Examine how Shakespeare introduces the character of Lady Macbeth to an audience, paying particular attention to the impact made by the language. Assess how this impression is created in at least one production of the play.
Macbeth; one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Death, deceit, lies. Very hard to act well, very hard to understand, and many different interpretations, each varying slightly have been preformed. The character of Lady Macbeth is vital in the play and so the way she is interpreted is crucial, as it may well have a bearing on some of the other characters. Would Macbeth have killed Duncan that sets the next chain of events rolling, if Lady Macbeth had not been as persuasive?
As the language in the play is Shakespearian, and therefore difficult to understand, can she be deciphered as the main force behind Macbeth’s decision to kill Duncan, or is she just a building block to what Macbeth wanted? Therefore to understand her character, an understanding of her language is essential.
The 1976 version of Macbeth is one of the most successful versions of Macbeth ever performed. Starring Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, Ian McKellen as Macbeth, and directed by Trevor Nunn, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was made on a very small budget, so the acting must have been what made it so superb, or perhaps the interesting minimalist settings.
Lady Macbeth is introduced to the audience in Act 1 scene 5, or ‘the letter scene’. She is sitting on what appears to be a crate and is wearing a strange head-covering hat. She has a very homely, motherly look, or depending on your outlook she could be in league with the witches, as many directors have thought, as one of the witches wears a similar hat. Or again referring to one of her later lines it could be part of her call to “unsex me here” as her hair is covered. Her dress is black; an obvious hint at evilness, but it is not yet clear whether this Lady Macbeth is evil. Although at times when she is contemplating evil thoughts the shadows caused by the lighting makes shadows on her face creating a skull like look.
In her hand is the letter that Macbeth has sent her with all the information about his meeting with the witches, and their prophecies. Her eyes are wide with amazement and she seems absolutely captivated; as though she is reading it all for the first time, even though that cannot be true as it is very creased as if she has read it many times. She then crumples the letter up and recites from it, and as we know now that she has read it many times, so the realisation that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor, and these witches have already predicted true is realised; may they do it again and Macbeth become King? Her eyes give her away, she believes the witches enough to murder, they are wide and believing.
Her speech becomes faster as she comes to this realisation, and her language shows that she is convincing herself that the best thing to do would be to make Macbeth realise his ambitions and to push him towards killing Duncan, because she says Macbeth “is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” She says to herself that the only way that it is possible to fulfil the last prediction of the witches is to fulfil it herself as Macbeth doesn’t have the mettle to do it,
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised; yet I do fear thy nature
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”
Although the way she says it shows that this Lady Macbeth is not doing it for herself, she is doing it for him; she loves him – he just needs a nudge.
When she comes to summoning the spirits she seems hesitant in her language, but seems ready to do it. She places her hand in front of her and kneels down and begins to chant. Her voice wavers as if afraid and when she comes to “direst cruelty” her voice breaks in a sob and she runs away and almost for a moment seems disgusted with herself. But she returns, probably because of her love for husband.
“…Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty”
It is obvious in her hesitant language and her fear when she runs at “cruelty” that this Lady Macbeth is not evil, at least not at this early stage in the play, the larger part of this is done for her husband as she told herself before she needs to be the one that is strong and gets the deed done. This summoning of the evil spirits is in aid of her husband; what she thinks Macbeth needs.
At the end of her chant her voice becomes ungodly, as if she were possessed, and she cries “Hold, hold” and holds her arms wide while crying aloud upwards. She seems unsexed as if the evil has done its work well, and a great shadow falls on her face, and for a moment it seems as though she has summoned the devil, or someone equally as bad. Her eyes are filled with fear and wonder and she runs to Macbeth and embraces him, not embarrassed at all at having been caught in the act of summoning evil spirits, almost as if at the moment when Macbeth entered the thing that possessed her left her; maybe because Macbeth is now the more evil than what Lady Macbeth was possessed by or Macbeth was the evil that Lady Macbeth summoned.
There is genuine affection between the two as they kiss, and Lady Macbeth immediately begins to flatter Macbeth, but the way it is said in this production shows Lady Macbeth is sincere
“Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter”
Then Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that Duncan is coming that night, as if to prompt her to tell him what he wants to hear: that they will kill him so he can become King – but because she said it first, I am not implicated. Lady Macbeth whispers seductively into his ear, using their attraction to sway Macbeth to her way of thinking, while explaining that Macbeth must remain play the part so that no one suspect them. She again is thinking of her husband; none of what she says is accusing
“Your face, my Thane, is a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear it welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t”
She assures her husband with her words and the way they are said, that she will take care of everything
“. . . He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.”
“Leave all the rest to me”
Lady Macbeth truly believes that her husband needs this, and is willing to do anything for it.
