May 17, 1956.
COMPARISON OF LADY MACBETH AND MACBETH
Shakespeare scholars have written innumerable commentaries and interpretations on the master’s almost unbelievable greatness in the conceiving and working out of characters. After delving into a good part of this enormous amount of information I have attempted to compile a comparison of the respective natures of the hero and heroine of the Tragedy of Macbeth.
The character of Lady Macbeth, though generally acknowledged to be one of Shakespeare’s most sublime creations, is probably one of the most difficult from which to gain any distinct and prominently individual characteristics. For the most part, the commentators seem to have considered Lady Macbeth rather with reference to her husband, and as influencing the action of the drama, than as an individual. This is understandable in view of the fact that with the greatness and horror that Shakespeare has packed into these two characters, it becomes almost impossible to conceive them as individuals. Much of their meaning and dramatic impact appears lost when one, without the other, is discussed. Though Macbeth is far more complex in character, the two are of a closely corresponding nature. Both are motivated by one and the same passion of ambition; and the disposition of each is high and proud, almost as if they were born to reign. Their intense ambition carries with it no sign of love for country, or for that matter they exhibit no interest in the welfare of anything or anybody outside of their own small corner of life. Their ambition is unusual in that neither person seems to desire anything out of life, unless the benefits can be reaped and enjoyed by the partner. It is through this medium that Shakespeare is able to maintain the certain amount of goodness of character, even as husband and wife are plummeting to the very depths of spiritual corruption.
With this likeness of character and corresponding tendencies, it must be noted too that there are far more discrepancies or contrasts of character. Actually it is these contrasts, rather than the likenesses that construct the action for the drama. For example, their attitude toward the projected murder of Duncan is quite different, which as a consequence produces in them equally different effects.
In her initial entrance Lady Macbeth, herself alludes to the one single factor that is the most outstanding difference in character.
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false. 1 (1, v, 12)
Here, she is at once clearly distinguished from Macbeth by a deep-rooted strength that is able to force any feeling of conscience or flexibility of will into complete submission. For her the witch’s prophecy of things to come instantly motivates a determination that they shall be. Her eyes are fixed upon the crown and the means to it, and there is not a single trace of doubt that the ambition will eventually be realized. Shakespeare here has imbedded in Lady Macbeth, in a greatly exaggerated degree, a typical womanly trait of rushing into an act totally unsuspecting of the consequences. The prime exemplification of Lady Macbeth’s unusual power as a woman to stem the efforts of passion is brought out in the murder scene and later in the banquet scene. In the presence of overwhelming horror and danger, her self-control is perfect. It is this same perfect self-control that on numerous occasions almost serves to betray her guilt.
For example, when she is informed of Duncan’s murder, she commits a severe mistake in acting as she exclaims:
What, in our house? (II, iii, 106)
What could show more clearly her complete insensibility at this point? She seems incapable of realizing the natural feeling in such circumstances. Banquo’s immediate answer, “To cruel anywhere,” seems to add greater proof of her inhuman qualities. This question of how inhumane Lady Macbeth actually was is summed up in the following quote, which serves more or less as a defense against the cruelness interpreted from the above passage:
“If she seems invincible she seems also inhuman. We find no trace of pity for the kind old king; no consciousness of the treachery of the murder; no sense of the value of the lives of the wretched men on whom the guilt is to be laid; no shrinking ever from the condemnation or hatred of the world. Yet if Lady Macbeth of these scenes were really utterly human, or a “fiend-like queen’, as Malcolm calls her, the Lady Macbeth of the sleep-walking scene would be an impossibility.”
It is evident that this must be true for it is certainly difficult to visualize that the one woman could ever become the other. It would seem, then, that there is a definite basis for an argument that possibly Shakespeare was guilty of failing to supply sufficient preparation in the earlier scenes for what is to come later. This argument could be justly answered by realizing the fact that her apparent coldness in the early scenes was actually a false insensibility motivated by the intense desire to counter-act her husband’s known weakness of human kindness. However, this notion becomes somewhat complex, if an attempt is made to somehow condone the evil of Lady Macbeth by merely implying that all her actions developed out of her condition of abnormal excitability. That the foundation of her character would be constructed on this basis seems implausible, and a creation of this nature would certainly be unworthy of the Shakespeare genius. Though ambition is the ruling motive that leads to her overpowering passion, it would be ludicrous to vindicate her position by claiming that this passion modified the voluntariness in her every evil action. At any rate, this example of difference in character further illustrates how Shakespeare applies the contrasting qualities of Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s respective natures in generating the action for the drama. In the pursuit of her object she is cruel, treacherous, and there can be no real question as to her degree of guilt. The fact that Shakespeare, himself, had no intentions of pleading for the woman’s innocence can be realized from the following: 8:43
“The full measure of her wickedness is never disguised, the magnitude and atrocity of her crime is never extenuated, forgotten, or forgiven, in the whole course of the play.”
