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Examination Questions on Macbeth

Question: Do you regard Lady Macbeth as a suicide? And what do you consider the causes of her death?

Answer: On this subject commentators differ. Coleridge asserts, "she dies in suicidal agony." Gervinus thinks "she ends her life with suicide." Dowden's opinion is, "her thread of life snaps suddenly." Mrs. Jameson believes that, "In a mind constituted like that of Lady Macbeth, conscience must awake at some time or other, and bring with it remorse closed by despair and despair by death." Mrs. Siddons, agreeing in general with Mrs. Jameson, thinks that the woman's fragile constitution finally broke down under the weight of remorseful agony which she so resolutely shut up in her own bosom. Hudson says: "A mystery hangs over her fate. We do not know -- the poet himself seems not to have known, whether the gnawings of the undying worm drove her to suicidal violence or themselves cut asunder the thread of her life." And it would seem not improbable that Mr. Hudson's candid acknowledgment of ignorance is, after all, the most just conclusion. But somehow -- call it sentimentalism if you will -- we cannot bring ourselves to believe that Lady Macbeth took her own life.

It is true that Malcolm makes such an announcement; but he only states it as "'tis thought." It is true also that the Doctor orders that "the means of all annoyance" be removed from her, showing that he feared something of the sort; still, knowing Lady Macbeth as the Doctor could not, we think the idea of suicide incompatible with her character as developed in the play.

The woman who, when the moment came, could not murder the sleeping king -- who fainted upon the announcement of the slaughter of the grooms, would have paused upon the threshold of eternity, daunted by the dreadful reality of the unknown which confronted her. I do not agree with Mrs. Jameson that Lady Macbeth's anguish is merely remorse -- horror of the past, unmingled with terror of the future. That fearful sleepwalking revelation, ("What's done cannot be undone," like everything else she says, is but an echo of the same words used on a former occasion, when, feeling herself beginning to sink, she strove by the expression of such fatalistic doctrines, not only to cheer her despondent husband, but to regain her own lost peace of mind by convincing herself of their truth) seems rather the prelude to a shrieking death-bed scene, where occurs a prolonged and desperate struggle between death and its guilty victim, -- a frantic clinging to life with its horrible dreams, rather than face the still more horrible certainty which she knows awaits her.

Now, as to the causes of her death. It seems to us the combined effect of two fatal wounds upon a naturally delicate physical constitution. What has been said above is sufficient to show where we locate one of these, -- violated conscience avenges itself. But we believe another, and possibly that which in the outset afforded a basis for the former, is to be found in the hidden wound rankling in her heart. Although we do not agree with Gervinus in thinking her whole ambition was "for and through her husband," we do believe that her courage was, in a great measure, based upon the strength of her own love for him, and her confidence in his love for and need of her.

As long as this confidence remains, she is firm to endure anything, -- at the first moment that it is shaken her apparently superhuman strength begins to yield (upon the announcement of the murder of the grooms, mentioned above). Conscience, up to this time stifled in the constant excitement attendant upon her efforts to spur her husband on, finds now an opportunity to assert itself, and death is but the legitimate result of these two causes.

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How to cite this article:
Bowman, N. B. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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