Lady Macbeth, at the beginning of the play, is an evil and ruthless character, who wants only power and control for herself and plans on using Macbeth to gain it. However, near the end, before she dies, she changes greatly to a vulnerable, child-like character who has become mentally unstable through her guilt of killing king Duncan.
The first time Lady Macbeth comes on stage she speaks in soliloquy in an ambitious and greedy way and plans to talk Macbeth into killing king Duncan by pouring ‘my spirits in thine ear’, using this metaphorical image to suggest poisoning his mind with her words. To an audience of the time this would be very surprising because she is not acting the typical stereotype of a female. It would shock them further when she calls on ‘spirits’ to ‘unsex’ her and fill her with ‘direst cruelty’, because women were seen as very innocent and weak who would never dream of calling upon evil to posses them. That she wants to be ‘unsexed’ shows her knowledge of this stereotype and wants rid of her femininity and to be strong like the stereotypical male.
When Macbeth she goes about manipulating him into committing murder firstly by directly telling him what to do, using ‘you shall’ so it seems he has no choice. To the audience, a woman telling a man what to do would be unheard of, because at that time men were always in power and it was them that told women what to do, it would be shocking. To make her seem even more manly, Macbeth does not say no to her evil plans, he just says ‘we will speak further’, showing his weakness around her.
Lady Macbeth, when telling Macbeth how to act in the presence of king Duncan, describes how he should look as ‘like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’ using this metaphor to give devil imagery, as in the Bible the devil came as a snake to tempt Adam and Eve. This image would be easily recognised by the audience of the time and seen as very evil, especially as kings were seen as second-to-God at that time.
When king Duncan arrives, Lady Macbeth acts as a ‘honoured hostess’ to him. Dramatic irony is used because king Duncan cannot see how evil she really is, whereas the audience can. Lady Macbeth takes on the role of the ‘innocent flower’ by telling him that if every part of her service was ‘twice done, and then done double’, it would still not be good enough for him. This is ironic because ‘thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again’ had been said previously by the witches, showing a link between them and Lady Macbeth.
When Macbeth decides that killing king Duncan is a bad idea, Lady Macbeth uses her ruthlessness to change his mind in only a few lines. She makes him seem to have broken a promise to her and she asks what made him ‘break this enterprise’ to her, when he never said he would do it. She then attacks his manhood, which is his heroic weakness. She says to him ‘when you durst do it, you were a man’, suggesting that by not doing it, he would not be a true man. She then tells Macbeth that she would have ‘dash’d the brains out’ of a baby if she had ‘sworn’ to him that she would, this would also play upon his manhood. This would disgust the audience as women were always seen as kind and gentle.
when Macbeth questions their success Lady Macbeth says ‘screw your courage’, saying that if they did fail, it would be his fault. She challenges his bravery by this also, she knew by doing this he would want back his manhood and commit the murder, she was right.
Lady Macbeth manipulates him so well that he ends up speaking in the same way as her, saying a ‘false face must hide what the false heart doth know’ which is very similar to earlier when Lady Macbeth said ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t’, showing how emotionally weak Macbeth is.
When waiting for Macbeth to return from killing king Duncan, Lady Macbeth starts to become paranoid and worry about the situation. She admits she is ‘afraid they have awak’d’, referring to the guards, showing her first signs of weakness, which is a precursor for when she later looses her mental stability. When Macbeth returns from the murder, Lady Macbeth uses the excuse that king Duncan looked like her ‘father as he slept’. It is far more likely that she feared doing it but she does not tell Macbeth this so to keep her masculine image.
When talking about what they have done, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth speak in a short, broken way that shows tension between them, but they still contrast greatly as Macbeth openly worries about his situation whereas Lady Macbeth hides her fear as best as she can. Macbeth describes what he has done as a ‘sorry sight’, Lady Macbeth contrasts to this by saying ‘a foolish thought, to say a sorry sight’, showing her uncaring nature. From this, Macbeth’s panic rises and Lady Macbeth tells him not to think about it because ‘it will make us mad’ which, without her knowing, predicts her future and precursors it for the audience. Although at this point Lady Macbeth remains fairly strong about the situation, she is slightly losing her fearless attitude towards the murder. She hides her fear by being unsympathetic and cruel to Macbeth. She implies he is acting like a child when he refuses to smear the guards with blood by saying ”tis the eye of childhood, that fears a painted devil’, meaning there is nothing to be afraid of and it is childish for him to fear it, the ‘painted devil’ is not real and being afraid of it is a childish thing to do.
Another contrast between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth is that the crime Macbeth has committed seems to him so awful that the guilt will never leave his soul because he asks himself ‘will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?’, then answering with ‘no’. He thinks that even if he used an ocean of water his hand would never be clean, his hand also metaphorically representing his soul. Whereas Lady Macbeth simply says ‘a little water clears us of this deed’, as she doesn’t think about what they have done, but of what they have gained from doing it because she is greedy and hungry for power and she will do anything to get it.
