permitted to expose his true sentiments, because he is king and furthermore because he is a man.

In the time before the murder, Lady Macbeth loved life and she and Macbeth had the perfect partnership. They saw each other as equals and were both ambitious and secure in their relationship and their position in society, although Lady Macbeth was continuously striving for more.

Despite all this, after the murder they have drifted apart. They no longer control things together and the emotional distance between them means Lady Macbeth fears what her tyrant husband will do next because she feels she no longer knows him as she once did.

Evidence of this can be found in the fragmented language she uses when sleepwalking, that echoes her own and Macbeth’s words about past murders: Duncan, Lady Macduff and Banquo. Her tortured imagination peregrinates over past conversations she has had with Macbeth. At first she ponders on the murder of Duncan, “One, two. Why then ’tis time to do’t.” Which is referring to what Macbeth says to her in act two scene two, just before he goes to carry out the murder, “I go and it is done. The bell invites me.”

Then she turns her attentions to the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, she says, “The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?” Following this she relives what she says to Macbeth at the banquet in reassurance to convince him that he can’t see Banquo. “Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave.” However, Lady Macbeth continuously goes back to the murder of Duncan, which implies that compared to the other murders she was most affected by it. This is because she was heavily involved so it was when her state of mind and all the different aspects of her life changed suddenly and dramatically.

Repeatedly Lady Macbeth restates lines that she said to Macbeth in a desperate attempt to re-establish the connection that she and Macbeth once had. As Macbeth no longer seems to exist for her, she has become extremely isolated and in saying lines such as, “Come, come, give me your hand.” She is yearning for the security of her own marriage.

While sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth carries with her a candle. As suggested in her gentlewoman’s line, “She has light by her continually, ’tis her command.” Lady Macbeth is frightened of darkness and always needs the security of light around her. This may be because Duncan’s murder was committed at night in darkness and she is frightened of his ghost or of being murdered herself in darkness. However it is a strong contrast to the start of the play, Act 1 Scene 5 where she pleads for darkness, so she and Macbeth can murder Duncan. “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it make.” It is also a contrast of the personality and state of mind of Lady Macbeth; at the beginning of the play she is a strong, confident, motivated and ambitious woman and the driving force behind Macbeth. However as the play develops she becomes less assertive, and more unsettled.

Lady Macbeth thought that once the murder of Duncan was accomplished and completed, it would be finished and she and Macbeth would become successful rulers of Scotland. She reflects on this thought in act five, scene one, by saying, “Who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” Nevertheless only one part of this dream of the future has come to life and that is that she and Macbeth are rulers of Scotland. Duncan’s murder was far from the end of that series of events for Lady Macbeth; instead it has provoked lots and changed everything. The sleepwalking portrays this and shows that she is unsettled, maybe because of her unfulfilled dreams.

The audience is shown another feature of Lady Macbeth’s character in act five, scene one. Her sentiments are expressed with a simplistic use of language, with the use of prose as opposed to verse. For example, “Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O.” This uncovers what Lady Macbeth is truly feeling in her heart and head. Her human emotions are also demonstrated about her regret at the amount of bloodshed, and the audience sees her as not just a manipulator but as scared, vulnerable and confused woman. Her gentlewoman says in sympathy for her, “I would not have such as heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.”

The presence of the doctor and the waiting gentlewoman add to the effectiveness of this scene by the way they react to what Lady Macbeth is doing and saying. When the doctor realises what Lady Macbeth is reliving and saying about the murders he is unsure, horrified and can’t make sense of it. Whereas the waiting gentlewoman already knew about the murders from Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking in the past and she knows she could be in serious trouble if the doctor tells anyone what he has discovered. She says to the doctor, “Neither to you, nor anyone, having no witness to confirm my speech.”

However the doctor and the waiting gentlewoman are both innocent onlookers on the situation and have mixed emotions. Whereas they are both horrified at what they hear, they can’t make sense of it and feel pity for Lady Macbeth and how troubled she is. The doctor says, “My mind she has mated and amazed my sight.” And, “The heart is sorely charged.” This all adds to the effectiveness of the scene because it shows a normal person’s reaction to what has happened to Lady Macbeth, which also shows a contrast to the audience between her uneasy and almost insane character and that of a sane, rational person. This enhances Lady Macbeth’s character for the audience.

