The modern dictionary definition of “dramatic” includes the expressions “sudden and striking”, “exciting or impressive”, “intended to create an effect”. Certainly lady Macbeth’s eight appearances contain all of the above effects, as well as being original, complex and interwoven. A number of lady Macbeth’s most important scenes are explored. It becomes apparent that Lady Macbeth plays a pivotal role in sustaining and realising her husband’s ambitions. Her own character grows and disintegrates before our eyes in a heart-rendering fashion. Conventional assumptions regarding a female character are overturned. Immoral behaviour such as disloyalty, lies, deception, treachery and brutality are all examined in detail, together with their destructive consequences. The result is a kaleidoscope of ideas and emotions that make virtually every appearance of Lady Macbeth interesting.
Lady Macbeth’s first appearance in the play Macbeth, Act 1 Scene V is both sudden and certainly creates a dramatic effect. She is found reading a letter sent from Macbeth. She has a very long soliquoy, which tells us that she is a very important and powerful character in the play. There is a definite change in pace between the first four scenes and Lady Macbeth’s scene, starting with a storm and witches on a heath, followed by a battle scene with lots of people on stage and then a domestic scene, with just Lady Macbeth on her own. The initial reaction is to view Lady Macbeth in a favourable light and relax with her in the everyday activity of reading a letter from her husband. The fact that Macbeth sent a letter to his wife shows a strong link between them and it would seem that they really do love each other. This image can be summed up by the quote “my dearest partner of greatness”.
The initial tranquillity of Scene V disappears almost immediately due to the contents of the letter, Lady Macbeth’s reaction to it and the inescapable link to the exciting witch’s scene. Macbeth describes his encounter with the witches who foresaw that he would be king, “Hail, king that shalt be”. Lady Macbeth’s reaction to his news is not to recoil in horror and disgust at such disloyal ambitions, but rather to accept immediately the possibility, “and shalt be what art promis’d” and to plan to make it a reality.
Lady Macbeth displays her clear sightedness in recognising that her husband’s moral scruples will hold him back from seizing the crown “Yet do I fear thy nature; It is to full o’th’ milk of human kindness”. It becomes obvious that Lady Macbeth is no bystander to events, but will be playing a pivotal role in strengthening Macbeth’s resolve to seize the crown, “pour my spirits in thine ear”. So, in a few short lines Shakespeare has taken us from a world of peace and domesticity to one of his obvious ambition, disloyalty, violence and evil.
The excitement of the scene builds further with the appearance of the messenger before lady Macbeth who announces the imminent arrival of the king who is to stay with Macbeth. Events now seem to be conspiring to help them to realise their ambitions. It is at this point Shakespeare strikes down the traditional image of a weak indecisive female and conjures up an image of a powerful lady Macbeth, exposing her innermost thoughts “unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty”.
The tension continues with the appearance of Macbeth. The clear sighted lady Macbeth knows that for her husband to acquire the throne, the king must never leave their castle alive, “O, never sun shall that morrow see”. Macbeth is undecided, even shocked. Shakespeare now reverses the conventional male and female qualities with lady Macbeth arguing for immediate bloody action, “this nights great business” concealed under a cloak of hospitality, “but be the serpent under’t”. The overall effect is one of unbearable pressure as Macbeth weighs up the advice of his wife. The question is will he seize the opportunity that fate seems to be putting in front of him? “Yes” seems to be the answer if Lady Macbeth, driven by unnatural emotions and cruel ambition has her way.
At the beginning of Act 1 Scene VI king Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle with his followers, including Banquo. As with the previous scene, the initial effect is one of a peaceful, hospitable, domestic environment, “this castle hath a pleasant seat”. However unsettling references soon emerge when, the King says that the air is fresh and relaxing, which is ironic in view of Lady Macbeth’s words in the previous scene. Banquo makes another contrast in this scene when he refers to summer birds, such as house martins, again in contrast to the death-bird ravens referred to by lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth welcomes Duncan, but it is clear from the previous scene that her words are false, but she has no difficulty in hiding her real thoughts. Lady Macbeth is the great deceiver, and the overall effect is one of hidden evil, simmering violence and unnatural behaviour.
The next time Lady Macbeth appears is in the final scene of act 1. The contrast between the indecisive Macbeth, restrained by scruples, and the strong-minded Lady Macbeth is forcefully presented to the audience. The suspense continues to build as the married couple argue over Duncan’s life. Lady Macbeth is scornful of her husband, so she accuses him of cowardice and lacking in love for her. However Lady Macbeth explains her plan and Macbeth is full of admiration. Finally when she has convinced him, Macbeth is ready to kill his king, “I am settled, and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat”. At the end of act 1, you are left gasping in horror at the way in which lady Macbeth, “the dearest partner”, has manipulated Macbeth on the path of murder.
