Tragedy has been used as a dramatic form since the 4th century BC. As it is still a frequently used and extremely popular technique today, there must be something captivating about it. Aristotle defined tragedy in ‘the Poetics’; he wrote that ‘it deals with serious moral issues of great importance, like ambition, revenge and political power.’ Because it deals with very human issues such as these, the audience can feel empathy towards the characters in the play.
A tragic hero is always somebody noble, but a flaw in their character or an intervention from the Gods (this idea was especially used in earlier theatre such as that of ancient Greece) which means that their fortunes are reversed. They create a state of chaos; however, order is always restored by the end, leaving everything calm and peaceful.
Shakespeare developed and changed the form of tragedy in his plays. One thing he did was to make it more ‘human’ and personal. Everything that happened was a direct result of the hero’s actions and especially their flaws. Another thing he changed was the time-span. Classical tragedies all take place in one day and one location. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s tragedies take place over weeks or months and in a variety of different locations.
Macbeth is the perfect example of a tragic hero. At the beginning of the play he is brave, noble and loyal; everything that a Thane should be. But the flaw in his character, his ambition and love of power, force him to kill Duncan and, in doing so, secure his own downfall. Typically of Shakespeare, Macbeth is completely aware of what he is doing and of the consequences of his actions; everything that happens is a direct result of them. Macbeth seems to embody the great struggle between good and evil. Take, for example, his famous soliloquy in Act 7 Scene 1, where he is battling with himself, deciding if he should kill Duncan. He knows that it is an awful deed, but his ‘vaulting ambition’ finally overcomes him. In these ways Macbeth seems to embody the tragic hero of classical theatre.
Though Macbeth takes the role as tragic hero in the play, there are a number of people that influence him greatly. Certainly not the least of these is his wife, Lady Macbeth. She is an extremely powerful character in Macbeth and is still an intriguing study today. She is a very complex character, which changes throughout. During the play she undergoes a huge change; she begins by being powerful and manipulative and ends by going mad and most probably committing suicide. She would be a demanding role for any actress because of the underlying instability they have to convey while also being powerful and commanding on the surface. A lot of her speeches are extremely emotional and forceful, which makes her an interesting study and elicits powerful responses from the audience.
Lady Macbeth could be thought of as a feminist before her time. She certainly holds an unusual amount of power in her relationship with Macbeth, something unheard of at the time. She gives Macbeth direct orders; ‘Go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hands’ and ‘Give me the daggers’ are two examples of this. She seems to be the dominant one in their relationship. She also uses all of her wit and persuasiveness to change Macbeth’s mind on some issues. It is inevitable that she will loose this power in the end though, when order is restored. There are other examples of heroines that hold power in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Cleopatra. This power is often their downfall, as it was thought unnatural for women to hold any power at the time; it had to be taken away from them to restore the normality and stability of whichever society they came from. Women with power were thought to be unnatural because their natural state was meant to be one of motherhood. They were meant to be tender and nurturing, whilst the men were meant to be the leaders with power. This is another reason Lady Macbeth must inevitably fall; she isn’t in her natural state, and for order to be restored, she must return to that.
The noble women in Shakespeare’s society were not meant to be dominating or powerful. Women were appreciated for being beautiful, good hostesses and wearing clothes and jewellery to display their husband’s wealth. The husband was meant to have all the power, and Lady Macbeth is unusual in this sense. Shakespeare may have been making a point about the deceased queen, Elizabeth I. His patron was James I, and he may have been trying to please him (James I was from a different house, and would not have wanted Elizabeth’s reign to be remembered fondly.) Shakespeare may have based Lady Macbeth’s character on Elizabeth, and have been showing how unnatural and wrong it was to have a powerful female monarch.
The first scene that Lady Macbeth appears in is Act 1 Scene 5.It is immediately obvious that she is ambitious and will go to extremes to gain power; she calls on dark spirits to give her power. This is dramatically ironic for the audience as, the scene before, Macbeth does something similar he asks ‘Stars hide your fires, Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ This shows how similar they are. Lady Macbeth says that Macbeth is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’; she fears that he is too weak to kill Duncan. This is also a figurative image; mammals give milk, unlike snakes and reptiles. This shows the unnatural state that Lady Macbeth is in; being a woman, she is meant to give milk, but she talks about it disdainfully. The audience liken here to a reptile, cold and calculating. This is reinforced by the serpent imagery which I shall look at later.
