“…this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”. How far do you agree with Malcolm’s assessment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the end of the play?
As Malcolm’s assessment of Macbeth as a “dead butcher” and of Lady Macbeth as a “fiend-like queen” is quite subjective, I cannot fully embrace or object it. However, there is evidence throughout the play that shifts the balance towards evil and occasionally towards good. I personally agree with Malcolm’s evaluation, to an extent however, as no human being can mechanically be set upon doing evil only, but can be closer or further from performing it.
The couple’s first diabolical act consisted of planning to commit the highest of all crimes, regicide, subsequently putting the plan into practise by murdering Duncan, King of Scotland. This ignited a series of slaughters on the part of Macbeth that could lead the reader to consider him a cold-blooded butcher. Deviating from the bloody plan, Macbeth impulsively performed his second set of murders by killing Duncan’s guards, not to jeopardise his apparent innocence. Due to the witches’ prophecies, which, at the time were also regarded as equivocations that were told by “instruments of darkness” to “win us to our harms”, Macbeth furthermore bathed in blood by killing the loyal Banquo and attempting to deprive his son, Fleance, of his life, so that he couldn’t be heir to Macbeth’s throne.
At that point, he had become completely ruthless and he, himself, admitted that in order to maintain his status as King, he would eliminate all possible obstacles, even if that would mean continuing to butcher innocent people: “For mine own good/ All causes shall give way. I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that I should wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” The people of Scotland envisioned him as a manipulative “tyrant”, as he kept “a servant feed in every house” and had transformed the country into a place of famine, anxiety, and, above all, murder; but he only entirely impersonated the role of the butcher when he recklessly decided to brutally annihilate Macduff, “But yet I’ll make assurance double sure…thou shalt not live”, and his family “No boasting like a fool;/ This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool.” He succeeded in slaughtering his wife, babes and servants.
There are several indications about Macbeth being damned for all his murders and sins, especially for killing a king, thus proving that he is a merciless butcher: “The deep damnation of his (Duncan’s) taking off.” His indifference and cold attitude towards Lady Macbeth’s death can also be interpreted as one of the last evidences of his cruelty, before he is decapitated by the patriotic and vengeful Macduff.
However, there are quotations and reactions in the play that might reveal Macbeth’s tendency to pull out of the blood bath. He questioned his intention to kill his own king and guest and he also contemplated on the consequences this regicide would have on him and his “partner of greatness”: “…we but teach bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague th’inventor”, as well as eternal damnation.
Yet he proceeded with the murder. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s conscience often intervened: he felt remorse after murdering Duncan, “Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst” and likewise he refused to kill Macduff at the end of the play as he had already butchered his family “But get thee back, my soul is too much charged/ With blood of thine already”. Moreover, he admitted to having a “diseased mind”: “O full of scorpions is my mind” and alternatively, wishes to heal it: “And with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom”.
Although the Shakespearian audience may have interpreted his inability to sleep, “Macbeth shall sleep no more”, as well as the visions of the dagger and of Banquo’s ghost as a manifestation of the supernatural, I think that these might also show his heightened conscience that is troubling him. To contrast his earlier cravings of murder, towards the end of the play he said, “I have supped full with horrors”. Although he had turned Scotland into such a desolated place, he recognized his wrongdoings and desired to “cure” it of them: “The water of my land, find her disease and purge it to a sound and pristine health”, proving that he had moments of regret and benevolence, though when it had been too late.
Until a certain point, Lady Macbeth contributes to the manslaughter committed in the play and is therefore thought to be “fiend-like”. I do support this assessment, though not entirely, as the negative aspects of her actions tend to outweigh the positive ones.
Most of her evil is based on her belief in the supernatural and the consequences of it. In the process of fiendishly devising the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth invited iniquitous spirits to posses her body “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”. Darkness characterizes evil as well, and Lady Macbeth commanded to be encircled and hid by it: “Come thick night”. All her malevolent deeds had caused her to sleepwalk and relive moments of her utter devilry. The Shakespearean public could have been inclined to consider the afore-mentioned evidences as manifestations of witchcraft and of the vile supernatural, as it was typical of witches to communicate with evil spirits, embrace darkness and induce insomnia or nightmares.
The doctor deemed that “more needs she the divine”, reinforcing the idea that she was possessed by evil. The ultimate evidence that would assure the dramatist’s audience of witchcraft and a high level of Satanism is the presence of the “Devil’s Mark”, which is implied when Lady Macbeth cries “Out damned spot”. It was believed that witches were damned as well, and Lady Macbeth describes Hell as being “murky”. Aside from all the indirect references to witchcraft, Shakespeare conveys the idea that she was tempted to be evil through her diabolical, detailed plotting of the King’s assassination, “Give me the daggers”, and her serene attitude towards it: “A little water clears us of this deed”.
Refusing to actually commit the murder herself contrasts the belief that she is “fiend-like”. She was also absolved from Macbeth’s further “wading” in blood because she was not aware of the murders that he was planning: “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck”. Believing that Macbeth’s visions of Banquo’s ghost are the reflection of his fears, “This is the very painting of your fear”, and not the supernatural opposes her earlier invitations to be possessed. These could have actually showed that she was urging herself to be evil and strong for the sake of her husband’s ambition, as she might not have been as pernicious as she wanted to be; thus not being as fiend-like as we thought she was.
She felt guilty about Macbeth’s wrongdoings, especially about the massacre of Macduff’s children and wife, “Where is she now?” and Banquo’s assassination, “No more o’that my lord, no more o’that”. Shakespeare stresses upon her conscience and her will to escape evil, by constantly washing her hands of a “damned spot”, sleeping with a candle by her side to eliminate the darkness that she had earlier conjured, and ultimately committing suicide. Prior to her death, a possibility that she was not damned had arisen: “…yet I have known those which have walked in their sleep who have died holily in their beds.” As suicide was considered ‘unholy’ at the time, the only contingency of her not being eternally cursed due to her evil was dissolved.