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Lady Macbeth

Character Analysis

Lady Macbeth is the driving force behind Macbeth’s killing of King Duncan but her desire for power leaves her broken and desperate.

‘dearest partner in greatness’

• Lady Macbeth turns to the forces of evil and welcomes the dark spirits who will strip her of her femininity and allow her to commit murder.

• The use of the imperative verb ‘come’ shows that she deliberately turns to the forces of evil and embraces their power.

• The repetition of ‘come’ makes it sound as if she is casting a spell, and therefore her language links her with the witches.

Context: The Jacobean audience were highly superstitious and firmly believed in the power of the supernatural. Lady Macbeth’s decision to turn to the evil spirits would have been deeply disturbing to contemporary audiences.

‘so foul and fair a day ‘

• Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to deceive everyone as they plan the king’s murder.

• The enjambment and the turning point of the word ‘but’ highlight her deliberate slyness and the contrast between the outward appearance and the inner reality.

• The imperative verb ‘look’ highlights her power over her husband as she gives him commands.

Context: The imagery reminds the church-going Jacobean audience of the serpent in the Garden of Eden as Lady Macbeth’s language links her to the weak woman who tempted Adam to disobey God. Shakespeare shows her as manipulative and sinful, deliberately playing on contemporary perceptions of women.

‘pluck’d my nipple… dash’d the brains’

• Lady Macbeth says that she would kill her nursing baby rather than act in the cowardly way Macbeth is. Ambition has stripped her of all feminine qualities.

• The viciousness of this image is a potent (powerful) one. The verb pluck’d’ is onomatopoeic which emphasises the violence with which Lady Macbeth is speaking.

Context: The Jacobean audience believed that women were natural nurturers, meek and subservient. Lady Macbeth’s vocabulary would have been very shocking to a Jacobean audience who would find this completely unnatural.

‘Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it. My husband?’

• As Lady Macbeth waits for news of Duncan’s murder, she reflects that she was unable to kill him herself. She has not lost all traces of humanity.

• The sudden switch from her thoughts to seeing or hearing her husband captures her nervousness. The short interrogative sentence ‘my husband?’ reflects this.

‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck’

• After becoming king, Macbeth begins to confide less and less in his wife, planning the murders of Banquo and Fleance on his own.

• Lady Macbeth’s power over her husband fades as the play progresses. She is now not a ‘partner’ but is a ‘chuck’. This perhaps shows that he no longer values her as highly as he did.

‘my mind is full of scorpions’

• Macbeth finds that becoming king does not bring him happiness.

• The metaphor shows that he is deeply troubled. The sense of pain and viciousness in this image allows the audience to understand his torment. We are not sure whether his mind is tortured with the guilt of regicide or the fear and suspicion that plagues him now that he is king.

‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O’

• Lady Macbeth acknowledges in her madness the extent of her guilt as she tries to clean imaginary blood from her hands.

• The image of the heavy scents of the myriad (many types of) perfumes of an exotic land shows how nothing can eradicate her guilt.

• The fragmented speech of ‘O, O, O’ reflects the lack of control she has over her mind; this is very different from Act 1 when she calls the spirits to her with such authority. In this scene, she uses prose, rather than the blank verse she used in earlier acts, showing again the descent into madness.

Grade 9 Analysis

Look at the character in a different way.

Does Shakespeare leave us with any sympathy for Lady Macbeth?

Yes: Her ambition brings her no happiness and the play documents the change in Lady Macbeth from a strong ambitious woman to a broken wreck. At the end, the serving woman who watches her anguished sleepwalking says ‘I would not have such a heart in my bosom’, which directs the audience’s response to feel the pathos (pity) of the disintegration of her mind, her power and her relationship with her husband. We, too, would not have such a tortured conscience for all the world.

No: Malcolm’s final summary of Lady Macbeth as a ‘fiend-like queen’ defines her. She deliberately chooses a path of evil and there is justice in the ending of the play and her self-inflicted death.

Regicide (killing of a king or queen) was seen as an appalling act because it was a crime against God. The Jacobeans believed in the divine right of kings, that God anointed (chose) the monarch and Lady Macbeth’s part in such a crime would have been viewed as unforgivable.

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