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In the play “The Tragedy of Macbeth” written by William Shakespeare, we see a very complex character which is Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s character throughout the play changes as she experiences the misfortunes that are brought to Macbeth and herself. This essay will explore how we as an audience feel sympathy for Lady Macbeth throughout the play, and how this feeling changes as we watch Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is first presented in the play when she receives a letter from her husband explaining that the weird sisters have prophesised his future as king.
When she learns that King Duncan will be staying as their guest overnight in their castle at Inverness, she plans a regicide to secure Macbeth’s place on the throne. However, Macbeth being “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” to attempt such a thing, she plans out the murder and convinces Macbeth to follow through by belittling his manhood. At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth is conveyed to the audience as a supremely confident, dominant character.
She is extremely determined to fulfil the fate of Macbeth prophesied by the Weird Sisters. This is shown by her soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 5: “The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.”
Ravens are a symbol of ill-omen, and associated with death. Lady Macbeth has already made up her mind to kill Duncan, and Shakespeare uses the raven to explain the dark determination of her thoughts. Also, Lady Macbeth calls the castle “her battlements”, almost as if she is the master of the castle instead of Macbeth.
“…Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood…”
Already this early into the play, Lady Macbeth is calling to the demon spirits. She is very superstitious and the references to spirits may make the audience think of magic and sorcery, which have dark connotations. The use of “unsex me here” proves her determination. She is urgent and impatient- asking to remove her womanly characteristics (such as being gentle and kind) so she may have the courage to kill and not feel guilty. Her thirst for power and control overrides her good side. “…That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it…”
Not even nature (how things are supposed to be) can deter her plans of regicide. “…no compunctious visitings of nature”. Compunctious (meaning compassionate) is in a stereotypical woman’s nature, but Lady Macbeth does not want this. She calls on the spirits to remove these womanly feelings, as she would not be able to carry out her plan if she had them. “…Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers…”
Here, as breasts are usually a symbol of one’s womanhood, she is bluntly expressing her t wish to stop being a woman by asking for her milk to be removed. Milk symbolises babies and children, which connotes innocence. She is asking for her milk to be changed to gall, a bitter poison. Babies (who drink milk) are known to be innocent, miraculous and a symbol of new life. However, gall connotes death and evil, which is the complete opposite. This is a contrast that Lady Macbeth uses to emphasise the relentless desperation for power. Here, the stereotypical roles of man and wife seem to be overturned- Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits to make her a man, and she describes her husband as “too full o’the milk of human kindness”. As mentioned, milk is a symbol of motherhood and children.
By describing her husband as “too full o’the milk”, she means he is too gentle and kind- the emotions she called upon the spirits to remove from her. She is almost an anti-mother figure- she seems to refer to babies with hate. She urges Macbeth to use deception to cloak murderous intentions- “look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t” and persuades him to take forward her plan. At this point, the sympathy felt for Lady Macbeth is very little, as she is very independent and her references to dark spirits, death and poison make her seem evil. The depth of her want of evil is seen at the end of her soliloquy: “…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 the dark…“
The reference to hell shows that she is determined and willing to submit herself to total evil, and leave everything that is good. She asks for a “thick night” to come that is almost like hell, and to never see the light of heaven. Lady Macbeth already sounds like she has been possessed by demon spirits, like the devil, due to her wild comments on death and hell. Also, “my keen knife” indicates that she is desperate to kill. As the devil is known to be an evil character, Lady Macbeth is conveyed as evil and cunning, therefore little sympathy is felt for her at this point in the play. The first time that we see a more compassionate side to Lady Macbeth is in Act2, Scene 2: “…Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done’t.”
This shows that despite calling upon the spirits to unsex her, she still has tender feelings inside of her. It shows that she loves her father. However, this comment only just touches the surface of her fragile side, so it does not increase the sympathy felt by the audience for Lady Macbeth by very much. She is still desperate for murder and blood. In this scene, where Macbeth murders Duncan, he immediately feels guilty about it when he says “this is a sorry sight”. Lady Macbeth takes charge of the situation and doesn’t sound guilty at all: “…Go get some water
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.”
“…Be not lost
So poorly in your thoughts.”
She instructs Macbeth to remove the evidence, forget about it, and do not let his face show to people the deed he has done. “My hands are of your colour, but I shame
To wear a heart so white.”
Unlike Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is still sane and calm. She mocks Macbeth for being a coward by calling his white heart shameful. The connotations of white are purity, and it is also the colour of milk. Lady Macbeth tells her husband that it is shameful- she is still feeling ‘evil’ and her ideas have not changed. In the end, she is the one to return the daggers to the scene of the crime and smear blood on the guards, as Macbeth feels too guilty to do so. The sympathy felt for Macbeth in this scene is high because even though he has just committed a heinous crime, he already feels terribly guilty for it, and he was forced to commit the crime by Lady Macbeth in a way.
