Lady Macbeth: Unveiled
Of all of Shakespeare’s characters, Lady Macbeth is one of the most well-known. She is the wife of the man that causes Macbeth to be one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays. She is a devoted wife, and an evil behind-the-scenes villain. Most people overlook Lady Macbeth as the villain that she really is because she never actually murders anyone. But murder is not the only aspect to being the bad guy. From Lady Macbeth’s private thoughts, actions, and dialogue with her husband, we can see that she is the true villain in the play Macbeth.
The three witches are the ones who plant the seed of greed and desire in Macbeth with their prophecies, but his wife is the one who ultimately sets his devious ways in motion. In Act I, Scene V, Lady Macbeth has received a letter from her husband, informing her about the witches’ prophecies. Before she even sees Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is analyzing and calculating Macbeth’s chance for success. After she reads the letter she says, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/ What thou art promis’d. Yet I do fear thy nature,/ It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way” (Shakespeare, I.V.15-18). She is excited about the promises of success and power, but is worried that her husband will be too human and too kind to go for the power that has been prophesied. A few lines later she says, “Hie thee hither,/ That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,/ And chastise with the valor of my tongue” (I.V.25-26). She wants Macbeth to hurry up and come home so that she may fill his mind with thoughts of power, and hopefully get him to take his fate in his own hands. When Macbeth finally does show up, she greets him as greater than the thane of Glamis and Cawdor (I.V.54). Lady Macbeth has already decided that Macbeth should take control of his life, and bring himself to power. She does not even discuss the prophecies with him before encouraging him to be greedy. When they finally do discuss everything, she tells him to “look like th’ innocent flower,/ But be the serpent under’t” (I.V.65-66). She is pressuring him to act instead of letting fate take its course. Macbeth has still hardly spoken about the prophecies; Lady Macbeth controls the entire conversation.
When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth finally do talk about the prophecies and King Duncan, Macbeth is the one who says that murder is a bad idea. He says that they should stop talking about Lady Macbeth’s plans. Lady Macbeth responds by telling him he is a weak man, and lays out a plan to kill Duncan in his sleep and make it look like his chamberlains did it. She insults Macbeth’s manhood to try to get him to do what she wants, which shows she is a manipulating character. When Macbeth finally does go to murder Duncan, he gets a vision of a dagger, showing that he is mentally slipping a bit (Shakespeare, II. I.33) He has not even done anything wrong yet, but he is already having a mental downfall. This can be blamed on Lady Macbeth. If she had not pressured him and used manipulating tactics to get him to do what she wanted, then Macbeth would not be having a nervous breakdown and seeing visions of daggers.
In class we discussed one of the themes of Macbeth as being pressured by the influence of others. This is definitely obvious between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is constantly trying to direct Macbeth to do things that he is hesitant to do. She is manipulating and cunning. She insults Macbeth’s manhood to try to get him to do what she wants. True manhood and true womanhood were other themes we discussed in class. Macbeth’s manhood is insulted to manipulate him, and Lady Macbeth talks about losing her womanhood to have the gall to seek power. In August Goll’s book, Criminal Types in Shakespeare, he explains, “It is seen that by far the greater number of the women who now recruit the army of female criminals consists of those who have lost sight of the existence of traditional family life and seclusion” (Goll, 126-127). I think this is the case for Lady Macbeth. She makes reference to a previous child; we do not know if she actually had children, but if she had and something had happened to them, it would make her bitter and make her lose sight of the “traditional family life.” Lady Macbeth herself says, “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe topful/ Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,/ Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse” (Shakespeare, I.V.40-44). She calls upon dark spirits to help her, which is a wicked act to do in any religion, culture, or situation. The “unsex me here” line is one of her most famous quotes, and it clearly tells us that she would rather be a man who could be cruel and hardened than a woman who is expected to be kind and soft. People do not question cruel men, but they do notice and question cruel women. She also asks for any remorse inside of her to be “stopped up.” She is blatantly asking to have her womanhood taken away and possibly even her conscience. She wants to become tough, like a man. Later she says, “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/ To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’” (I.V.50-54). She is asking for cover for the horrible deeds she has planned. In this scene, she is basically asking her womanhood to be irrelevant so that she can get away with murder.