Further more when the doctor says, “This disease is beyond my practice. More needs she the divine than the physician.” There is a feeling of sadness and sympathy from him. This provokes the same feelings from the audience. In the first half of the play the audience saw Lady Macbeth as a strong, female character, (relative to Shakespeare’s times) and now they see that she has a tyrant of a husband, who has no conscience and she is bearing all the guilt of their actions for both of them. I believe that Shakespeare wanted to affect the audience in this scene and make them have some sympathy for Lady Macbeth.

The dramatic function of the presence of the doctor and waiting gentlewoman in this scene is to narrate to the audience the scenes events and explain to them what is happening. The doctor gives detailed descriptions of what is happening, for example, “Look how she rubs her hands.” It is then the waiting gentlewoman who commentates further and emphasizes the events, and also adding some further information, beyond the scene, such as, “It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands; I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.” This gives the audience additional information about the events, which increases the effect of the scene because it is delving into the reasons of Lady Macbeth’s increasing uneasiness.

One could consider that Shakespeare’s dramatic purpose of placing this scene at this point in the play is to show the transformation and variation in Lady Macbeth’s character. Prior to this scene in the play the audience sees Lady Macbeth as a strong, ambitious, female. Throughout act five, scene one Shakespeare reminds the audience of the past events leading up to the murder of Duncan and how Lady Macbeth has come to be so disrupted, unsettled and disturbed.

The scene summarizes previous events, while also depicting Lady Macbeth’s state of mind to the audience and showing the transformation of her character. Act five, scene one’s dramatic purpose is to be in a position to be able to be a conclusive scene of the beginning of the plays events, before moving on to the downfall of Macbeth.

The opening scene of the play grabs the audience’s attention as three witches appear on stage. The witches would have scared an audience in Shakespeare’s times because they was a strong belief in superstition but nowadays it takes a lot more to scare an audience. In act one, scene one; briefly the witches arrange a meeting with Macbeth on a heath. “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” To which the reply is, “Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth.”

In act one, scene two Macbeth is instantly introduced as a heroic, strong character by the Captain of a battle, in which Macbeth defeats the rebel enemy Macdonald, personally killing him against the odds. “For brave Macbeth-well he deserves that name-disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel, which smoked with bloody execution.” Reflecting on this King Duncan sentences a traitor, the Thane of Cawdor and awards this title to Macbeth. “No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive. Go pronounce his present death and with his former title greet Macbeth. What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.”

The witches are re-introduced to the audience in act one, scene three, this time on the heath in foul weather, which serves to increase the dramatic effect. They are waiting for Macbeth to come. The witches are evil women, who plan to use their power. As they wait for Macbeth they plot to torment a sea captain whose wife has tormented them, by describing terrible things, which makes the start of the scene quite violently disturbing, with a threatening atmosphere.

Macbeth’s arrival is signalled by a drum, “A drum, a drum; Macbeth doth come.” Says the third witch. As Macbeth enters for the first time in the play, with fellow warrior Banquo, his initial words are, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Immediately this establishes a connection between Macbeth and the witches, as their lines in the opening scene were, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Also the witches are called the we�rd sisters, and in Anglo-Saxon mythology, we�rd sisters were the goddesses of destiny who predicted the future.

When Macbeth and Banquo enter they are puzzled as to what these beings are with such a revolting appearance, Banquo describes them, “So withered and so wild in their attire, that look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth. Each at once her choppy finger laying upon her skinny lips; you should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” What happens next is very significant for the rest of the play. The witches’ prophecy about Macbeth and his future and then at his request, Banquo, ” All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis. Thane of Cawdor. That shalt be king hereafter.”

They predict that Macbeth will have these titles and that Banquo’s descendants will be kings, but he himself will not. “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Then refusing to answer Macbeth’s questions the witches vanish in front of Macbeth and Banquo, leaving them shocked, bewildered and discombobulated. The witches come to Macbeth at exactly the right moment and place to shock him. He is fresh from the killings at the battle and his raw ambition is hungry for greater things. The witches introduce these things to him by speaking his innermost thoughts and tempting him with his own aspirations and predilections.

Macbeth and Banquo are both left to reflect on what the witches have just said to them and to try to make some sense of it when Ross enters, telling Macbeth of his new title, Thane of Cawdor, “He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor: In which addition, hail most worthy thane, for it is thine.” This shocks Macbeth, as he says, almost accusingly, “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” Then, later in the scene three, Macbeth exposes his initial thoughts in an aside to the audience about the witches’ prophecy and how there moral implications have affected him.

