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Traits of Lady Macbeth

Kenneth Deighton.

Of all Shakespeare's female characters Lady Macbeth stands out far beyond the rest — remarkable for her ambition, strength of will, cruelty, and dissimulation.

1. Her Ambition and Resolution. At the commencement, she has far greater strength of will than her husband. While he hesitates and is distrustful of his powers, she never wavers. She needs no supernatural temptations to urge her on. While reading her husband's letter, she determines on the coarse to be pursued, and nothing turns her from that course until the goal of her ambition is reached. Her first words after reading the letter show clearly the strength of her determination:

"Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised." I. v. 13, 14.

She appears to be perfectly aware of her own strength, and of the influence which she possessed over the weak will of her husband:

"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." I. v. 23-26.

Her greeting of Macbeth, and the words she uses immediately after, show that her plans had already been formed:

"Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter." I. v. 52, 53.

"He that's coming
Must be provided for: and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch." I. v. 64-66.

She shows the power of her will over her husband, especially when they meet the second time after his return. He hesitates about committing the suggested crime, but at the last is completely overcome by her lofty determination.

Macbeth. "If we should fail?
Lady M. We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place
And we'll not fail." I. vii. 59-61.

Macbeth himself shows the effect her power has upon him, when he exclaims—

"Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males." I. vii. 72-74.

2. Her Dissimulation and Cunning. Lady Macbeth knows right well when she tells her husband to "leave all the rest to me," that by dissimulation and cunning she could plan and carry out the murder of Duncan, so that no suspicion would rest upon either Macbeth or herself. When she welcomes Duncan to her home, her conduct shows that she is perfect in the art of dissembling:

"All our service
In every point twice done and then done double
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honours deep and broad wherewith
Your majesty loads our house." I. vi. 14-18.

3. Her Presence of Mind. On one occasion only does she lose command of her feelings and forget herself. When she is informed of Duncan's intention to stay at her castle, she betrays her joy at the opportunity presented her, and exclaims:

"Thou'rt mad to say it." I. v. 29.

When her husband returns trembling and terror-stricken from the murder, she never loses her presence of mind, but remains calm and even tries to allay his fears. On discovering that Macbeth has forgotten to smear the grooms with blood, and that he has brought away the daggers from the dread chamber, she bids him return and carry out the unfinished details of the plot. He firmly refuses to go. At this she exclaims:

"Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers: the sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil," II. i. 116-119.

and carries out the fearful mission herself. On her return she again exhibits her self-possession. While the knocking is going on at the cattle gate, she persuades Macbeth to retire to his chamber.

4. Her Energy. Knowing her husband's weakness, she assumes the manly part, and calls upon the spirits to fill her

"From the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty." I. v. 40.

She bids her husband

"Only look up clear;
To alter favour ever is to fear:
Leave all the rest to me." I. v. 69, 70.

She plans the murder; she drugs the grooms and lays the daggers ready. She would have given the blow with her own hands

"Had he not resembled
My father as he slept." II. i. 76.

5. Her Affection. On the night of the murder, it was her affectionate memory for her dead father which alone made her pause when in the midst of crime. Throughout she is a devoted wife. Her whole ambition is for her husband. She never speaks of herself, or of elevation for herself, except on one occasion.

"Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom." I. v. 67, 68.

She had had children, though none had lived. That she had been an affectionate mother we may infer from her words to her husband:

"I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me." I. vii. 54, 55.

Gervinus thus describes her downfall: "When the deed is accomplished, she stands at first still, while Macbeth now begins to push on with bolder strides. But when none of the golden expectations are realized which she expected as the result of the deed, when, instead of successful greatness, the ruin of the land and of her consort follows, her powers suddenly relax and sink. Supported by him, she could have long and for ever withstood the emotions of conscience, nature, and a harrowing imagination; but doubting him, she doubts herself also. Like ivy, she had twined her fresh greenness around the branches of a kingly tree; when the stem totters she falls to the ground; her iron heart dissolves in the fire of this affliction and this mistaken expectation.

"Still, even now her character and the strength of her will are evident; her resistance in suffering is now as apparent as before her activity in doing. By day she continues mistress of her emotions, but in the night 'her fear-infected mind to the deaf pillow will discharge its secrets.' According to the poet's poetic physiology and psychology, her unnaturally strained conscience and power of dissimulation avenge themselves during sleep, and the somnambulist, self-betraying, acts as it were all the secret guilty scenes over again. Once she thought she could with a little water clear away the witnesses of that deed, but now, in the torture of her hardened heart she complains with groans of anguish that the smell and stain of blood will never wash away. She ends her life with suicide."

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: With an Introduction and Notes. Ed. Kenneth Deighton. London: Macmillan and Company. 1896. Shakespeare Online. 10 Sept. 2013. < >.


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