Monday, 19 December 2011

Lady Macbeth is the source of evil in the play- without her Macbeth would remain a noble, loyal soldier

This reading of Macbeth is so widespread that generations of students who have studied Macbeth for SATs or GCSE have stated it as a matter of fact. The situation is not helped by the practice of basing the study of the play on a plot synopsis and close reading of Act 1 scene 5, Act 1 scene 7 and Act 2 scene 2 alone.

Briefly, the interpretation states that at the start of the play Macbeth is a noble, loyal (I have even, incredibly, seen the words "kind-hearted" used of him at the start) soldier. Lady Macbeth on the other hand is an ambitious, scheming, evil temptress, probably in league with the witches. To serve her own ambition she seduces the noble Macbeth into murdering King Duncan and that is what destroys him. From then on his decline is inevitable, and she is to blame.

This is not just misogyny of course- Lady Macbeth herself describes the situation in much the same terms. She calls on the "mortal spirits" to "unsex" her and fill her "from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty." She describes Macbeth as being "too full o' the milk of human kindness" and having explained to him her plan to murder Duncan tells him to "leave all the rest to me." When he tries to back out she turns on him with a bewildering series of emotional attacks that renew his resolve to murder the King and cause him to say admiringly of her "Bring forth men-children only;/For thy undaunted mettle should compose/Nothing but males."

It is also clear that before Lady Macbeth's intervention Macbeth is much admired. His prowess in battle is recounted admiringly by the Sergeant in Act 1 scene 2 and Duncan himself calls him "valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!" Immediately after the murder of the King the process of degradation begins, as he says "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" and by the end of the play he and Lady Macbeth are described as "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen."

So there you go. Case closed, surely. As millions of student essays have laboriously explained, Lady Macbeth is the source of the evil in the play. She is responsible for turning a loyal soldier into a ruthless murderer.

Except of course that it is not as simple as that. Lady Macbeth 's influence on her husband is perhaps not as strong as she might believe. Although in Act 1 scene 7 she appears able to manipulate him with ease, in Act 2 scene 2 and again in Act 3 scene 4 he simply does not listen to her at all. When he arranges for Banquo and his son to be killed he not only does not tell her (saying "be ignorant of the knowledge dearest chuck/Till though applaud'st the deed.") he actively deceives her, saying of the banquet that evening "Let your remembrance apply to Banquo", knowing that Banquo will by then be dead. He then orders Macduff's wife and children to be killed, without any reference to her, and when he hears of her death all he can say is "she should have died hereafter" before launching into a nihilistic musing on the pointlessness of life, with his "Tomorrow..." speech.

Similarly, for all her talk Lady Macbeth simply is not the evil murderess she purports to be. In her rant at Macbeth for threatening to back down from the murder she says of her own baby that
"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."
However when it comes to it, she has the daggers in her hands standing over the sleeping Duncan but, as she admits to Macbeth, could not kill him because he "resembl'd my father as he slept."

Immediately after the murder she is the more controlled of the two and this can easily be seen as evidence of her icy ruthlessness. However actually it seems to me more like appalling naivety, as if, unlike Macbeth, she simply does not understand what they have done. She tells him that "a little water clears of this deed" and throughout uses the imagery of paint, as if the blood and the guilt are simply (as in the pun on "gilt") decorations, that can be applied and removed with ease. Speaking of the sleeping guards she says
"If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal;
For it must seem their guilt."
She even syas that "the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures."

It is not until the sleepwalking of Act 5 scene 1 that she realises what the more experienced Macbeth saw immediately- that the blood is not something any amount of water will remove. Her anguished "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" exactly echoes Macbeth's "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand."

In fact this is not the only occasion when the two echo each other. In Act 1 scene 5 Lady Macbeth calls on night to come, to conceal the dread crime she is contemplating:
"Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'"

This is frequently used as evidence of Lady Macbeth's role in bringing down the darkness of evil on the court of Scotland. What is less frequently mentioned is that this is an almost exact echo of Macbeth's own comment, in Act 1 scene 4, before she has had a chance to "pour [her] spirits in [his] ear":
"Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see."

This, I think, is the key point. The image of Macbeth at the start of the play as a loyal, upstanding (let alone kind-hearted!) soldier is half way between simplistic and plain wrong. In the very first scene the witches announce the moral ambiguity that is at the heart of the play with the line "Fair is foul and foul is fair" and Macbeth's actions in the battle, whilst in support of the King, are bloodthirsty and ruthless. He shed so much blood that his sword "smoked with bloody execution" and when he came across Cawdor did not simply kill him but "unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,/And fix'd his head upon our battlements." Is this a man "too full o' the milk of human kindness"? It is also clearly significant that his first words in the play directly echo the witches': "So foul and fair a day I have not seen."

Yet it is not simply a question of moral ambiguity. On hearing the witches' prophecies to them both Banquo is immediately suspicious and warns Macbeth that "oftentimes, to win us to our harm,/The instruments of darkness tell us truths." Macbeth reacts differently. As soon as he hears the first of the prophecies (that he will be Thane of Cawdor) confirmed he asks himself
"why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?"
If we are not clear what that suggestion is he confirms it immediately after, by referring to "My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical." Clearly he does not need Lady Macbeth to put the idea of murdering the King into his head. Lter, when he finds that Malcolm rather than he has been named as Duncan's successor his plea (quoted above) for the stars to "hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires" is a clear indicator of how he intends to act henceforth.

It is true of course that at the start of  Act 1 scene 7 Macbeth expresses a decision that "we will proceed no further in this business" and that Lady Macbeth bombards him with a series of emotional attacks that turn him around. However his objections seem to be more over timing than principle, as he says
"He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon."
and one has to question just how profound his change of mind has been given that it takes just 45 lines until he changes back again and says "I am settled, and bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat"

So in all, although Lady Macbeth might in some way act as a catalyst, the impulse to act as he does was in Macbeth from the start. Lady Macbeth is neither as evil nor as influential as either she or generations of school students would have us believe.

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