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Summary: Why Shakespeare Constructed Lady Macbeth’s Character in the Way in Which He Did

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In the Jacobean Era, women were viewed as extremely pious and pure and were very submissive to their husbands in the patriarchal society at the time. Their main job was to look after the children. They were considered the head of the household while the men had to support and provide. Women did have the opportunity to be independent and not have children, but many wanted to have an heir to continue the family heritage and legacy.

The King at the time was King James I who was also the first monarch to be of both English and Scottish descent. He had a great interest in the supernatural and even published a compendium on witches and witchcraft called Daemonologie. As a result, anyone suspected of witchcraft was drowned and burned. Witchcraft was considered a sin because many times the King was a target for the witches. James I was known as the representative of God on Earth. To commit such an act to harm the King was nothing less of killing God. At the start of the play, Lady Macbeth is presented very fiend-like but during the play she changes which highlights her turbulent nature.

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From when we first meet Lady Macbeth in Act 1 Scene 5, she is already deliberating the regicide of King Duncan. She immediately goes on with the plan, which shows how concise, crisp and articulate she is. When she says “come you spirits…. unsex me here”, this is incredibly demonic as she is metaphorically telling the “weird sisters” to change her gender. She goes on about how she wants to become as masculine as possible so that she could remove the natural order and so she could use that masculine power to accomplish the deed that she is compiling. She wanted to be an avatar of Satan on Earth.She describes how Macbeth is not aggressive enough in order to obtain such a status as King as she “fears thy nature”. This shows how she can clearly read and comprehend the situation, which is somewhat associated with motherly behaviour. The same way how a mother knows her child, Lady Macbeth understands Macbeth’s strengths and weaknesses.

She says he is “too full of the milk of human kindness” which highlights his innocence and inability to achieve the rank. She uses “milk” to create visual imagery as it is a metaphor. She admits that he does possess “ambition”, yet he does not want to cheat. He looks at everything by the rules and wants to remain that way however Lady Macbeth is a completely different character as she wants to “catch the nearest way”. This is a metaphor for taking a short-cut.She talks about how “her keen knife see not the wound it makes”. She uses “keen” as an adjective of the knife to show her eagerness of carrying out the murder. This would have been common as an example of witchcraft during the Jacobean era and the audience would be terrified. Shakespeare uses the fear of the audience, as a way of attracting more attention to the story.

We could argue that this is when she is acting most fiend-like as she is the authoritative figure and is easily manipulating Macbeth. As women were submissive to their husbands during the Jacobean era, this was very abnormal and probably the first instance in which the female overpowers the male, especially when she says that she “may pour her spirits in thine ear”. She uses the imperative “pour” to demand. She is clearly telling Macbeth what to do, not advising. Lady Macbeth also foreshadows the death of King Duncan as she points out that “the raven himself is hoarse”. The raven was commonly associated with the omen of death and as soon as she mentions it, the audience would have been petrified.

Lady Macbeth demanded the witches to fill her “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”. She wants to transform into a witch. Not only is she saying these vile words, but she tells the witches to “come”. She uses the imperative against these malevolent creatures which indicates her bravery and fearlessness. In the Jacobean era, calling upon spirits were the most malign crimes and that too by a woman. It is almost as if she controls the witches. This clearly indicates how abnormal her nature is. When she says, “make thick my blood”, Shakespeare uses this as visual imagery.Another example of how she is fiend-like is when she says, “Stop up the access and passage to remorse”. This means that she not only wants to transform into a black-hearted being but wants to remove of any human-like emotions that could weigh her sinister potential down. She is hoping that after committing any deed, the feeling of remorse or guilt should be non-existent. In the Jacobean Era, women were extremely religious and asking a witch for such an outrageous desire was nothing short of the Devil’s work. The “passage” she talks about highlights that her femininity is the only obstacle from achieving the full potential of evilness. The effect of this is the audience being frightened due to a woman demanding the witches to change her gender. She uses the imperative “stop” to the witches which shows how crazy and fearless she is. In the Jacobean era, this was extremely witchlike. Critics such as Herbert R Coursen Jr. demonstrate that Lady Macbeth’s interest and similarities to witches show that she is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft.

