Shakespeare’S MacbethShireen Owlia
English IV ? 5
14 November 2001
A Woman Before Her Time
During the Elizabethan era, a woman did not have any say in the relationship with her husband, but Shakespeare’s Macbeth changes this accepted theory. Lady Macbeth is a woman ahead of her time; she is caught between today’s ambitious, powerful woman and a fragile, powerless creature of the Elizabethan era. At the beginning of this tragedy, she is vicious, overly ambitious, without conscience, and willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. As Macbeth becomes less dependent on his wife, Lady Macbeth loses control of her husband, but mostly of herself. She is so wrapped up in the greedy world Shakespeare creates that she fails to consider the consequences of her actions more realistically. Lady Macbeth lives as if she is a woman ahead of her tiime, but she dies like she is from the ?golden age of drama?.
Initially, Lady Macbeth is introduced as a dominant, controlling, heartless wife with the ambition to achieve kingship for her husband. These words are characteristics of today’s woman. She does not let her husband run her life, but instead, a modern woman seeks the best for both herself and her husband. This weak, unsure, and unstable condition of Lady Macbeth, which is only revealed towards the end of the play, displays the characteristics of a woman from the Elizabethan times. However, the audience begins to see hints of this hidden nature by the way Macbeth addresses her.
The first time Lady Macbeth appears on stage, she is reading Macbeth’s letter, which shows her desire to become Queen of Scotland. Lady Macbeth reads, ?This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness; that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee? (I.5.10-13). This portion of her husband’s letter shows she has trained him to report the important events that occur while he is away. At this moment, she decides that quick action will be the basis of her reasoning and planning. Her spur-of-the-moment orders will affect Macbeth so deeply that his character will be forever changed. Lady Macbeth intentionally tries to ignore consequence and concentrates on securing Macbeth’s future as king of Scotland. She looks to the quickest way as one that may lack rationality, but shortens their path to the throne. Lady Macbeth has been the authority icon for Macbeth, yet deep down, she never carried such traits to begin with.
Because Lady Macbeth is a woman, she does not have the strength in her female heart, body or mind to carry out the deed of killing the King. Therefore, she calls upon the aid of the supernatural to give her male powers, so that she may have the audacity to go through with the plan to murder the King and allow Macbeth to obtain the throne. ?Women have always been considered as the gentler and fair sex. Lady Macbeth feels that to commit this crime, she must become as cruel as she believes men are. She calls for the spirits to unsex her, so she may act as a man would? (Lenz, 238). Although Lady Macbeth is unstable and vulnerable at the end of Act I, she uses dramatic analogies to persuade her husband to follow through with the first murder: ?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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, and dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this (I.7.54-59). By hearing a woman who seems to be fearless of his anxieties, Macbeth is soothed. Lady Macbeth knows her husband is a strong person, and she knows she must seem stronger in order to convince him to go along with her plans. Lady Macbeth imagines that she has the ability to hide her true emotions, though her mind is as frail as an ?egg?. She claims that she can act to look like a flower that is innocent, but be a serpent in disguise.
After the murder is plotted between the two, Duncan decides to make a surprise appearance at Macbeth’s house. Lady Macbeth tells her husband to put the ?great business into [her] dispatch? (I.5.67). This shows she takes charge and covers for Macbeth, who is defenseless to the overbearing tension residing in himself (Williamson, 163). As the situation escalates, Lady Macbeth tries to soothe him by explaining that ?things without remedy should be without regard: What’s done is done? (III.2.11-12). She has changed her technique with Macbeth from shock and intimidation to restraint. She says, ?You must leave this? (III.2.36), which sounds calming and unworried. ?[Her] control over Macbeth has waned, and over herself, her control is dwindling as each second passes. The fire she once had, which drove Macbeth forward is now no more than a minute spark? (Barker, 126). She is beginning to lose that controlling stiffness. She asks Macbeth, ?what’s to be done? (III.2.44), which is a drastic change in control. ?She doesn’t voice any opinions or plans of any sort for the rest of the play. Lady Macbeth is now in awe of Macbeth, contrast to when [he] was in awe of Lady Macbeth’s infanticide analogy? (Barker 126).
Lady Macbeth’s seemingly male actions are replaced at this point in the play and she is wrought by guilt. She suffers from a mental and emotional breakdown as a result of this guilt. She is emotionally exhausted and becomes the typical fragile flower. We first see this side of her when she states that she cannot kill Duncan because had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t (II.2.16-7). After Duncan’s murder, the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are reversed. Previously, she was the main motivator in the plan to overthrow the kingdom; she was ?the one who wore the pants?. Following Duncan’s death, she breaks down and Macbeth becomes powerful and tyrannical. Macbeth gets all the inclination and she gets the guilt. On the night of Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth instead of her husband grows fearful. Although it is Macbeth who sees visions of the dagger, Lady Macbeth falls ill of a mental disorder. ?It is he who hears the cry in the house: ?Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’ . . . and so ?Macbeth shall sleep no more’; but it is not heard the he slept no more? (Williamson 164). While the Queen rises from her bed and talks in her sleep, she betrays her guilt; but, it is Macbeth who stands helpless with bloody hands. When Lady Macbeth comforts him, she ends up being the one who says, ?Out, damned spot! Out, I say!? (V.1.31). Lady Macbeth is eventually driven to the point of madness.
Lady Macbeth was under a great deal of pressure, being a powerful and ambitious woman at a time when she would have been criticized and possibly even accused of being in league with the supernatural. Her problem was that she separated male and female characteristics. This separation of herself caused her breakdown. In today’s society, it is acceptable for males and females to display qualities that in Lady Macbeth’s day would be seen as solely masculine or feminine. When Macbeth seized her power (after Duncan’s murder), she was left alone with her guilt and fears. She committed the evil act because she was a woman, even though she had to sacrifice her womanliness to do it. She was trapped between then, when men did not display feelings and women had no power, and today, when men and women are equal. Lady Macbeth is a powerful character who goes from a rise to power to a fall of mental illness brought on by guilt. She was caught between two time periods, that of the Elizabethan era and modern day.