The Rise and Fall of Lady Macbeth

HALLOWEEN 2015: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO

macbeth

There are many memorable villains in William Shakespeare’s works. One of the most conniving and manipulative is Lady Macbeth from the famous Scottish tragedy Macbeth. Spouse to a man prophesized to be king, she is the driving force behind achieving their political ambitions by any means necessary. But despite her determination and manipulation, she does not anticipate that their power will be short-lived, that their marriage will be profoundly affected, or that she will have to face the consequences of their actions one way or the other.

When Lady Macbeth is first introduced in the play, she is reading the news she received from her husband about the Three Witches’ prophecy and his recently acquired title, the Thane of Cawdor. Rather than relishing on their good fortune, Lady Macbeth contemplates on the other half of the prophecy, that Macbeth will be king soon after. Instead of waiting for the prophecy to come to fruition in its own time, Lady Macbeth immediately plots for them to take matters in their own hands and seize power. Her attitude is dangerous and shocking because that she is planning to break bonds based on trust and decency: fealty to their king, respect between individuals, and rules of hospitality as she contemplates murdering someone staying in their own home.

In the scenes shared with Macbeth, it is clear that Lady Macbeth is the proactive one, as she is the one stating outright to kill Duncan to seize the throne. Her husband is also ambitious but his speech doesn’t convey the same ruthlessness to achieve his desires. She emphasises this time and again when she speaks of hardening herself against feelings of remorse and pity and how serious her resolve is in keeping her word and achieving their goals:

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 its boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you/Have done to this. (I, vii, 58-63)

Not only is she determined to do away with Duncan in order for her husband to become king but she expresses great optimism in their enterprise: “We fail?/But screw your courage to their sticking place/and we’ll not fail (I, vii, 65-67).” In carrying out the crime she maintains her calm, instructing Macbeth where to deposit the bloody daggers he used on Duncan and how to implicate the king’s guards. When he voices doubt about their plans, she would sometimes appeal to his sense of manliness, knowing it would strengthen his resolve:

What beast was’t, then/That made you break this enterprise to me?/When you durst do it, then you were a man:/And to be more than what you were, you would:/Be so much more the man. (I, vii, 51-55)

But she also mocks him when he expresses some sadness over Duncan’s murdered state: “a foolish thought, to say ‘a sorry sight’ (II, vii, 26).” She later scolds him for his inability to return to the scene of the crime and takes care of the daggers herself: “My hands are of your colour, but I shame/to wear a heart of white (II, vii, 75 – 76).” But it is interesting to note that despite of her planning and sly words to cajole her husband into action, she does not carry out the murder herself; Macbeth still has to commit the act himself.

For all of Lady Macbeth’s hard words and methodical planning in Duncan’s murder, she cannot escape the effects of a guilty conscience. In her waking life she berates Macbeth for his growing strange behaviour in company and insists that what they did was the right thing. She is able to carry out her duties as though she played no role in Duncan’s death. In her sleep, however, she is not in control and she relives her experience over and over, sleepwalking throughout the castle, talking to herself and struggling to remove the blood from her hands: “Out, damned spot! (V, i, 33)” Her guilt is even more apparent when she is caught by the doctor and servants telling herself, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O! (V, i, 46-47)” Her subconscious acts out her guilt even if her waking self refuses to acknowledge it.

At the same time, Lady Macbeth experiences a diminishing of importance as the couple’s planner and rock of steely resolve. Portrayed in many adaptations as a close couple at the start of the story, their crime wedges Macbeth and Lady Macbeth apart, leaving them to confront their guilt and increasing paranoia on their own. Macbeth himself becomes proactive of the two, taking it upon himself to eliminate all threats to his authority. He no longer confides in her as he once did, telling her not to worry of his plans when she asks of it. They no longer even share scenes as the play progresses to its climatic showdown with each facing their troubles on their own. They are so completely isolated from each other by the final act that Macbeth does not even react when he learns that she has died. For all her plotting for them to seize power, her influence fades as her sleepwalking increases and Macbeth takes charge in his newfound status.

Lady Macbeth is a villainess in that she plots and encourages Macbeth’s rise to kingship by any means necessary. She holds no scruples about honour nor does she seem to care about the conscience in her quest for power. But over the course of the play, Shakespeare shows that she is not exempt from the strength of a guilty conscience, as is revealed through her sleepwalking. There Lady Macbeth appears more human, riddled with guilt for her share of the crime. She pays the consequences for her actions as their guilt tears the couple apart and ultimately leads to her death off-stage and unmourned for. ♥

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Lianne Bernardo is a 20-something Canadian who loves history, period dramas, British television, travel, photography, and (European) football. She is an avid reader, reading everything from fantasy to classic literature to historical fiction, and extensively blogs about them on her website, eclectictales.com When she isn’t studying or reading, she is working towards finishing a number of her writing projects. You can also find her on Twitter, @eclectictales.

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