Her first soliloquy is very powerful and emotive. She calls on ‘spirits that tend on mortal thoughts’ to ‘unsex [her] here and fill [her] from toe-top full of direst cruelty.’ A lot of the words being with ‘hard’ consonants such as ‘t’ which gives it an acidic sound, as if she is spitting the words out. It leaves the audience thinking that, though she is powerful, she is also unstable. This is because the whole speech goes against her femininity; it was thought wrong for a woman to desire power so much. Also, it seems a very large choice to have made over such a short time; she has only just read Macbeth’s letter and already she has given her soul over to dark spirits.
In this scene there are some biblical references, which Shakespeare’s audience, living in a society dominated by the Church, would have noticed and taken as a sign that Lady Macbeth is evil. This whole scene could be viewed as an extended metaphor for Eve’s temptation in the book of Genesis. There is serpent imagery used:
‘Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ‘t.’
Lady Macbeth is tempted, and acts as Eve, who brought about Adam’s downfall as well as her own. Lady Macbeth’s serpent is the thought of the power that could both have if they were to murder Duncan. In her soliloquy she is giving her soul to darkness. There are references to hell:
‘Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smokes of hell.’
Because of this, she would have been linked to the Devil by Shakespearian audiences.
In this scene we learn about her relationship with her husband, Macbeth. In his letter he calls her ‘my dearest partner in greatness’. He is addressing her as an equal, and also with affection. Later in this scene he calls her ‘my dearest love’, which gives the audience the impression that their relationship is a strong and powerful one. Their minds also seem to work in very similar ways; they both have called on dark spirits. She also knows his weaknesses, and takes control at the end of the scene, telling him to ‘leave all the rest to me’. It is obvious that she is the dominant one in their relationship.
This scene is meant to intrigue the audience, and also create a feeling of foreboding. Because they have both called on dark spirits to aid them, the audience would already know that their plan would go wrong somehow. Shakespeare’s audience would have held the view that, because the dark spirits are intrinsically evil, they can bring nobody true happiness and will eventually lead to their downfall. This creates a feeling of tension, which builds throughout the play.
When Duncan comes to the castle, Lady Macbeth takes her own advice and acts as a polite and gracious hostess. She puts on a brilliant performance; showing the audience that she is intelligent and deceiving; Duncan calls her an ‘honoured hostess.’ She speaks in formal prose throughout, which makes her words more believable, for Duncan if not the audience;
‘All our service
In every point done twice, and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honours deep and broad wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house.’
She is treating him as an honoured guest, making sure that nobody suspects her or Macbeth after he has been murdered. This reinforces the idea that she is clever and scheming. It also shows a large amount of self-control on her part, as she is able to hold up this act.
In Act1 Scene 7, when Macbeth voices his doubts and fears about murdering Duncan. She viciously scorns him;
‘Was hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?’
She uses the metaphor of being drunk to show how weak and pathetic Macbeth is being. She is trying to enrage him, as she is so furious with him. She questions his love for her, saying that ‘from time so I account your love.’ It is obvious that they love each other deeply, and she is trying to weaken him by doing this. Lady Macbeth seems to take his fright as a personal insult and a sign that his devotion to her is lacking.
One of the most powerful lines in this scene is when Lady Macbeth is showing her own devotion to him:
‘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 his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.’
This is a very powerful emotive image, which is meant to shock and repulse the audience. Shakespeare has built up an image of a vulnerable baby, ‘smiling in my face’ and then shows just how cold-hearted and reckless Lady Macbeth is, that she would have ‘dashed the brains out.’ It manages to shock the audience so effectively because it first reminds them that she is a woman, and does have motherly feelings. It then goes against all of this, showing what an unnatural state she is in.
Another technique that Lady Macbeth uses to change Macbeth’s mind is to emasculate him. Macbeth is a ferocious soldier, renowned for his skill in battle, so she targets his Achilles heel, his masculinity. She tells him:
‘When you durst [kill Duncan], then you were a man;
And to be more that what you were, you would
Be so much more than a man.’
She is referring to him being king and how it would make him more powerful; she is tempting him. Before she has given him time to think after this tirade of insults, she immediately begins to give him orders. She assures him of their power;
‘What cannot you and I perform upon
Th’ unguarded Duncan?’
By doing this she builds up his confidence and also makes it clear that she is in charge. This persuades Macbeth to go ahead with the murder.
