Lady Macbeth, Woman or Monster?

My opinion on the most maligned woman in English.

Lady Macbeth is sometimes viewed as the most extreme representation of evil. However if we look beyond this superficial reading, and take into account her lonely withdrawal, nervous breakdown and suicide it is clear that her career in evil has been un-avaricious and driven solely by her love for her husband which in a strange way is commendable “thou wouldst be great”. In another sense it is difficult to sympathise with her has it is she who forces herself to abandon all moral scruples “fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty!”. At first glance, these chilling words suggest a woman blinded by her lust for power.

The fact that she likens herself to the witches using supernatural imagery “Come you spirits” would symbolise treachery and treason to an Elizabethan audience, backs up the opinion that she is truly evil. She renounces her femininity and thus becomes asexual. “Unsex me here”, she tries to suppress her true nature and here filial affection by denying her instinct , all for her husbands “vaulting ambition”, “come to my woman’s breast and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers”. It is immediately as if she has become a fourth witch. The tremendous use of gory and paranormal imagery “make thick my blood” disgusts even a modern audience making her appear more like a monster parallel with “the secret black midnight hags” than a woman.

Lady Macbeth probes her husbands weaknesses by questioning his manhood “Are you a man?” , order to coerce him into killing Duncan. She is a rhetorical device, a verbal force that inspires her dithering husband, “But screw your courage to the sticking plate”. Manipulating her husband through taunts of unmanliness “ when you durst do it, then you are a man” shows her cruel nature, if we consider Macbeths bitterness to the fact that he cannot have children and so has accomplished nothing but a “barren sceptre”.

Perhaps the popular hatred of Lady Macbeth rests on her travesty of the Madonna ideal. She is characterised in terms of a few fundamental qualities, courage, determination and an extraordinary ability to deny all moral instinct by focusing her heart and mind on the matter at hand. “infirm of purpose”. She shows her steely resolve and her willingness to achieve the “ornament of life” by claiming “I would while it was smiling in my face/have plucked the nipple from it’s boneless gums and dashed it’s brains out”. These words offend the universal taboo, although they are only words, they still have the same effect of inspiring and impressing her husband who refers to her as “undaunted metal”. Each corporal agent to this terrible feat, by her monstrous and hideous claims of devotion to him.

Although Lady Macbeth goads him and taunts her husband “live a coward”, in reality she admires him. “thou wouldst be great art not without ambition, but the illness should attend it”. It is ironic that she views his virtues as his faults, which demonstrates how her morale judgement is distorted “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness”. She sneers at his morality but praises his ambition. Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth who is unable to equivocate “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it”. The play has a fugal quality because of the counterpoint running through it and the fact that Macbeth is so influenced by his wife. Macbeth echoes his wife “false face must hide what the false heart doth know”. Lady Macbeth may have taught Macbeth the art of equivocation but it is he who became the master.

Lady Macbeth hides her true feelings of fear and depression from her husband. Only through the use of soliloquy do we find out about her inner turmoil brought on by her continual suppression of her guilt. “here’s the smell of blood still”. Perhaps Macbeth has never seen this sentiment in his wife. She always plays a supporting role. The dynamic of their relationship depends on her strength and his need for this strength to fuel is “vaulting ambition”. She does not reveal her maternal instincts such as the inability to kill Duncan “had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it”. This undermines her appearance as a woman of “undaunted metal”, as it portrays her human side.

It is ironic that Lady Macbeth is originally a realist, unlike her husband, and lacks the philosophical dimensions which should have deterred her from the murder of Duncan. She mitigates the consequences of the “sacrilegious” deed “a little water clears us of this deed”. She orders Macbeth three times to “consider it not so deeply”. It is also ironic that she develops an overactive compulsive disorder or cleaning her hands which proves her inability to continue equivocating and living with her guilt after trying to look after her husbands mentally frail state above her own. “those deeds must not be thought after those ways, so it will make us mad”. She sacrifices everything for her husband “vaulting ambition” but in the end her blood stained hands haunt her and drive her to distraction. “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”. She is by now wallowing in her guilt, but note she never communicates this to her husband. Yet alone she expresses her real feelings. She feels no triumph “our desire is got without content”. She would rather be dead then “by the distraction dwell in doubtful joy.”

But still she supports Macbeth, listens to his woes about his troubled mind “full of scorpions”, always playing the subordinate role. The murder of Duncan alienates Macbeth from heaven and created a rift between himself and his wife. It is she who feels the most isolated. “how my lord! Why do you keep alone?”. She invests heavily in her husband who never seems to support her. She is no longer his “dearest partner in greatness”, or his confidante and she is obliged to ask for an audience with him. “say to the king I would like to attend his leisure”. She is distraught by the fact their former intimacy is a thing of the past which again undermines the myth of the maligned woman and reveals a character both frightening and pathetic. After playing a subordinate role she takes control in the banquet scene which mentally exhausts her fragile mental state and marks the end of her active role in the play.

Although like her husband, it is insecurity that is her undoing, there is no question that guilt and remorse are what untimely destroy Lady Macbeth. Her total absence from Act 4 is Shakespeare’s way of registering her discarded statues and her utter irreverence to Macbeth. The character that now emerges is vulnerable, guilt ridden and a pathetic shadow of her former dominant self. The doctor diagnoses her a “sickness of the heart, a mind diseased”.

Her subconscious now takes over, and it is filled with the feelings she refused to address when there was still time. She begins to show some moral shame and bears responsibility for Duncan “who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”. She also shows remorse for the death of Banquo and Macduff’s family. “the thane of Fife had a wife”. When Malcolm later refers to her as a “fiend-like queen”, he is inaccurate. The fiend in Lady Macbeth was expunged before she became queen. The piteous waif who unwillingly broadcasts her own guilt is a far cry from the screaming harridan of the earlier acts.

Only by committing her sin does Lady Macbeth discover her true nature which became “sorely charged”. Maybe the monster in her was always artificial and it was Macbeth who loved and needed her strength which forced her to extinguish her maternal instincts. Her suicide is simply declared “the Queen is dead my Lord”. Her small stature in his mind and in the closing act is a poetic counterpoint to her striding power in earlier acts. She is ultimately redeemed by the degree of her guilt, she passed from woman, through monster and back again.

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1 Comment
  1. Posted November 20, 2008 at 8:15 am

    Very nice write…

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