Before any of the witches’ prophecies, we can assume that the Macbeth’s were loyal subjects to King Duncan. Macbeth was a general in his army. But Victoria Time explains to us that, “Lady Macbeth takes [the witches’] promise seriously and suspends any further loyalty toward the king because only with their kingly allegiance withdrawn can she and her husband free themselves to commit murder” (Time, 86). Lady Macbeth sees the witches’ prophesies as predictions from a supernatural power. She says, “Fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/ To have crown’d withal” (Shakespeare, I.V.29-30). Lady Macbeth says this line after she has read Macbeth’s letter about the prophecies, while she is still alone, waiting for Macbeth to come home. Time goes on to explain this quote,
She…sees their act as a fulfillment of some wish expected by some power other than theirs. That power, in Shakespeare’s mind, is obviously satanic. They thus rationalize their crime as an appeal to higher loyalties. With that conviction, she deviates from conventional behavior. (Time, 86)
Now Lady Macbeth is planning an act of treason. She is disregarding Duncan as king, and plotting his death. We also learn that she sees this deed as one desired by a supernatural power, which, as Time explains, was a satanic belief. Plus, she previously called upon dark spirits to assist her. So now Lady Macbeth is a traitor to her king, and trying to follow an unknown, unclear, supernatural power.
Lady Macbeth successfully convinces Macbeth to murder Duncan and they carry out that plan in the middle of the night, when everyone is asleep. In speaking of Lady Macbeth, Time says,
She psychologically instilled a criminal mind-set in Macbeth, and she was responsible for getting the king’s guards drunk to facilitate Macbeth’s access to the king…After the fact, she not only instructed Macbeth on how to cover up the crime, she assisted him in concealing the evidence. In addition, she engaged in framing the king’s guards as the murderers. (Time, 35-36)
Lady Macbeth was the mastermind behind the whole thing. She insults Macbeth’s manhood and feeds him a desire for power to get him to murder Duncan. “[Macbeth] eventually succumbs to the pressure and carries out the murder” (Time, 155). Lady Macbeth gets the guards – who should be protecting Duncan – drunk, so that Macbeth can successfully get past them. After the deed, she asks Macbeth why he did not already plant the evidence on the sleeping guards, “Why did you bring these daggers from the place?/ They must lie there. Go carry them, and smear/ the sleepy grooms with blood.” Macbeth is hesitant and feels guilt and remorse. He responds, “I’ll go no more./ I am afraid to think what I have done;/ Look on’t again I dare not.” Lady Macbeth then gets frustrated with her upset husband and 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 guild the faces of the grooms withal./ For it must seem their guilt” (Shakespeare, II.II.45-54). Then she goes and plants the evidence on the innocent guards. After framing the guards, she comes back to Macbeth and says, “My hands are of your color; but I shame/ to wear a heart so white” (II.II.61-62). She is talking about the blood that is now literally on both of their hands, but she also insults him again by saying he is too innocent. She is ashamed to have such a pure heart, which goes back to the fact that she has demeaned womanhood.
When Duncan’s death is discovered, things become quite chaotic. Macbeth admits to murdering the body guards, claiming he did it to avenge his king, but really he is just trying to place the blame as far away from himself as possible. While everyone is freaking out about Duncan’s death, Lady Macbeth does a fantastic job of looking innocent. She first comes up to the scene asking why everyone is up at such an awful hour. When she is told of Duncan’s murder she acts appalled and pretends to be shocked that such a thing could occur in her own home. When Macbeth is describing the fictional scene he came upon and how he killed the guards, Lady Macbeth swoons and both Macduff and Banquo tell servants to “Look to the lady.” Lady Macbeth ends up being carried out of the room (Shakespeare, II.III.). With Macbeth’s story and Lady Macbeth’s swooning, it is almost impossible for anyone to logically blame the Macbeth’s. Even though Lady Macbeth has demeaned womanhood, she uses feminine tactics to convince everyone of her innocence. The fact that she discredits womanhood one moment, and uses her feminine wiles to mislead eight different people the next, shows just how cunning and devious she really is. She knows what she wants, and she knows how to get it.
After Duncan’s death, Macbeth starts completely going down-hill. He kills Banquo, and orders the killing of Macduff’s family. If Lady Macbeth had not encouraged him to murder for power, he would not have gone so power-hungry. After murdering once, it becomes easier to murder again.