It could be argued that Lady Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Duncan. It is she who changes Macbeth’s mind and persuades him to kill Duncan, and she, at this point, is basically in control of the whole thing. I don’t think, though, that Shakespeare’s audience would have taken that view. This is manly because of their belief in the power of fate and the supernatural. There was more superstition and belief in fate then, and they probably would have believed it was more up to fate and the witches than Lady Macbeth’s more human influence. Personally, I do not think that she is solely responsible for the murder of Duncan. She tempts Macbeth, but he is the one that actually commits the murder, and so should take some of the blame.
The first sign of weakness that we see in Lady Macbeth comes at the start of Act 2 Scene 2. She is talking about Duncan, and gives the reason for not killing him herself;
‘Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done ‘t.’
This reason is very ambiguous, as the audience do not know whether this is the genuine reason, or just an excuse for not doing it. This line is ironic, as in the last scene she talks about how she would be able to kill her own baby, yet now she cannot kill a man because he looks like her father. This seems out of character, which shows how unstable she is.
After committing the murder, Macbeth enters the room. They are both edgy and nervous, which is shown by the quick-fire dialogue. Lady Macbeth handles her fear in a different way from Macbeth though. Whilst he is close to breaking down, she insults and scorns him:
‘My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white.’
Though white represents cowardice, it also represents purity and goodness. This idea echoes some of her first thoughts on Macbeth, that he is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.’ Macbeth seems to be the human one; though he is weak and power-hungry, he still feels regret and other human emotions, while she seemingly does not. Insulting Macbeth’s weakness may be her way of covering up her own fear. She takes control, and orders him to:
‘Get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from
She is scared that, in this state of mind, Macbeth will give them away. She tells him to ‘consider it not so deeply’. She also tells him that ‘a little water clears us of this deed’. She appears to feel no guilt for what they have done, and thinks that as soon as any visible signs of guilt have gone, they will forget the deed. This is dramatically ironic, as these words come back to haunt her in later scenes.
After Macbeth becomes king, their relationship changes dramatically. They seem to drift apart; Lady Macbeth has to ask a servant to ask Macbeth if he will speak with her – which she would never have done before. He has become more ruthless and she has become less so. It is Macbeth who decides to have Banquo murdered, not Lady Macbeth, and she acts as if she does not understand what he is suggesting so that she can have no part in it:
‘Macbeth: There’s comfort yet, they are assailable…
There shall be done
A deed of dreadful note.
Lady Macbeth: What’s to be done?
Macbeth: Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.’
In this last line, he is patronising her. It has become clear that he is now the dominant one in the relationship; he no longer confides in her and discusses his plans – as if she is not longer his ‘dearest partner in greatness’.
In this scene Lady Macbeth also seems to be having second thoughts about what they have done:
‘Nought’s had, all’s spent
Where our desire is got without content
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.’
She has got what she wanted; she is queen and Macbeth is king, but they have not got the happiness and security that would have come with it if they had gained those titles honestly. She is plagued by worries that somebody will discover what they have done. These words have an air of finality to them which means that they have an impact upon the audience. Shakespeare achieved this by making the lines a rhyming couplet.
Their secrets are very nearly given away when Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo sitting at their banquet table after he has had him murdered. Lady Macbeth, being quick-witted, tells the other guests that ‘his highness is not well’. But she is very scared that he will give away something. She is furious with him, and is scornful:
‘You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting.
With much admired disorder.’
This would be said in a sarcastic tone. In this scene she seems to have regained some of her previous power; she has not completely changed from the dominant, scheming woman that she was in the earlier scenes. This is the last scene that we see her acting so.
Lady Macbeth tries to get rid of the guests as quickly as she can before Macbeth raises suspicions. She needs to give him time to recover:
‘At once, good night.
Stand not upon the order of your going.
But go at once.’
She blames the apparition on a lack of sleep. This is an on-running theme throughout the play. She says ‘you lack the season of all natures, sleep.’ Both of them suffer from not being able to sleep, and I will study the effects of it on Lady Macbeth later.
Act 5 Scene 1 is the last that Lady Macbeth appears in. As the play develops, she has become a less and less significant character, as she does not hold the power in her relationship with Macbeth any more. In this scene, Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking. She is talking about past events, and the audience get the impression that she has finally gone completely insane. One theory could be that the witches have cast a spell on her and she is bewitched, but personally I think that she is subconsciously wracked with guilt from murdering Duncan, and all the other deaths that it has caused. Her lack of proper sleep is ironic, as in Act 2 Scene 2, after Macbeth has murdered Duncan; he is terrified, and talks about never being able to sleep again:
‘Methought I heard a voice cry, Sleep no more:
Macbeth does murder Sleep, the innocent Sleep’
She is scornful of his fears in this scene, telling him that:
‘You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brain-sickly of things.’