This means that still, little or no sympathy is felt for Lady Macbeth so far in the play- she is still a villainous character. After Act 2, Lady Macbeth’s role in the plot diminishes. In Act 3, Scene 2, there is a brief conversation between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth where they discuss the guilt that Macbeth is feeling. Lady Macbeth still seems like she is not affected by it: “Using those thoughts which should indeed have died”
She tells Macbeth that he should have forgotten about the murder he committed, because they are now eating at him and ruining his life. This Act is the turning point of the roles played by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. At the beginning, Lady Macbeth was the dominant character that created the plans and decisions for regicide. However, as Macbeth’s character develops and changes after his first murder, Lady Macbeth becomes the less dominant character and the desperate guilt that Macbeth once felt is transferred to Lady Macbeth.
For the first time, Macbeth plans other murders to secure his throne without consulting the Queen. Lady Macbeth is then forced to order her guests at the royal banquet to leave after Macbeth hallucinates and sees the ghost of Banquo in his seat. The next (and final) scene that Lady Macbeth appears in is the sleepwalking scene. This scene is the tour de force of the play and follows the guilt-wracked Lady Macbeth while she sleepwalks in profound torment. This is the scene where the sympathy felt by the audience may rise to high sympathy, as all of the feminine characteristics described in the first soliloquy made by Lady Macbeth in the play rise to the surface for all to see.
“Gentlewoman…She has light by her con- tinually, ’tis her command.”
This immediately shows the change in character that Lady Macbeth has gone through. Before, she was asking for darkness: “Come, thick night / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell”. However, she now wants a light by her continually, almost as if she is frightened of the dark.
“Doctor…Look how she rubs her hands.”
This also conveys the fear and guilt that Lady Macbeth is feeling. She is rubbing her hands to remove the blood that stained them on the night of the murder of Duncan. Her desperation is presented with her cry of “Out, damned spot!”. She curses the blood that touched her hand, because it feels to be eating at her. This is similar to the way Macbeth was feeling in Act 2, Scene 2: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?”. This shows the swapping of roles within the story between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Now Lady Macbeth is the one that feels guilty, and Macbeth does not feel anything at all. While she is sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth seems to be re-living the scene of Duncan’s murder. “…One, two…” signifies the bell on the night of the murder.
“…who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” This is obviously referring to Duncan, and his bleeding.
“…What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…”
Again, Lady Macbeth’s imagination roams over past events and fools her mind that there is still blood on her hands. “…all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…” Even though there is actually no blood on her hand at that time, her tortured imagination believes that there is even a stench coming from her hand and she cannot bear it. The words “sweeten” and “little hand” connote the sensitivity and fragility of the conventional woman- she is not “unsexed” any more. The use of compassionate language by Lady Macbeth in this scene may convince the audience to feel a large amount of sympathy for her, as she has proven by these feelings, that she is a human like any other. She is wrecked with guilt and fear for her deeds, and this helps the audience to sympathise with her more than if she did not feel guilty at all. This proves that deep inside her, she has a conscience and is capable of thinking good thoughts.
This is the last scene that Lady Macbeth is in- later on, in Act 5, Scene 5, Seyton brings news of Lady Macbeth’s death. In tragedies we as an audience feel moved by the heroic and fatal circumstances that the characters experience, and we are also encouraged to sympathise with the personal details of the character’s lives and share their emotions. Lady Macbeth is a character reflecting the phrase spoken by the weird sisters in the first scene of the play: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” This is confusing good and evil, and shows that not everything is truly as it appears. At first, the audience are convinced that Lady Macbeth is a strong, dark and possibly evil character, good at plotting, persuading and very deceitful. However, as her character’s personality is overturned, she becomes an ill, fragile woman, wallowing in her own misery (for instance, she describes her hand as a “little hand”).
Personally, I feel very little sympathy for Lady Macbeth as I believe the thoughts and decisions she made at the beginning of the play were irrational and conveys her as a greedy person, thirsty for power. If she had not had such ideas and persuaded Macbeth to follow through with her plans, the life her and Macbeth share together would have been very different- Macbeth could have even become King somehow, without having to resort to regicide and deceit. As the play is a tragedy, we as an audience already know that the ending for the main roles will not be a happy one- the interesting part of the tragedy is analysing the decisions that each character makes and the outcome of each one.
A lot of the play is based around fate, and I believe the behaviour of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reflects upon the way that all people would behave if we were told of the success that we will experience in the future- everybody would strive to obtain these triumphs, and it may induce an obsession. In my opinion, the way Shakespeare has written this play is very intelligent and interesting, like many other plays he has written, and explores a wide range of themes and emotions that the audience can explore and ponder about. I have enjoyed exploring everything in this play from start to finish- this classic piece of English literature is the epitome of the genius of William Shakespeare’s writing.
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