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In Macbeth, Shakespeare explores diverse levels of humanity. The play begins on a supernatural plane with the witches’ prophecy. We are then introduced to the noblemen Macbeth and Banquo, and to a world of royalty and politics. Finally we meet Lady Macbeth, the loyal wife in waiting at home. Shakespeare brings the play down from a supernatural and spiritual level, to the normal and simple way of family life and most importantly, the interactions between a man and his wife. The witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will one day be King certainly ignites the plot, but it is his marital relationship that drives the play forward and leads to his ultimate demise.
To what extent then, is Lady Macbeth responsible for the downfall of Macbeth?
In answering this question we must consider various elements of the play and different attributes of the characters. What type of woman is Lady Macbeth? How much power does she command over her husband? What kind of a man is he, Macbeth, to allow his wife to dictate to him his actions? Is it really the case that she does have complete reign over the household, or are we treating Lady Macbeth unfairly by labelling her the villain of the play?
By considering questions such as these I will assert that yes, Lady Macbeth is responsible to an extent; with her over zealous ambition and disregard for morality she encourages him initially to embark on his tyrannous road to power.
However, I will argue that Macbeth is inherently bad to begin with and possesses a lust for power even before Lady Macbeth learns of the prophecy; he seals his own fate.
Lady Macbeth is a strong female character; she refuses to allow her sexuality to hinder her intense ambition. Shakespeare presents strong women in other plays such as Rosalind in “As You Like It” and Viola in “Twelfth Night” who describes herself as “all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too”. However unlike Lady Macbeth, who comes to embody true masculinity without resorting to cross-dressing, Rosalind and Viola must resort to disguising themselves in male attire to establish masculinity.
Lady Macbeth is still a woman who rages constantly against the limitation of her own sex, and when she learns that Duncan is to visit her castle, she at once determines that she will overcome any remaining traces of mere womanly weakness,
Come you spirits that tend our mortal thoughts, unsex me here. (I.v.39)
Macbeth too, recognises her masculine character and almost in awe says to her,
Bring forth men children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose Nothing but males. ( I.vii.73)
Lady Macbeth is shown early in the play, not only as an ambitious woman, but as someone who can manipulate Macbeth easily. “That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (I.v.25). She manipulates his self-esteem by mocking his manliness and his bravery,
When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than you were, you would be so much more the man. (I.vii.49)
When Macbeth is thinking of not following through on his plan to kill King Duncan Lady Macbeth scorns him. She becomes successful in altering his ambition and appears to be the dominating individual in the relationship. She wants her husband to be a great and powerful man. Her desire to help Macbeth gain the throne becomes manic, as we learn from one of her most terrible speeches, just what she is willing to do to persuade Macbeth to carry out her wishes:
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 dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this. (I.vii.54)
These words highlight the extent of Lady Macbeth’s cruelty and ruthlessness. She appears possessed with ambition and she is overcome with an almost supernatural force that drives this evil through her body, “That which hath made them drunk, hath made me bold” (II.ii.1). Her demonic strength overcomes Macbeth’s own, when he is unable to return the daggers she scorns “tis the eye of childhood/ that fears a painted devil” (II.ii.57). She finishes the job herself, “My hands are of your colour” (II.ii.67), and reassures her husband “A little water clears us of this deed” (II.ii.70). However, unbeknownst to both man and wife, these words will return to haunt her.
Despite these bold actions, after the reality of the gruesome deeds sinks in we begin to witness a very different Lady Macbeth. From Act V onwards we witness how Lady Macbeth has begun to recoil from her once cold and emotionless capacity for cruelty. In spite of having claimed to shame “to wear a heart so white” (II.ii.68), after the literal blood staining of her hands she becomes obsessed with cleanliness, she is always washing her hands exclaiming, “yet here’s a spot” (V.i.28) what will these hands ne’er be clean?” (V.i.38).
Her failure to escape the smell of blood is a direct sign of her guilt. She is finally revealing and admitting that she committed a terrible act, whereas previously she was convinced by such evil that she lacked even an inking of a conscience. Moreover, hr remorse is highlighted by her agitated slumber, so much so that one could argue that she is paying for her deeds in her relentless nightmares. Meanwhile, how much guilt in comparison does Macbeth express?
“Noble Macbeth”, ‘Valiant’, ‘brave’, and a ‘worthy gentleman’; Macbeth was once a courageous hero, loyal and dedicated to his king. Yet, the alluring prophecies of dark supernatural forces and the persuasion of his wife lead this honourable man into shame and ‘disgrace’, committing regicide, the murdering of friends, women and children, and bringing upon Scotland, a bloody tyranny. However, while the influences of the witches and Lady Macbeth provide Macbeth with support and inspire the spirit of self- assertiveness, Macbeth is responsible for his own destiny. Ultimately it is his lust for power, which is seen to cause him to blindly disregard the perilous repercussions of his actions, that leads him to his tragic downfall.
This downfall is not determined by one single cause, rather it is caused by a combination of many forces: supernatural, external and internal. The three witches with their prophecies and dark powers represent the supernatural forces. Lady Macbeth acts as Macbeth’s external force, pushing him towards the bloody deeds. Macbeth’s own ambition and inner desires are the internal forces he battles and they act as the deciding power in bringing him to his downfall.
At the start of the play Lady Macbeth is a strong, ambitious and ruthless woman. She has a strong influence over Macbeth, but near the end of the play, she and Macbeth grow apart. It could be argued that Lady Macbeth, now a mental wreak suffers for the murder of Duncan on behalf of herself and Macbeth, whilst he, under the assumption of his invincibility managers to maintain control to an extent. Having committed numerous additional murders without his wife’s assistance, he becomes hardened to the evils once associated with Lady Macbeth. By Act V, Scene V Line 9, he claims to “have almost forgotten the taste of fears” and reminds us that he “supp’d full horrors” (V.v.13). It is fair to say that he is solo in his bloody actions from as far back as the third Act. He has become a “bloodier villain than terms can give thee out”, his own evils, Macduff claims, are indescribable.
Lady Macbeth really has a part to play only in the first murder of King Duncan; Macbeth even causes all the other cold-blooded murders without her knowledge. This proves that Macbeth has a dark side even without her influence. So how much is Lady Macbeth to blame? It can be argued that she is a lot less to blame than the witches and Macbeth himself. How she suggests carrying them out about it is evil, but Macbeth does have the choice not to commit murder.
The question is, if Macbeth had never received the Witches prophecy would all this have still happened or would he have lived a happy life with Lady Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor? “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/ Without my stir”(I.iii.143) The witches plant the seed of ambition in a man already capable of murder, whose “brandished steel, / which smok’d with bloody execution! (I.ii.17) well before he learnt of his prophecy. Lady Macbeth does urge and encourage Macbeth to take action but the real catalyst of the play is the prophecy, it may be argued Lady Macbeth speeds matters up. It is Macbeth who takes his destiny into his own hand and ignores chance and fortune, so whilst Lady Macbeth is to blame to an extent, Macbeth seals his own fate.
Masculinity is equated with the rational and the logical, where as femininity is often connected with over developed emotions and irrationality. Lady Macbeth’s resulting insanity due to the guilt of having blood on her hands is an ironic twist; the “unsexed” villain is reduced to a manic wreck and thus embodies the stereotypical derogatory opinions of what it is to be a woman. Macbeth is a tragedy of blind love and ambition. In the end the joint guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ultimately separates them, and they perish as individuals, each alone.
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