So it is ironic for the audience that she now cannot sleep properly.
There is rich dramatic irony in this scene, which can be compared to Act 2 Scene 2, after Duncan’s murder. At the beginning of the play, she called upon darkness, but now she ‘has a light by her continuously’. This shows how she regrets what she did, and it seems as if she is trying to banish these dark spirits by keeping a light with her. The gentlewoman tells us that she has been spending a lot of time rubbing invisible stains on her hands, trying to get them off:
‘It is an accustomed action with her, to seem
Thus washing her hands. I have known her continue
In this a quarter of an hour.’
This is ironic because she told Macbeth that a little water would rid their guilt, but now she can still see the bloodstains there. There are other references to her hands being covered in blood:
‘Out damned spot, out I say!’
This is also a reference to the devil. A red spot was thought of as the entrance of the devil into somebody. This reinforces the connections between the devil and Lady Macbeth. Another reference is:
‘Here’s the smell of blood still; all the
Perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’
She seems to have a fear of blood, which is ironic because in Act 2 Scene 2, when she is talking about the blood on Duncan’s face, she tells Macbeth:
‘Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.’
Now she fears Duncan.
She also reveals secrets. She talks about the death of Duncan:
Who would have thought the old man to have had?
So much blood in him?’
This contrasts to the banquet scene, where she was scared that Macbeth would reveal the truth; now she is unknowingly telling everything. She also talks about the murder of Lady Macduff: ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?’ This sounds like a childish rhyme, which adds impact to the sentence. She is talking about the brutal murder of a woman and a child, though it sounds like a light-hearted rhyme. This is extremely disconcerting, and reinforces the idea that she has gone completely insane.
In Act 5 Scene 5 the inevitable happens and Lady Macbeth dies. It is not a major part of the story at that point, as she has been fading out of the plot. Soon after she does, Macbeth is slain and the order is quickly restored. Lady Macbeth had to die for this to happen, as she is so unnatural. In Shakespearian times, strong women like her could not be seen to succeed, as it was so unheard of then. The men had to gain power again, and Lady Macbeth had to die. Also, because she is linked to the devil and darkness in so many ways, she could not be seen to triumph over good.
There is one final mention of Lady Macbeth in Malcolm’s final speech:
‘Of this dead butcher, and his fiend-like queen,
Who as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life.’
In the Catholic Church (Macbeth is set in pre-protestant times), suicide was a sin, and Lady Macbeth would have gone to hell. This would have seemed a fitting end for such a ‘fiend-like’ woman. It also seems likely after her state of mind in Act 5 Scene 1. I think it is very likely that she committed suicide.
Personally, I think that Lady Macbeth makes an intriguing study. The combination of instability and power makes her a complex character with many different sides to her. Though I do not think she is a likable character, I found it easy to admire her, despite her bloodthirsty nature. She has admirable power and intelligence, and it seems a shame that she used them to such an awful end.
Lady Macbeth definitely gets some of the most powerful lines in the whole play. Her first soliloquy, beginning with ‘Come you spirits…’ is full of passion and is powerful and emotive. She seems to change between being emotional and cruelly cold-hearted. Though she gets angry and emotional easily, she can also help to commit a murder and seemingly not feel any guilt. I think that this shows the two sides of her nature; she is imbalanced and insane.
I found it interesting to see the view of a dominant woman in Shakespearian times. She is thought of as being unnatural, and because of this she has to die. This shows a huge difference in the society, as Lady Macbeth could be seen as a feminist before her time. I do not think that this analogy is totally correct though, because although Lady Macbeth had many qualities that a feminist would; she is powerful and dominating, her nature is brutal and completely inhumane, which does not seem to embody the ideas and nature of feminism.
Lady Macbeth could be thought of as completely inhuman, though it is apparent that she does have a conscience, as she feels guilt later on in the play. Some lines do seem completely inhuman, especially when she talking of dashing the brains out of her own baby. I do not think that she was totally in control of herself though, as I believe that she was insane from the beginning of Macbeth, and this, added to her lust for power, overtook her completely. Because of this, I do not think that Lady Macbeth is totally responsible for her actions, and she is more a character to pity than to fear.