Macbeth’s mind is in turmoil, as he battles with his conscience and his desires over how he should behave in response to the witches’ prophecy. He is disturbed and horrified at the thought of killing Duncan, as they have great respect for each other, but he desperately wants to become king, that is his deepest ambition and desire, “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?” However he resolves with himself to accept the future and the changes it will bring, “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir.” Whereas Banquo uses the imagery of clothes to elucidate Macbeth’s, “rapt”. He says, “New honours come upon him like our strange garments, cleave no to their mould, but with the aid of use.”

During act one, scene four, Duncan reveals and announces that his own son, Malcolm is to be heir to the throne. This irritates and appalls Macbeth; if Duncan had not named Malcolm as his heir, the thanes would have elected the next king after Duncan’s death, and as Macbeth is a honoured warrior, there was a possibility he would have been elected. The audience sees another facet to Macbeth’s character when in an aside he says about his annoyance, “That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires, let not see my black and deep desires, the eye wink at the hand.” These lines really seal Macbeth’s evil intentions and it is maybe what makes him decide, definitely that he will be king, whatever the consequences are for others and him.

When the audience first sees Lady Macbeth in act one, scene five, she is reading Macbeth’s letter in which his meeting with the witches is described to her, “They met me in the day of success, and I have learned by the perfectest report they have more in them than mortal knowledge.” In reading the letter further, Lady Macbeth learns of the witches’ prophecy and that the first, that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor has been fulfilled almost right away. Previously Macbeth has demonstrated his disgust at the thought of the murder of Duncan and the consequence and repercussions it would have.

After reading the letter Lady Macbeth reinforces these emotions and thoughts by saying in her first soliloquy, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be what thou art promised.” Lady Macbeth knows her husband is ambitious and passionate about his dreams of kingship, but she also knows and feels that he is too fair and conscientious about what is wrong and what is right. She says, “I do fear thy nature it is too full o’th’milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.” We know Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are great partners, who share everything, and know each other inside- out, and this is confirmed in Macbeth’s letter when he refers to her as, “My dearest partner of greatness.”

However, taking this into account Lady Macbeth realises that to become queen of Scotland and to realise her own and Macbeth’s dreams she will have do or sacrifice anything to get this. She says, “What thou wouldst highly, that wouldst holily; wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win.” Saying this it appears as though Lady Macbeth’s naked ambition is almost stronger than her husbands. She seems to disregard morals in order to get what she wants and has unbelievably strong willpower and determination. Once she has decided Macbeth will be king, then she starts to introduce supernatural forces and the idea of inviting in evil spirits to help her succeed. “That I may pour my spirits in thine ear and chastise with the valour of my tongue.”

It is when Lady Macbeth is told of Duncan’s plans to visit the castle that her ambition and wickedness bloom and become very apparent. She knows that this is her chance to seize the moment and facilitate Macbeth’s future role as king of Scotland. In her second soliloquy she summons up her evil spirits in the form of magic to assist her with her murderous plans for Duncan. She refers to a raven, which is a bird, seen as an evil omen and then she says, “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty; make thick my blood, stop up th’access and passage to remorse.” In saying this, it is clear that she no longer just wants to be an ambitious and dominant woman, her desire is to become evil personified, pitiless and with no sense of morals.

She says, “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers.” She is saying that she wants her breasts to be full of poison, rather than “the milk of human kindness.” Which is what she described Macbeth as having. Lady Macbeth closes her speech with triumph, summoning night, death and hell. She pleads for a disguise for the crime that she and Macbeth will commit. “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark.” Lady Macbeth almost seems to have changed from an ambitious, forceful woman into an evil woman, harbouring evil spirits and thoughts. However in reality she is still a mortal woman, whose actions will cause her to suffer great consequence and remorse.

As Macbeth enters, Lady Macbeth greeting echoes that of the witches. “Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor, Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter.” This suggests that she now has formed a connection with the dark side and that evil spirits really are deeply entwined in her thoughts and actions. The instant she starts a conversation with Macbeth, she makes it clear what is going to happen to Duncan that night, “O never shall sun that morrow see.” She is implying in her words that after that night Duncan will never see sunlight again, because he will be dead. Lady Macbeth instructs Macbeth to, “Look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” She makes an analogy, in which she compares Macbeth to be a serpent, which is biblically an evil creature. Then she takes control of the situation and Macbeth with a strong sense of purpose and character that is ruthless, “To alter favour ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me.”