In the 2000 version Harriet Walter plays Lady Macbeth, and Greg Doran directs it. The camera is unsteady at times, perhaps to create the feeling being there, the feeling of the unsteadiness of this play or the feeling that the audience is always following the actors, spying on them. Also when the actors speak it is very breathy, as if they are speaking very close to us.
It has a more modern but strange setting at a dilapidated and rundown warehouse. The costumes are also modern and as Lady Macbeth appears on screen we can see that she has an expensive, short haircut and is wearing a silk dress, or perhaps a nightgown – this Lady Macbeth seems very vain. Her heavily made up eyes and the nighty imply that she has had little sleep. That and the fact that she has a glass of what is probably alcohol in her hand suggests that something is already wrong with the Lady Macbeth. A messenger hands her Macbeth’s letter and her eyes are wide as she reads it, and she seems very surprised to have received a letter, perhaps because her and Macbeth are not very close.
She reads it out increasing quickly as in the other production. Her eyes are glued to the page and the way she reads out the letter makes it clear that she cannot believe it, although in this production her reading the letter out is done as a voice-over, as if what she reads she would want no one else to hear. As she reads out “and shalt be/ What thou art promised” her voice becomes slower and she stares at the camera, giving a prediction herself; she will make it happen.
However in contrast to the last Lady Macbeth this one talks about her husband’s faults, not in loving disrespect, but in scorn. Her husband is too soft, too weak. She will have to do it herself, for herself. Her husband doesn’t have what it takes. Although he has the ambition she will need to make him. This Lady Macbeth doesn’t love her husband the way the last one did.
She walks into Macbeth’s bedroom and there is only one single bed, so this Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are not close. Lady Macbeth treats the letter as something precious and hides it carefully under Macbeth’s clothes. She fingers the clothes, and for a fleeting moment at least Lady Macbeth must have felt something for him as she looks tenderly at his dress uniform.
Next we see Lady Macbeth upside down in a bath, the camera focused on her head. Her hair is slicked back like a symbol of how she is unsexed. If she is looked at the right way around her eyes are wide, surprised and evil looking. There’s a question at this point about Lady Macbeth’s sanity, as she appears so very strange here.
Again the voice-over talks through Lady Macbeth’s summon to the evil spirits, and her voice is very unsteady at all times, but unlike the other Lady Macbeth it is the question of her sanity, and not her devotion to her husband.
As she says her speech, her voice trembles, but dissimilar to the other Lady Macbeth it is because of the stress/excitement as she says the words. Lady Macbeth wants this, has longed for something like this. Her words are said with hunger and yearning. This Lady Macbeth is not like the other, she says fatal and she means the death of Duncan.
Then she goes underwater without taking a breath and closes her eyes, and creates a very calm, yet terror filled few moments as it looks as if she is dead. Her voice continues with her speech; she will keep going, she is persuasive, will never stop. The water looks as though it has drowning her, as a metaphor of what Lady Macbeth is doing – she is drowning herself with what she does; her words and her actions creating a hole she will not get out of: evil.
Then at finishing her speech she whips out of the water very quickly, surprising the situation and audience, and gulps in a breath.
As we see her, again, at the top of some stairs, and she seems very stressed, putting her hands to her temples and running her hands down over her hair and round her neck – a classic sign of stress. A messenger appears far below her and announces Macbeth coming, she looks expectant, and her voice portrays her impatience for him to come as she dismisses the servant.
When Macbeth comes he seems more in awe of her than she of him, again different to the first Lady Macbeth. She at first looks happy to see him and does flatter him, but it is obvious that this sudden kindness is only skin deep as her voice is slightly patronising. As she reaches out for him she immediately goes for the medallion that he is carrying. A symbol of her wanting the power; not, as the other Lady Macbeth wants – the power for her husband.
Then she leads him and he follows. She washes his face of the dirt that covers it, symbolic of his cleanliness at this point, and also later on we see how washing becomes a major theme (the dirt here can come off easily, but the blood that dirties Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s hands cannot be removed so easily), and also as she washes she says:
“Your face, my Thane, is a book where men
May read strange matters”
Then her last line: “Leave all the rest to me” is said in a very sinister and mysterious matter, and almost as a threat. She means bad, and sees anything that gets in her way as a hazard.
These Lady Macbeths’ from both plays are very different. One is not at first evil, but her devotion to her husband and her love for him wins over her fear of the evil. However the second Lady Macbeth is power hungry, and as far as she is concerned this is the chance that they have to grab hold of. She wants this very much and is doing everything for herself. She thinks that her husband is too cowardly, and she is probably not completely sane. In both productions the way in which the language is used is different reflecting these different views which the Lady Macbeths’ have.
Macbeth is one of the most infamous plays for accidents, mis-read lines etc. and is said to be a jinxed play, and is generally bad luck to perform. I like to think of it as all in the mind; what you think will happen, will.