Examine the way in which Shakespeare develops Lady Macbeth’s emotional voice between Act 1 Scene 5 and Act 5 Scene 1. ‘Macbeth’ is a tragedy written by Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright William Shakespeare. It is a play written in honour of the King of Denmark for visiting Scottish-born King James I of England. One of the main characters of the play is Lady Macbeth. At first she is presented as a strong character but certain events gradually change her into a weak person and eventually drive her to her death. Particular scenes in which Shakespeare gives this effect are Act 1 Scene 5 and Act 5 Scene 1. In Act 1 Scene 5, Lady Macbeth is presented as a strong woman with rather lofty ambitions. A way in which Shakespeare portrays this is through her views of other characters – in particular, her husband Macbeth. Macbeth is seen as being ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’ from Lady Macbeth’s point of view. Although he is a brave soldier, she believes that he is good and innocent, as symbolized by the noun ‘milk’. Lady Macbeth also orders Macbeth to ‘look like the innocent flower/but be the serpent under’t’. The use of imperatives such as ‘look’ and ‘be’ also show her determination and the noun ‘serpent’ gives the audience a sense of Lady Macbeth’s cunning and calculating mind.
Shakespeare also relates Lady Macbeth to witchcraft and consequently this is linked to evil. She invokes the spirits by repeatedly using the imperative Come therefore commanding them to ‘stop up th’ access and passage to remorse’ and go to her ‘women’s breasts and take my milk for gall’. This shows that she does not want to feel guilt or remorse and she wants to lose her feminine innocence by losing the milk and replacing it with a bitter substance produced from the gall bladder. The idea that this poison in her breasts would kill any baby which she has suggests that Lady Macbeth may previously had a child before but it died early. This could justify her actions as a twisted form of revenge on the world for killing her child. The desperation of the invocation may suggest that the Lady Macbeth’s character is not actually evil but good and is instead pleading to be evil; since she wants to ‘make thick her blood’ which means that she wants to stop her guilty conscience from interfering.
The idea of spirits and evoking witchcraft is related to Jacobean times – King James I detested the concept of witches and portraying them as evil and strong willed supports the idea that the social role of women should remain inferior otherwise they will turn bad or are witches like Lady Macbeth. By writing in blank verse Shakespeare makes Lady Macbeth’s tone seem confident and strong. Balanced, 10-syllable lines which use iambic pentameter to stress words such as the imperatives is how this is portrayed in Act 1 Scene 5. In Act 5 Scene 1 Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as weak and complete opposite in confidence compared to Act 1 Scene 5. The main way Shakespeare presents this is by having her speak whilst sleepwalking. This suggests that her actions now are of the subconscious mind and although she may not know it she is showing her true feelings which she purposefully hides, both for her own sake of not wanting guilt and for others’ sakes so they do not know what she has done. She talks about previous events which she feels partly responsible for, as she claims to once again hear a ‘knocking at the gate’ and wonders about the ‘Thane of Fife’ who’ had a wife’.
This reminds the audience of her past eagerness in the murder of King Duncan but also the fear when someone arrived at the castle gate that night, and shows that it is still on her mind. Her guilty conscience also wonders about the murder of Lady Macduff, the Thane of Fife’s wife. Although she isn’t involved in this herself, Lady Macbeth may be worried if she will face the same fate as Lady Macduff. The rhyming of this line also shows her random and babbling through, written in prose to represent a disjointed mind which is not entirely sane. As well as talking she washes her hands, which represents the erasing of blood – her guilty conscience – and when she says her hands will ‘ne’er become clean’ it means her guilt is permanent and cannot be erased, therefore she is weak as she has failed to not feel remorse. The doctor and gentlewoman in the scene also give the audience insight into Lady Macbeth’s character. The gentlewoman tells the doctor that ‘she has light by her continually; ‘tis her command’.
This reminds the audience of Lady Macbeth’s invocation to the spirits – when she says ‘come thick night’. Shakespeare uses the contrast between light and dark to mark her downfall. Her imperative ‘come’ is now replaced with an equally desperate ‘command’ for light and she is now scared of the darkness which she earlier called for. As well as this, the doctor remarks that ‘more she needs the divine than the physician’. The noun ‘divine’, which is usually used as an adjective, is related to the idea of Lady Macbeth being a supernatural being – a witch. It is also ironic as the spirits which she incidentally called for herself has led to her breakdown. The fear which she so desperately wanted to rid of has returned, thus leading her to ruin. In conclusion Lady Macbeth has transformed from a strong, powerful character to weak and helpless. Critic A.C. Bradley says that ‘In the opening Act…she sets herself without a trace of doubt or conflict’.
However, even in Act 1 Scene 5 she still ‘fear[s] thy nature’ (Macbeth’s) but the change in her personality and levels of doubt is definitely evident by Act 5 Scene 1 when she uses blood to symbolise conscience. It is interesting as in his normal plays, Shakespeare presents women as either extreme good (Madonnas) or extreme bad (Whores). Lady Macbeth’s character opposes this idea, creating a ‘Madonna-Whore Complex’ by gradually becoming more and more insane. Marilyn French describes Lady Macbeth as ‘supernaturally evil’ and she’ fails to uphold the feminine principle’. The adverb ‘supernaturally’ again suggests witchcraft. This is a particularly significant way to support her evil character as during Jacobean times witches were supposed to be killed. French’s views also relate to the views of Jacobean society – women were seen as inferior and so if they became powerful they would be evil or witchlike.
The anti-‘feminine’ side of Lady Macbeth is shown when she commands the spirits to ‘unsex me (her) here’. She aims to be a man and cannot have power without Macbeth or becoming a man herself by evoking the spirits to help her. The spirits do not help her so effectively she becomes weaker and weaker. Shakespeare uses language techniques such as imperatives in the first scene and verseform such as prose in the last to emphasise this change. Although Jacobean audiences would struggle with the concept of Lady Macbeth’s downfall, modern audiences may sympathise with her. However, Shakespeare could be creating Lady Macbeth’s actions like this as her form of justice and revenge. Since infant mortality was common in Jacobean times, audiences could relate to and possibly sympathise with Lady Macbeth as she fails to do what she desires and ultimately takes her own life when she can no longer handle any more of it.