Friday, October 7, 2011

Is Lady Macbeth the Epitome of Evil?

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Leigh Crymble
English Literature

“Lady Macbeth is often regarded as the epitome of evil. Do you have any sympathy for her, or do you regard her as an inhuman figure?”

We are introduced to Lady Macbeth with her reading a letter sent by her husband, telling her of the witches’ prophecies. It is the first time the audience sees Lady Macbeth and it is important as it gives us our first impressions of her. Reading aloud allows the audience to see her true character straight away revealing her cruel and cold nature. She is determined to persuade Macbeth to act on the supernatural prophecies knowing his nature “Is too full o’th’milk of human kindness” and any sympathy the audience may have is directed towards Macbeth rather than his wife. She, too, is intensely ambitious, and cannot bear to even mention the kingship directly only saying “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promis’d”

There are immediate connections to evil when Lady Macbeth says “The Raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan” This bird imagery symbolises an omen and we see that Lady Macbeth feels no remorse or guilt about her thoughts on killing Duncan. The audience is aware of her sense of sole responsibility and control by the words “Under my battlements” which show that she is now supremely firm in her purpose. Her speech continues and she seems to evoke evil by reiterating the word “Come” which is addressed to darker powers.

At this stage in the play, the audience feels somewhat intimidated and frightened of Lady Macbeth’s domineering presence. Lady Macbeth calls upon evil to serve her with murderous thoughts and thus take away her femininity and all weakness. The fact that she wants the evil spirits to replace the milk in her breasts, symbolising health and goodness with gall, illustrates her bitterness and deep desires to become masculine. Lady Macbeth no longer wants feelings of humanity that may disturb her intentions and stop her from carrying them out. This hints that she is not quite the hard, unfeeling villain of the piece, but one who, if she is to attain what she aims at, will also have to reckon with those feelings of human nature. However, she is more purposeful and less ready to consider secondary matters such as her conscience than Macbeth.

She embraces the spirits saying “Unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty.” The word ‘crown’ gives the idea of royalty and indirectly shows Lady Macbeth’s own ambition.

“Make thick my blood, / Stop up the access and passage to remorse” is a very passionate comment as reptile imagery is created with her wanting her blood to become cold and slow-moving like that of a snake which has devilish connotations. The idea of her having no remorse is continued in these lines showing her lack of compassion towards the imminent killing of Duncan. Her true ruthlessness and inhumanity is seen in the line “And dash’d the brains out” referring to a baby, and the audience reaction would be one of horror and terror that a mother could say such a thing about her child.

Lady Macbeth does not accept her husband’s decision to pull out of the murder plot. She goads him and mocks his manhood and courage, manipulating him with cunning and she succeeds in drawing him into her evil. This makes the audience wonder whether Macbeth is the villain or actually the victim and our resentment towards Lady Macbeth increases.

Many lines suggest that Lady Macbeth believed she would kill the king herself “Come, thick night, / That my keen knife see not the wound it makes” but in the end it is Lady Macbeth who has some sort of finer feelings about Duncan saying “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” and this touch of humanity may allow the audience to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her.

At the start of the play Lady Macbeth is stronger in will than her husband is, but as the play progresses they exchange roles with Macbeth excluding his wife in pivotal decisions such as the murdering of the Macduff family and of Banquo saying “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.” This helps to reduce some of the ill feeling the audience may have towards Lady Macbeth, as she is not to blame or be held responsible for these murders.

After Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth regains control over her husband and ensures he is dressed in the appropriate nightwear to avoid suspicion and has washed any blood off himself. Ironically, towards the end of the play, Lady Macbeth becomes obsessed with imaginary blood all over her hands that she thinks no water will be able to wash off “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

Lady Macbeth is unable to sleep in peace and she walks in her sleep, reliving her experience and thoughts on the murder of Duncan. Again she speaks words of encouragement to her husband. “Fie, my Lord, fie, a soldier, and afear’d? what need we fear?” This reveals the Lady Macbeth is not able to free herself from conscience and that her contribution to the murder of Duncan is making her go insane. To both an Elizabethan audience and a modern audience, insomnia is a sign of great distress and anxiety and so we would feel concerned for Lady Macbeth’s health and state of mind at this point in the play and be more sympathetic towards the ‘fallen’ dominatrix.

There is a great contrast from the self-assured Lady Macbeth we first saw to this weak and hopeless woman. We see the guilt and remorse she is trying to cope with and this helps to evoke feelings of pity for her from the audience.

Lady Macbeth is instrumental in convincing Macbeth to murder Duncan which starts the spiralling events that later occur. She is ruthlessly ambitious, and is even prepared to sacrifice her fertility and femininity to the powers of evil showing that she will stop at nothing to achieve what she set out to attain.

The audience’s feelings of loathing towards her may be softened when she starts to lose her mind, but not even the dismal loss of grace and power can make the audience emphasise with her. There are moments in the play where her vulnerability and naivety changes our stern outlook towards her, but because of the chain of events that led from her plan to murder Duncan, she can easily be regarded as the epitome of evil and an inhuman figure.

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