Shakespeare illustrates Lady Macbeth to show her strong character during the most intense times. As Macbeth is unsure and weary of the regicide, Lady Macbeth calmly assures him and gives him advice by saying “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t”. The Biblical allusion Lady Macbeth uses denotes how Macbeth should look very innocent and appealing but be like a serpent waiting to catch on any given opportunity. She uses the imperative “look” which proves that she is more dominant than Macbeth. Her calm approach to the whole situation before the regicide begs the question, is this her first murder? This shows her fiend-like quality clearly.Lady Macbeth’s manipulating abilities are incredible as she persuades Macbeth along with such ease. In Act 1 Scene 7, in Macbeth’s soliloquy, he mentions that “We’d jump the life to come”. This displays his knowledge that regicide is such a heinous crime and that the sinners would not visit judgement day but would go straight to Hell.

Lady Macbeth shows her evilness once again by pointing out how if she had kids, she would “dash’d the brains out”. The level of horror in that phrase is excessive and yet Lady Macbeth has no guilt over discussing infanticide. To a Jacobean audience, this would have been extremely worrying. The ease in which she says this shows how vicious she really is. Lady Macbeth has clearly thought about this before mentioning it and yet did not think that it was such a ghastly thing to say. This demonstrates how the “spirits” have changed her whole attitude.Lady Macbeth is presented as a fiend because she is more powerful than Macbeth. She merely persuades Macbeth into doing “the deed” but does not pick up the knife herself. This is because she thinks it is such an easy job that Macbeth should do it himself. She has come up with such a fool-proof, elaborate plan that can be executed in such a clean manner that she lets Macbeth do the honours. Not only is this a way of escaping the deed itself but a way of Lady Macbeth gaining confidence in Macbeth. Once Macbeth has taken the life of one person, she believes that he will enjoy the satisfaction of removing one’s soul and the whole chain of being will descend into chaos and madness. Her ambition highlights her fiend-like qualities as well.

In Act 2 Scene 2 once the murder has been committed, Macbeth makes Lady Macbeth aware of his completion of “the deed”. He calls it this because he is extremely paranoid that anyone will over hear him. Lady Macbeth uses the imperative, which once again highlights her power and strength against Macbeth, in the quote “go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand”. She uses the imperative “go” as she sends him off to fetch water. She behaves much like a motherly figure in this scene as she helps him clean himself. She treats the blood of a King like some dirt which has been wiped on Macbeth’s hands and can be easily removed with the help of some water.

She also reassures Macbeth in the “filthy witness”. She says that the blood is the only thing that spectated the regicide and this her way of saying that it is finally over and done with. In this dialogue, Lady Macbeth answers in short, concise sentences which increases the dramatic tension between the characters and the audience. She still has no remorse over the regicide which is very worrying to the audience.In Act 3 Scene 2, Lady Macbeth’s nature changes as she becomes less sinister and more discrete. She does not mention the murder and questions “is Banquo gone from court” which we can see she is worried about his safety. We empathise for Lady Macbeth as Banquo’s passing was unneeded, but Macbeth was suspicious of him.Act 3 Scene 4 is when Macbeth witnesses the ghost of Banquo and Lady Macbeth settles down the guests at the banquet with “sit down my worthy friends”. She uses the imperative “sit” to show how she is still in control.

In Act 5 Scene 1, Lady Macbeth is seen sleepwalking by the doctor and a gentlewoman. She is in a dream and washes her hands violently screaming “Out damned spot, out I command you”. She descends into insanity as she realizes the gravity of the regicide. She cannot take it anyone more and it has affected her hugely in this scene. She says, “will my hands ne’er be clean?” which illustrates how after such a dreadful crime has been committed, there is no easy way out, the suffering is a part of the punishment. How once Lady Macbeth was engulfed with the spirits, she is now in a demented frame of mind that “more needs she the divine than the physician”, which is a priest.

 

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