Is Lady Macbeth really an evil fiend-like queen? Selfish, bullying and cruel? Or is Lady Macbeth simply ambitious for a husband whom she loves, and so forces herself to deny her true self, which is tender and vulnerable?
During the 18th and 19th centuries audiences watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth wanted Lady Macbeth to be fiend-like. A few actresses wanted to show her softer side, but the image was cast and it took a brave Lady to try to break the mould. The famous actress, Ellen Terry, attempted it and the reception was mixed. But, from then on more actresses were willing to explore a new side of Lady Macbeth.
In this hub I compare Lady Macbeth the fiend and Lady Macbeth the caring wife. Please take the quick poll at the end to indicate how you perceive Lady Macbeth’s character to be.
In this more traditional view of the character, Lady Macbeth is by far the stronger and more vicious member of the partnership. Lady Macbeth has ambition, she wants a crown, and Macbeth is going to get it for her. Calling on the spirits of murder, she is almost a fourth witch. She is in harmony with dark night, birds of ill omen, and things that are damned.
Lady Macbeth almost revels in cruelty and despises her husband Macbeth for being too soft and compassionate, but she knows she can rule him. When Macbeth looks like backing out of the murder of Duncan, Lady Macbeth bullies him into submission. But she does not commit the murder herself. Perhaps she is content to leave the most dangerous part to her husband? When he bungles, she marches off in desperation to smear the grooms in blood. Scornful of her husband’s weakness, she taunts him with cowardice. She cannot share any regret or remorse he may feel. Next morning, when Macbeth is in danger of arousing suspicion by his over-loud grief at the king’s death, and his sudden murder of the grooms, Lady Macbeth pretends to faint. She thinks that Macbeth can’t do anything right.
Things start to go wrong for Lady Macbeth once Macbeth comes into his own as king. He becomes harder to control, he no longer asks her what he should do. There is only one ruler in this Kingdom, and it is not Lady Macbeth! She even has to ask him for an audience. She suspects that he is going to kill Banquo and she encourages him to do so. Even so, she is worried about his state of mind, he seems dangerously obsessed, and if he goes too far he may expose them.
Macbeth does not need her ruthlessness any more, he has enough of his own, and he has broken away from her. He needs her quick wits and nerves of steel only once more, to save them at the banquet when he lapses into his old terrors and imaginings.
It is this perhaps more than anything that drives Lady Macbeth to the brink of insanity. In her sleep-walking, she re-enacts the times when she could control Macbeth. If she feels regret at the murder, it is perhaps because she cannot wash away the event that has led to this sorry state of affairs. She has learnt that what is done is never undone, and there is always a price to pay. She may feel that the price is being paid now, in the form of this new, uncontrollable, Macbeth, or that it will be paid soon, for one day their crime must be discovered. In her dreams she thinks that everybody can see the blood on her hands.
If there is remorse for the cruelty she showed Duncan, it is completely subconscious, and only hinted at in her tormented sleep.
However, even in her waking life the old strength is broken and she dies in her sleep.
Lady Macbeth puts her husband before herself, tries to kill her own better nature for his sake, and finds that the cost has been too great.
Love, rather than ambition, is the centre of her world. Macbeth promises her greatness, but it is his greatness that she is more concerned about.
She knows that deep down Macbeth wants to be King, and she sets about fulfilling that need in him by whatever means necessary. To do so she must find resources of cruelty which are foreign to her nature, and so she calls on the dark spirits. She knows that unless she can stop the pity and tenderness within her, Macbeth will never be king.
She must act a part for herself and Macbeth. She tries taunting, coaxing and flattering him, using his love for her (and hers for him) as a weapon. As a desperate resort she says that she would rather kill her own baby than break her word as Macbeth has done when he announces that he cannot commit the murder after all. Macbeth, sensing what this must cost a woman who is usually tender, is shamed. Lady Macbeth nerves herself for the ordeal with alcohol. She has doubts about Macbeth’s resolve, but she knows that she would be unable to commit the murder herself and, terrified, she awaits the outcome.
When Macbeth returns from the deed, she must control any horror that she feels, because he is so close to collapse and needs her support, her realism and her calmness. She coaxes and rebukes him, trying to hold him together. Perhaps she finds smearing the guards with Duncan’s blood hateful, but it has to be done for Macbeth’s safety as well as her own. She must keep being strong, or all will be lost.
When Duncan’s murder is discovered she is a poor actress compared with Macbeth, who gives full vent to a pretended grief. When Macbeth reveals his cold blooded murder of the guards, and goes on to describe the scene of the crime in detail, she faints, it is too much for her. Macbeth, the husband she thought ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’, has committed two more murders without hesitation and already he is changed by the deed.
Macbeth’s readiness to kill is confirmed in his plans against Banquo and Fleance. If Lady Macbeth suspects, she tries to persuade him against it. But Macbeth now thinks he knows best and does not confide his plans.
Perhaps he sees how troubled she is, and wishes to spare her further knowledge. He is now strong enough to act alone. But still she seeks to comfort him, and perhaps to save him from himself as well.
For herself she seeks no comfort, even though her sickness is growing and, despairing, she almost longs for death.
Being queen has not made her happy. The old love between her and Macbeth is now complicated by new pressures, and perhaps she feels that they are growing apart.
She saves him at the banquet by calling up every ounce of strength left in her, and the effort leaves her drained. She can now see the ruin of their hopes and, when Macbeth speaks of his ‘dark and deep desires’, his affinity with evil, and his determination to suppress all opposition, she knows that he is lost to her and their love can never be the same again. They are each quite alone, she knows that she cannot go with him further down this bloody path.
Deeply anguished, Lady Macbeth acts out her grief and guilt in her sleep, going over and over the deed that killed their innocence and destroyed their marriage. She is appalled by the horror of the murder, the guilt can never be washed away. And, although she longs for innocence again, she cannot confess her crimes and seek forgiveness (and so die ‘holily’) because to do so would betray her husband.
But Lady Macbeth cannot live with herself and her guilt any longer either so takes the only available course and ends her own life.
There were no last words with Macbeth, no final closing of the gap that had grown between them. She died without that comfort. The caring, tormented Lady Macbeth can be a courageous and tragic figure just as her husband Macbeth can be.