Events in Act 2 Scene II accelerate, suspense builds, as we accompany lady Macbeth in her anxious, night time vigil for the return of her husband. The suspense soon drops however, when Macbeth enters and gives the news that Duncan and his servants are dead, “I have done the deed” Until now lady Macbeth has seemed determined and strong. In this scene, by contrast, she is very much on edge, although earlier she seemed able to do the most terrible deeds, now she reveals a more sensitive side of herself, when she says she could not kill the king, “Had he not resembled my farther as he slept, I had don’t”.
It is only now that the full horror of the murders are appreciated by lady Macbeth, “these deeds must not be thought after these ways: so, it will make us mad”. Lady Macbeth tries to be strong and tells her husband to pull himself together. He has brought the daggers back from the murder scene and refuses to return them. Instead Lady Macbeth takes them and places them on Duncan’s sleeping servants, to frame them.
By Act 3 Scene II Lady Macbeth is very uneasy. Her anxiety is made worse because by Macbeth keeping himself to himself instead of being with her. She tries to as help her husband to forget the past by saying, “what’s done is done”, and by encouraging Macbeth to be cheerful, “sleek over your rugged looks; be bright and jovial among your guests to-night”. She is clearly starting to be troubled by what has happened, “Nought’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content. ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”.
Perhaps she is not a monster after all, simply a wife trying to protect, encourage and support her husband. Macbeth is having terrible dreams, “o full of scorpions is my mind”. He now seems to envy the dead king by saying that he, “sleeps well”. Although Duncan is dead, Macbeth says, “least nothing can hurt him anymore”. Macbeth’s last line in the scene is “wickedness grows stronger with more wickedness”, which later makes Lady Macbeth claim that he has gone too far down the road of evil.
Act 3 Scene IIII sees the first murderer telling Macbeth that Banquo is dead, but that his son Fleance escaped in the confusion. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have already welcomed their guests to the banquet and Macbeth finds this news depressing rather than cheering, “my royal lord, you do not give the cheer”. Macbeth’s peace of mind is shattered when he discovers the ghost of Banquo at the dinning table. Macbeth behaves oddly and once again Lady Macbeth takes command, quietly accusing her husband of cowardice, “are you a man” and “what, quite unmann’d in folly”, but she does however cover up for him and tells the guests a credible story. It is now noticeable that the language used between lord and Lady Macbeth’s meetings is formal so there is no more “my dearest partner of greatness” or any other affection of any kind between them. By the end of the scene it is evident that the events have taken their toll on lady Macbeth as she is silent and Macbeth intends to learn more about his future from the witches.
Until now Lady Macbeth has not seemed disturbed by bad dreams. In, Act 5 Scene I, she spends her nights wandering about and insisting that there should be a light with her at all times, because she is afraid of the darkness. The doctor says that lady Macbeth’s eyes are open, but the gentlewoman contradicts him by saying that, “their senses are shut”, meaning that she is unconscious of what she is doing. “Out danned spot” in her walking nightmare, Lady Macbeth cannot wash the blood from her hands. Contrast this with her earlier behaviour after Duncan’s murder, when she told Macbeth that a little water could, “wipe away all trace of the murder”. Naturally she was wrong. The sudden of the deterioration of lady Macbeth is terrible to witness. In realising her ambition to be queen, she has destroyed herself morally and physically, “foul whisperings are abroad, unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles; inflicted minds to their pillows will discharge their secrets. More needs she the divine than the physician”.
By the end of the play Act 5 Scene VIII, justice has been done. The king, Duncan, brutally murdered in Act II is now avenged. The murderers Lord and Lady Macbeth have paid the price for their evil deeds, “behold… Th’ usurper’s head”, “his fiend-like queen who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands took off her life”. Lady Macbeth’s speeches allow the audience an insight into her mental state.
Lady Macbeth has appeared in every act in the play. She is an interesting character in her own right, as we watch her change from the loyal wife to a calculating, determined murderess and finally a tormented, fragile woman who commits suicide as a release from, “the smell of the blood”. Her impressive character is also a useful counter-point to the witches, they discern possible futures, she in turn through Macbeth, turns one of the predictions into a bloody reality. Finally her relationship with her husband Macbeth is destroyed due to the pursuit of their evil ambitions; rather than restraining him, she encourages him at vital moments. As a character in the play she is fully developed and plausible and her lack of conventional female qualities is a dramatic feature of the play.