When king Duncan’s body has been discovered and alarm bells ring, Lady Macbeth again becomes the ‘innocent flower’, and asks what was going on as if she didn’t know. Macduff falls for her act and ironically calls her ‘gentle lady’ and says that to tell her the news would ‘murder as it fell’, saying that she is so innocent and gentle that his words would kill her as he said them. This is very ironic as she is the one who has caused this and she is far from gentle.
When Macbeth draws unwanted attention to himself by telling everyone he killed the king’s attendants Lady Macbeth helps him by saying ‘help me hence, ho’ and pretending to faint, acting as a stereotypical woman to distract the others. This shows that she is the partner in control, which would seem strange as in the time when the play was written it was always men in charge of relationships.
The first signs in the play that Lady Macbeth is starting to feel that she is not happy with what she has done is when she speaks in soliloquy and says ‘nought’s had, all’s spent’, meaning she has done everything, but gained nothing. She has killed to get the power she now has yet she feels no happiness. She begins to feel guilty about what she has done and she tells herself that ”tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy’, meaning it is better to be killed than to kill. This is a very different attitude than when she first appeared in the play.
When Macbeth arrives her attitude changes again to her normal, ruthless self and she says ‘what’s done, is done’, as if she does not feel any guilt about the murder. She acts differently around Macbeth to challenge his manhood so she can keep him controlled and get him to do anything she wants. When Macbeth starts to worry about the mess he is in, Lady Macbeth tries to calm him down, showing her first real signs of affection for him. She tells him to ‘sleek o’er your rugged looks, be bright and jovial among your guests tonight’, so they wont suspect anything is wrong. He replies to this in a way similar to the way Lady Macbeth speaks, he says ‘make our faces vizards to our hearts’ which is similar to the flower and snake metaphor. From Lady Macbeth being in control, Macbeth is starting to take charge. This is furthered when it is Macbeth that makes plans to murder Banquo and does not tell Lady Macbeth about it. Lady Macbeth is now losing her authority over him.
At the banquet when Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, Lady Macbeth covers for him for the second time. When he starts to say things that could get them both caught, like ‘thou canst not say I did it’, Lady Macbeth tells the lords that he is having a fit and he has had them ‘from his youth’, so they are not alarmed by his behaviour. She them speaks aside to Macbeth and asks ‘are you a man?’, attacking his manhood. She attacks his manhood again when saying ‘quite unmann’d in folly’, meaning his foolishness rids him of his manhood. She does this to try and get him to act like everything is normal and she says it regularly which shows her panic rising as her attempts to calm him fail. She continues covering for him throughout the banquet telling the Lords it is a ‘thing of custom’ for Macbeth to act that way. She does this not only to cover Macbeth, but to cover herself from discovery also.
In the time when Lady Macbeth does not appear onstage, you can see her manipulative ways have influenced and changed Macbeth into what Lady Macbeth was at the beginning of the play. The roles of the leading partner have now swapped and Macbeth is now the evil and ruthless one, which contrasts greatly from when he was ‘too full o’th’milk of human kindness’.
The last time Lady Macbeth appears onstage she has completely changed from the evil and ruthless character that she was, to being child-like and vulnerable. When speaking, she jumps from past to present and from subject to subject. It is clear she has lost her mental stability now. She has now gone insane from the guilt of killing king Duncan and she is unable to sleep peacefully and she is sleepwalking. Sleep is a reoccurring theme in the play and that Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking is ironic because Macbeth had said he thought he heard someone cry ‘sleep no more’ when he had killed king Duncan and Lady Macbeth had told him not to ‘think so brain-sickly of things’. Now it is Lady Macbeth that is unable to sleep.
Lady Macbeth has also become obsessed with the blood on her hands and she asks ‘will these hands ne’er be clean?’, this is similar to when Macbeth thought that a ocean could not clean his hands, her hands represent her soul. This metaphorical image is also in ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. She begins to live out memories in her sleep also. She re-lives when they had just killed king Duncan when she says ‘wash your hands’ and the banquet when Macbeth saw the ghost of Banquo when she says ‘Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on’s grave’. This shows these subjects have been on her mind a lot and she is now obsessed with them.
Her character has changed greatly since the beginning of the play and now she is damned with insanity which the audience would see as a retribution for her earlier evil.
When Macbeth later finds out Lady Macbeth is dead he reacts calmly saying ‘she should have died hereafter; there would have been a time a time for such a word’, this could be read both positively and negatively. To read it positively it could say he wishes she died later when he could devote more time to mourning over her. For negative, it could say she would have died anyway and there was no way to stop it from happening.
At the very end of the play Malcom describes her as a ‘fiend-like queen’ which contrasts greatly to when king Duncan called her a ‘honour’d hostess’. This final image of her is accurate and appropriate. Then when Malcom says ‘by self and violent hands took off her life’, the audience would be shocked that her means of death was suicide, even more so because she is female.