Though it is true that Shakespeare intended Lady Macbeth to accept her full share of the guilt, it is hard to believe that in her he has created some special kind of an ogress or fiend. Her amazing power of intellect, her inexorable determination of purpose, her superhuman strength of nerve certainly serve to render her a hateful; yet at no time does it seem possible to envision her as a mere monster of depravity but only an ambition-crazed murderess. Lady Macbeth is truly a terrible impersonation of evil passions and great powers that are not so far removed from man’s nature as to be put out of the mind away from his sympathies. Even in he midst of her most distasteful atrocities, she remains a woman, linked closely with her sex and with humanity; thereby continuing throughout the drama to play upon the feelings of the beholder.
The question as to the greater degree of guilt between the husband and the wife has been mentioned earlier; and because of the great variation of notions among the commentaries of who should receive the greater burden of punishment, it becomes necessary to elaborate on this subject.
It should first be remembered that the original idea of murdering Duncan is not suggested by Lady Macbeth to her husband. It is apparent that the plan springs from within Macbeth’s mind, a factor revealed long before his wife’s entrance into the play.
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor—
If good, 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? (I, iii, 133)
It must be mentioned that the same suggestion presents itself almost spontaneously to Lady Macbeth on the reception of his letter, whereupon her plan to strengthen her husband against his weakness is immediately formed.
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysics I aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal. (I, v, 20)
From this arises the possibility that Shakespeare was actually intent on an equal distribution of the guilt, for it seems more than coincidence that both Macbeth and his wife should react instantly, with the same basic thought, at the first hint of an opportunity for advancement. In other words, Lady Macbeth’s reception of her husband’s letter acts as the same fuel in kindling the fires of ambition, which acted on the same fires in Macbeth’s mind upon hearing the prophecy of the weird sisters. The guilt is thus more equally divided than is supposed by many people, who persist to claim that the noble nature of Macbeth is bewildered and goaded into crime solely by the diabolical instigation of his wife.
It can be argued that after the initial conception of a plan, Lady Macbeth is definitely the more active and cunning agent of the two. This, in a sense, is true, but it is at this point that her far superior power of intellect is forced into action at the first sign’s of Macbeth’s cowardly tendencies. This notion is better exemplified by the following quotation:
“The eloquence—the fierce, fervid eloquence with which she bears down the relenting and reluctant spirit of her husband, the dexterous sophistry with which she wards off his objections, her artful and affected doubts of his courage—the sarcastic manner in which she lets fall the word coward—a word which no man can endure from another, still less from a woman—and the bold address with which she removes all obstacles, silences all arguments, overpowers all scruples, and marshals the way before him, absolutely make us shrink before the commanding intellect of the woman, with a terror in which interest and admiration are strangely mingled.”
From this then, it would seem clearly evident that Lady Macbeth’s early aggressive tactics are motivated, not by a pre-eminence of wickedness, but instead by the intense possession of the more admirable qualities of initiative and ambition. Consequently, when she constantly incites her husband to carry out their crime, she is merely acting as a lever that pushes him into something that only a lack of courage, not a sense of moral goodness, would otherwise prevent. Shakespeare gives further proof of this, when he puts into the mouth of Macbeth the lines that betray his purely selfish fears.
If it were done, when ‘t is done, then’t were well
It were done quickly. (I, vii, 1)
The predominating idea here is the fact that the deed itself is not abhorrent to him on moral grounds, nor does his fear seem influenced by thought of consequences in the life after death. What is found, instead, is a cool deliberation whether the deed is advisable or not shrewd reflections that, as a rule, retribution invariably overtakes the evildoer in the present life.
These observations do help to prove that the greater degree of guilt does not necessarily fall upon the conscience of Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s evil is greatly hidden beneath the cloak of his cowardliness, while the guilt of his wife is thrust into the open by the necessity of her strength to counteract his weakness.
- Harding Criag, editor, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1951), pp. 1046-1070. All subsequent excerpts will be taken from this text.
- C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan and Company, 1922), p.368.
- Jameson, Shakespeare’s Heroines (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1916), p. 361.
- Jameson, op. cit., p. 363.