It is the original crime instigated by [Lady Macbeth] which is now developing its consequences. What does it avail that she does not learn till afterwards of the murder of the wife and children of Macduff and all the events following on it? It is she who has sown the now springing seed: such a growth can bear but one kind of fruit – destruction. (Goll, 150)
All the deaths following Duncan’s would not have occurred if Duncan had not been killed. And Duncan would not have been killed if Lady Macbeth had not manipulated Macbeth into thinking he deserved more.
Macbeth’s downfall can be blamed on Lady Macbeth. If not for her pressure and manipulating, he would not have murdered Duncan. Duncan’s murder set him down a slippery slope of greediness, resulting in many murders, which potentially led to Macbeth being past-feeling. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, does not get tougher, but gets weaker. She realizes she is losing control of the situation and cannot handle that. She does not feel regret for what has happened, instead she feels loss for what she had and could have had, “She is not seized by remorse…She herself does not utter one word which may be rightly construed as remorse” (Goll, 153). As Lady Macbeth spirals into mental disarray, we can see that “She has not passed through any new development; she has not attained a higher view of the meaning of the rights of all in contrast with the right of individual or of individuals. She would, without any hesitation, again murder Duncan” (Goll, 154). If Lady Macbeth was any normal, conscience-driven human being, she would be feeling guilt and remorse for the all the deaths that have occurred and her husband’s disintegrating mental state. Instead, she just freaks out due to her lack of control of her husband and the situation.
As Macbeth becomes more power-driven and a little bit crazy, Lady Macbeth is completely falling into a mental disaster. She starts sleepwalking, mumbling to herself, and sees blood, that is not really there, on her hands. Speaking of the spot of blood, Goll explains, “To her it was but a spot which might be washed away! But it could not be washed off, not from [Macbeth’s] hand which became more and more bloody, not from [Lady Macbeth’s] hand which led him only into suffering, agony, and crime” (Goll, 157). Even as Lady Macbeth is mentally losing it, she continues to think that they have done nothing wrong, “What need we fear/ who knows it, when none can call our pow’r to/ accompt?” (Shakespeare, V.I.37-39). She says that no one can explain what they have done, so why should they fear? And later she acknowledges that “What’s done cannot be undone” (V.I.68) but she still feels no remorse for the horrible things she set in motion.
One aspect of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the demise of the villain. The villain commonly ends up losing their sanity during the play. By those requirements, Lady Macbeth is the villain in Macbeth. Macbeth loses a bit of his sanity, but it is mostly due to his hunger for power. Lady Macbeth legitimately goes insane due to all the horrible things she set in motion. She imagines the bloody spot on her hand and the doctor says that her “Heart is sorely charged” and that the “disease is beyond my practice” (Shakespeare, V.I.54, 58). He can cure physical ailments, but not insanity. When Lady Macbeth finally does go over the edge, she commits suicide. Time explains, “Death by suicide and attempted suicide has been defined in various terms as criminal for many generations: sometimes it is considered a felony crime: sometimes, deviant behavior” (Time, 52). Suicide is often viewed as bad thing to do; many people and religions believe that it jeopardizes your soul. So it is yet another crime added to Lady Macbeth’s list. Also, as she goes over the edge, she decides to leave this world on her own terms. Even in death, she controls what happens.
When Macbeth is informed of his wife’s death, he hardly has a reaction. He says, “I have almost forgotten the taste of fears…I have supp’d full with horrors;/ Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,/ Cannot once start me” (Shakespeare, V.IV.9,14-15). He is so past-feeling that even his wife’s death does not faze him. It is tragic that he cannot even mourn over his own wife’s demise. Who caused him to start on this downhill slope that led to him being past-feeling and uncaring? Lady Macbeth did. So even after her death, her actions are still causing tragedies.
Lady Macbeth is the true villain in Macbeth. In her private moments, she plots deaths and their cover-ups, and plans Macbeth’s route to power. In her conversations with her husband, she insults and manipulates him to do what she desires. In her actions, she is cunning and devious. We can trace all the tragic moments in Macbeth back to Lady Macbeth. She is truly the ultimate villain in this play.
Goll, August. Criminal Types in Shakespeare. New York: Haskell House, 1966. Print.
Shakespeare, William. "Macbeth." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. Herschel Baker. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mufflin, 1997. 1355-390. Print.
Time, Victoria M. Shakespeare's Criminals. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999. Print.