Beginning with this passage from Act 3.2, explore the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth through the whole play.
How now, my lord! why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done is done.
We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the
Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you:
Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honours in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.
There’s comfort yet; they are assailable;
Then be thou jocund: ere the bat hath flown
His cloister’d flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note.
As usual , this is written under exam conditions in the 45 minutes I allowed the students to write. It is not perfect. It should make a useful marking exercise, however with a view to helping students to understand how the marks can be accrued.
In this passage, taken from Act 3.2, we see the beginning of a change in the nature of the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Until this point in the play, contrary to the Great Chain of being and the normal status of women in the early 17th Century, Lady Macbeth has driven the action and by a number of means has goaded and manipulated Macbeth to her will and to the swift act of Regicide which has given power to the pair.
In this passage a change is clear from the outset. Structurally, it is Macbeth who drives this scene, having the longer speeches and using them to instruct Lady Macbeth using imperative verbs: ‘be thou jocund’ … be innocent of the knowledge’. This last quotation establishes the new order in the palace. Lady Macbeth is to have no part in Macbeth’s planning for the removal of Banquo and Fleance and presumably for the actions which follow such as the slaughter of the Macduffs in Act 4. It is also clear that she is no longer taunting him with his perceived lack of masculinity in this scene since when he shows potential weakness, crying out ‘O full of scorpions is my mind’ –a line strengthened by the apostrophe ‘O’ and the missing final foot creating a significant pause, she offers encouragement rather than cruel emasculation. Not only this, but he uses a term of endearment ‘dearest chuck’ for the first and only time. There is, however, a sense of the patronising here as well. Macduff will use the same images when mourning ‘all my chicks’ when receiving news of their slaughter. There is a sense that this endearment may be one used of children, further reducing the status of Lady Macbeth.
Similarly as the passage begins, Lady Macbeth is flurried and uncertain -emotion reinforced by the caesurae suggesting competing thoughts. Macbeth’s response is firm and confident as he tells her what must happen: ‘we have scotched the snake, not kill’d it’ has only 8 syllables suggesting a pause as this information sinks in. He is now using the ‘Royal We’ and it is not clear if he is referring to the pair in the trochaic first foot or seeking to emphasise his role as monarch in the actions which have given him the crown.
Wealthy women were far from powerless in the 17th Century and had the responsibility of running the household for their noble husbands. However the manner in which Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth in Act 1 and 2 would be shocking, especially when she so clearly signals her desire to embrace evil in this action, seeking help to ‘unsex me here’ and calling upon darkness to shield her actions from sight. When Macbeth is happy to let ‘chance’ take its course, she has no intention of losing power, interrupting him in 1.5 with her trochaic ‘Never shall sun that morrow see’ and firmly establishing herself as the dominant and more masculine half of the partnership. At this time and throughout Tudor and medieval society, strong male attributes were action, bravery, protection and strong leadership with women earning praise for the feminine virtues – care, nurture and homemaking. Lady Macbeth inverts the norm from her first utterances in which she shows how much she despises her husband whose character is ‘too full o’the milk of human kindness’ – not only is he weak, but she links him directly with the feminine with the use of the female attribute – mother’s milk.
This sets the tone for their relationship up to this scene in Act 3. Time and again she will question Macbeth’s manhood when debating his apparent unwillingness to take direct action. Such emasculation helps to place her as the dominant, even to the extent of her scolding him for his error in failing to leave the bloodied daggers with the guards who she has drugged in 2.1.
Once Macbeth has killed Duncan, there are indications that he is beginning to act on his own account – he kills the same guards before they can say anything which might incriminate him and Lady Macbeth is reduced to a faint – a physical equivocation – to distract from this act. In Act 3.1 his mind is made up regarding Banquo and he questions him closely in 3.1 before renewing communication with the murderers, unknown to his wife. He is now King and is ruling alone.
There is one last scene in which Lady Macbeth has the ascendancy before she meets her end in act 5. In Act 3.4 with Macbeth reduced to a mental and physical wreck by the ghost of Banquo, she alone strives to keep order and to command the nobles. Also she tries to help Macbeth out of his panic, once again using his apparent lack of masculinity to goad him. Macbeth resists her this time – if he was visited by a ‘rugged Russian bear…’ or other tangible object worthy of fear, then he would be as brave a man as any, but this apparition risen from the ‘charnel houses’ has affected him in a way that he cannot control. The apparition leaves and calm is restored at the end of the scene, but Lady Macbeth will no longer appear in conjunction with her husband.
In 5.1 she is a shadow of her former self as she recites snippets from the play and seeks to wash her hands clean of blood – an action for which she chided Macbeth in 2.1, telling him that ‘a little water’ would be enough to wash his hands clean. Now, alone and removed from the royal presence, she has lost all her strength and certainty. All that remains, following her off-stage suicide, is for Macbeth’s curt comment on life and death –‘out, out brief candle’. He is too busy now to mourn his former ‘Dear partner of [my] greatness’ and will rush headlong to his fate in battle. The pair are now separated in death as clearly as they have become separated in life.