Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1605 or 1606 when James I was on the throne. It is essentially a play about Scotland with kingship and loyalty at its heart. King James would have been most interested in Macbeth as he had an attempt on his life known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’. The traitor, Guy Fawkes was executed and to watch Macbeth die would have pleased him. Shakespeare was also pleasing his King by paying homage to his Scottish heritage by portraying Banquo, his descendant as a good character. Loyalty, one of the themes in Macbeth would have been important to the King as his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was also executed as a traitor. James I had a keen interest in the supernatural and even wrote a book on the subject called ‘Demonology’. The supernatural is another theme in Macbeth and it runs throughout the play. In this essay the supernatural and other themes present in Shakespeare’s Macbeth will be discussed further. This essay also looks at Lady Macbeth, her character and her changing relationship with her husband.
Lady Macbeth is introduced into the play with the arrival of the letter from Macbeth in Act I Scene 5. Within minutes a determined and ambitious women is revealed. She is determined that Macbeth shall have ‘What thou art promised’ (I.5.15) and to help him achieve kingship at any cost. She felt he would not win the crown without her help. As she reads the letter she becomes bewitched by the thought of Macbeth becoming King and in her own words ‘transported me beyond’ (I.5.55). Lady Macbeth’s ambitions for her husband can be regarded as what any supportive wife in this era would wish for her husband. However, a woman’s status was only as good as her husbands, so therefore, Lady Macbeth’s intentions could be due to her own desire to have status and power.
The theme of ambition is common to the Macbeth’s and the ambition they share is for Macbeth to be King. Lady Macbeth resolves that murdering Duncan is the only way to achieve this. Her statement ‘The raven himself is hoarse’ (i.5.38) is referring to the plan to murder Duncan. The use of a raven is symbolic of death and so is the reference to blood (‘make thick my blood’ I.5.42) in this scene. Milk (‘And take my milk for gall’ I.5.47) is also used to contrast with the blood symbolising good and evil, another theme present in Macbeth. Milk is representing purity. The symbolism in this play is effective as it provides vivid images in the readers’ mind.
Similarly Macbeth was also thinking of murdering Duncan in his soliloquy beginning ‘Two truths are told’ (I.3.126). Inspired by his ambition to become King he begins to imagine what steps are required to fulfil his ambition. They are a close couple at this stage in the play and it is almost as if they are thinking the same thoughts. Their thoughts are in unison as they both visualise Macbeth becoming King and Duncan’s murder. They also need each other as Macbeth wants the power but he hasn’t the willpower to kill Duncan while Lady Macbeth wants the killing of Duncan but lacks the physical strength to carry it out.
Macbeth’s letter to his wife reveals he has complete trust in her. He asks her to ‘lay it to thy heart’ as discussing the witches revelations would be considered treasonous. It should be noted that Shakespeare is linking the Gunpowder Plot here. The letter also reveals Macbeth’s love and affection for Lady Macbeth when he writes ‘my dearest partner of greatness’. This statement also shows he reveres them as equal partners.
It seems that Lady Macbeth, however, does not have as much confidence in her husband as he has in her. After reading his letter she questions his ability to do what is necessary to be King when saying ‘yet I fear thy nature’. In an attempt to convince her husband to kill Duncan she uses emotional blackmail in Act I Scene 7. She questions his love for her ‘Such I account thy love’ (I.7.39) and taunts his masculinity by saying he looks ‘green and pale’ (I.7.38). Lady Macbeth is uncompromising in this scene and does not seem to care whether the personal taunts will hurt Macbeth. This reveals that her only justification for murder is her ambition. At this stage they are not working together and are not in agreement.
In addition to being uncompromising Lady Macbeth is also very persuasive. Macbeth had decided against killing Duncan as killing his kinsman would return to haunt him and ironically it does just that. Lady Macbeth uses different methods to persuade him to do the deed. She fires a series of short rhetorical questions at him, giving him no time to answer. All he can do is agree. Lady Macbeth also tests his sense of virtue by asking ‘What beast was’nt then/That made you break this enterprise to me?'(I.7.48) As a soldier loyalty and honour would be virtues that would be highly regarded. Going back on a promise would be dishonourable. Her final tactic was to shock Macbeth into agreeing with her. In desperation as time was running out before Duncan’s arrival she said she would have ‘dashed the brains out’ (I.7.58) of her own baby to achieve their goal. What she meant by this violent image is that an ultimate sacrifice is needed on his part. When Macbeth answers ‘If we should fail’ (I.7.60) it shows he is in agreement and they are now working as a team again.
Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy after reading the letter in Act I Scene 5 is powerful and dramatic. It draws in the reader/audience as she speaks directly to them. Shakespeare has the characters speaking to the audience to make it even more powerful and exciting, especially if watching a theatrical performance of Macbeth. After all, Macbeth was written for the stage. This is an important scene in the development of Lady Macbeth’s character as she can be seen as many things such as ambitious, uncompromising, determined and above all evil.
Although Lady Macbeth seems like an evil woman in Act I Scene 5 this does not come natural to her. When she invites the evil spirits to ‘fil me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty!’ (I.5.41) she also asks the spirits to ‘make thick my blood’. What she is asking is for them to harden her resolve and destroy any weakness to show pity for Duncan.
The fact that she needs help to carry out an evil act can also be linked to another theme in Macbeth, which is reality vs. appearances. Lady Macbeth is linked to this theme several times. She tells Macbeth to ‘look like the flower,/But be the serpent under’t’ (I.5.64) and again with ‘Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night'(III.2.29). Lady Macbeth makes these statements as she is in control.
Lady Macbeth is also very manilpulative in this play. When she returns from Duncan’s chamber in Act II Scene 2 saying ‘Had he not resembled/My father as he slept, I had don’t’ it is generally interpreted that her humanity is showing. But it is possibly a tactic of hers to get Macbeth to commit the crime and to make it look like she had no involvement.
After the murder there is a turning point in their relationship. Macbeth is now planning further murders on his own and his language towards her is different. He tells her to ‘Be innocent of the knowledge,dearest chuck’ (III.2.45) meaning that he no longer wants her involvement. He is now patronising towards her, this is so different from his loving letter from the earlier scene. Lady Macbeth’s language is also different she asks ‘How now, now lord! why do you keep alone’ (III.2.8). Her questioning is more gentle and shows remorse. She is longing for their former closeness, as they are not sleeping together anymore.
It is not until the sleepwalking scene in Act 5 Scene 1 that we see the devastating effect that the murder has had on Lady Macbeth. She is feeling isolated in her chamber and her subconscious, which has been suppressed up until now is reliving the murder. In this scene the ironic foreshadowing from earlier scenes is fully understood. In Act 2 Scene 2 Lady Macbeth believed that ‘a little water clears us of this deed’ however she is found to reanact washing her hands free of blood night after night. She also stated earlier that ‘These deeds must not be thought/After these ways; so, it will make us mad’ (II.2.34) and as we see in this scene she is now suicidal and showing signs of madness.
Lady Macbeth has a very important role to play in Macbeth as she provides excitement and drama. Her actions are controversial as she is uncompromising in achieving her goals. It is shocking to see a woman behave in this way. Even though she is perceived as evil one can’t help but pity her as she started an unstoppable chain of events that had a detrimental effect on her life and her relationship with her husband. The strongest theme in this play is ambition and it is the most destructive to the Macbeth’s and their relationship. The main lesson to be learnt from Macbeth is that greed doesn’t pay. This is a lesson that is still being learnt today.