When Duncan arrives at the castle in scene six Lady Macbeth confidently leads him inside and to his death with a sense of triumph. “Your servants ever have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs in count to make audit at your highness’ pleasure, still to return to your own.” However during this time, leading up to the murder Lady Macbeth continuously has to reinforce her plans, courage and strong will onto Macbeth, who shows reluctance in accepting it. At the start of scene seven, Macbeth is seen to be agonising relentlessly with his conscience over killing Duncan and the consequences it will incur. He wrestles with his conscience, saying, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.” Then he has a change of heart saying, “He’s here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, strong both against the deed; then as his host, who should against his murderer shut the door, not bear the knife myself.”

This private reasoning continues until, finally Lady Macbeth appears and puts a stop to it. At first Macbeth refuses to do the murder, saying, “We will proceed no further in this business.” However his efforts are wasted on her as she turns angrily on him and we see her become a manipulating, strong willed woman again. Immediately she turns things around on Macbeth and simply points out that he implied that the murder was the only thing to do. “Was the hoe drunk? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now to look so green and pale at what it did so freely? From this time, such I account thy love.” She also says that if he is taking back all the things he said, she will assume that that is true about how strongly he loves her. This would hurt Macbeth and also come as quite a surprise as they have such an intense and loving relationship. Then more effectively she torments Macbeth about his masculinity by calling him a coward. “Live a coward in thine own esteem.” She knows Macbeth well enough to know that will upset him because he is publicly known as a heroic warrior, however it doesn’t get the reaction she wants as he points out to her that he is merely a man. I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.”

Furthermore Lady Macbeth makes the ultimate taunt to persuade her husband to kill Duncan by saying she would kill their child. “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 nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you have done this.” In saying this Lady Macbeth is playing her womanliness against Macbeth’s manliness by saying she would make the ultimate sacrifice to keep the promise he has made. She makes the point that she once was a mother, and she could remember the overwhelming love she felt for her child, but she would have given it all up to make Macbeth king. Lady Macbeth is also clever in realising she needs to use violent, disturbing, grotesque imagery for Macbeth as a shock tactic to convince him to murder Duncan, as this night is their perfect opportunity.

At this point Macbeth offers no resistance to his wife’s strength and force over him, as he knows he will not overcome her determination and extreme assertiveness, “Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males.” He only questions what should happen if they were to fail, which she replies in an extremely optimistic, self assured and almost over confident manner, “Who dares receive it other, as we shall make our griefs and clamour roar upon his death!”

The plan for the murder is organised and in act one, scene seven Macbeth leaves to complete it saying, almost wearily and sadly, “I go and it is done. The bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan, for it is knell that summons thee to heaven or hell.” In act two, scene two, exhilarated by alcohol and anticipation Lady Macbeth awaits her husband to confirm that the murder is done. “That which hath made them drunk, hath made me bold; what hath quenched them, hath given me fire.” She has drugged Duncan’s bodyguards, but is afraid that Macbeth may have been too cowardly to carry out the murder. “I have drugged their possets, that death and nature do contend about them, whether they live, or die.” It is then, when Lady Macbeth reveals her single weakness up until this point, which is why she couldn’t or wouldn’t murder Duncan herself, “Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” This is another facet of her character shown, as we start to see her humane side exposed and vulnerable.

Following this Macbeth returns to Lady Macbeth to say he has completed the murder in a terrible state of remorse and fear of what will punish him of the crime he has just committed. “Wherefore I could not pronounce ‘Amen’? I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ stuck in my throat.” He is obsessively panicky because he cannot say ‘Amen’. It is then, that Lady Macbeth regains control of the situation and transforms into an iron willed woman again in order to hold Macbeth together.

She says to him in an ironic and impatient manner, dismissing his hallucinations of a voice crying he had murdered sleep, “These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.” It is then when she sees that Macbeth has brought the bloody daggers back from the scene of the murder that she implicates herself and gets further involved with the murder; Macbeth refuses to return the daggers so she says, “Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ’tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil. If he do bleed, I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, for it must seem their guilt.”

From this point onwards Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s relationship starts to change as they drift apart emotionally and physically. Their personas are dramatically reversed as Lady Macbeth who was once an iron willed, passionate, ambitious woman becomes extremely deranged and depressed. Her character develops and changes throughout the play as she is transformed from an ambitious, powerful woman to someone is full of regret and with a heart full of foreboding, which lies very heavily on her conscience. Paradoxically, Macbeth’s characteristics, his strong sense of morals and fairplay and a clear conscience are replaced with a tyrant personality and where little or no remorse at the taking of other people’s lives.

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Reading in the English Literary Heritage-response to Shakespeare. (2017, Oct 20). Retrieved from

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