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Is Lady Macbeth an ambitious woman who fails to see the consequences of her actions or...

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khings | Student, Grade 10 | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 5, 2010 at 8:13 AM via web

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Is Lady Macbeth an ambitious woman who fails to see the consequences of her actions or a noble woman who acquires false courage for her husband?

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robertwilliam | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted July 5, 2010 at 8:21 AM (Answer #1)

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Well, as your question points out, she's both. She is certainly ambitious, as she recognises that Macbeth himself isn't ambitious enough to actually get ahead as far as getting the crown:

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...

So she clearly knows what she has to do. Yet Lady Macbeth is also not an evil witch (there are some of those elsewhere in the play), and has to actually make a bargain with the spirits in order to become evil enough to do what she knows she will need to do:

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! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief!

It is a trade off. If the spirits take her milk, she wants to be filled up with cruelty in return. If she needs to be filled up with cruelty, she can't have been cruel in the first place. So yes, she's ambitious - but she isn't evil. At least, she isn't evil to start with.

And then, when you look at the murder, you see the same contradiction. It's her who has the idea for it, and when Macbeth backs out, she bullies him into saying yes:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
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.

Yet at the scene of the crime itself, she tells the audience

Alack, I am afraid they have awaked,
And 'tis not done. The attempt and not the deed
Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready;
He could not miss 'em. Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done't.

So there is clearly vulnerability and fear there too.

It is a good question - and the contradiction you draw out is one at the very heart of the character: one of the things that makes this play so brilliant.

Hope it helps!

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iskabibbel | High School Teacher | eNoter

Posted July 5, 2010 at 9:26 AM (Answer #2)

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   The best way to answer this would be to say that she is a woman of noble birth whose ambitions blind her to the consequences of her actions.  There can be little doubt but that she goaded her husband into his pursuit of power.  In act I scene iii, Macbeth states,"Present fears are less than horrible imaginings."  He clearly fears the predictions that the witches have made, knowing that the only way they can come true is if he behaves against all codes of honor.  So why does he capitulate?  Because Lady Macbeth manipulates him.  She convinces him that he would be less than a man if he does not seize power.  She even goes so far as to wish she were the man in the family so that she might kill Duncan and seize the throne.  Examine act I scene v, lines 30-45.  I believe that passage most clearly reflects the true nature of Lady Macbeth. Yet, to go so far as to say that this ambitious woman creates "false courage" in her husband would be inaccurate.

    Macbeth may appear to be goaded into murdering Duncan, but as is revealed in later scenes, he certainly did not require a very hard push.  In act II he thinks quickly and independently enough about covering his tracks when he kills Duncan's guards.  He also needs no wifely encouragement to plot the deaths of Banquo and Macduff.  Although both Lady Macbeth and her husband suffer greatly from their actions, it is Lady Macbeth who takes her own life.  Clearly she did not forsee how psychologically damaging it would be to plot the death of Duncan.

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted July 5, 2010 at 11:57 AM (Answer #3)

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In Shakespeare's Macbeth, I suggest that what Lady Macbeth fails to see isn't the consequences--I think she's well aware of them: 

  • eternal damnation, according to the prevailing religious beliefs of her day, which her husband worries about but she doesn't--she calls on evil spirits to help.  She apparently doesn't subscribe to the belief system popular in her day, and
  • the possibility of being caught, which she accepts in Act 1.7.59 when she responds to her husband's asking what happens if they fail:  "We fail [?] or [!]:  the punctuation is left to interpretation, here.  Either way, she knows the possibility of failure is there, with consequences to follow.  She simply thinks they can get away with killing Duncan, or is willing to take the chance and suffer the consequences if need be. 

And as far as the act, itself, of killing a king, she knows the magnitude of such an act.  She just doesn't care.  She is willing to do the act, or at least to have her husband do it, in order to gain power. 

What Lady Macbeth fails to see is her husband's stupidity, and his willingness, once he's done the deed of killing Duncan, to veer from her plan.  She fails to see that Macbeth will kill the grooms, casting suspicion upon himself.  She fails to see that her husband will shut her out and start planning for himself.  She fails to see that he will become a tyrant and order the killings of Banquo and Fleance and Macduff's family.  Macbeth brings about his downfall with his excessiveness.  He raises suspicion and leaves fellow Scots little choice but to rebel.  She thinks her plan will work, and it probably would have if Macbeth would have stuck to it. 

In short, if you consider her husband's stupidity and coming independence as consequences, then, yes, Lady Macbeth fails to see the consequences.  But if you're thinking of traditional consequences, I think she's well aware of them. 

Concerning the second option or second part of your question, I suggest you need to rethink it.  First, the two options you offer are not mutually exclusive.  She could be both.  Secondly, one person cannot "acquire" false courage for another person.  She might be able to "give" him false courage, but she cannot acquire false courage for him.  That's impossible. 

Again, though, your two options are not mutually exclusive.  Lady Macbeth could fail to see the consequences, however you define them, and still give her husband false courage.  Her plan may well have worked, though, had Macbeth not messed it up. 

And by the way, "noble" probably isn't a word you want to use to describe Lady Macbeth.  You can make a case for Macbeth being noble, at times.  I don't know how you'd make the case for Lady Macbeth.   

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