How and why does Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's relationship change?

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's initial decision to murder Duncan brings them close together as partners in crime, but the consequences of this act ultimately drive them apart. Macbeth is initially unsure about murdering the king, while Lady Macbeth confidently and eagerly urges her husband to accomplish the deed. After the murder, however, Lady Macbeth's guilt drives her insanity, while Macbeth becomes increasingly willing to kill any who oppose him.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before he commits the murder of Duncan, Macbeth seems to realize something that Lady Macbeth does not. He says, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly" (act 1, scene 7, lines 1–2). In other words, if he could simply become king, secure in his power and position, only by committing this one terrible act, then it wouldn't be so bad to just do it and get it over with so that he and his wife could begin this next chapter. However, Macbeth seems to understand that it will not be enough to just kill the king; more will ultimately be required of him and his wife in order to maintain their new privilege.

To be fair, Macbeth seems never to have told Lady Macbeth about the "weird sisters'" prophecy for Banquo, that he would father kings, and so she is, perhaps, unaware of any reason that Macbeth would feel the need to get rid of his one-time best friend. Later, still, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth, "We are yet but young in deed" (act 3, scene 4, line 176). Lady Macbeth has long thought of her husband as somewhat weak, implying that he is not a man if he will not kill Duncan or if he cannot stop hallucinating. Thus, Macbeth arranging for the murder of Banquo, the attempted murder of Fleance, and the horrifyingly unnecessary murders of the wife and children of Macduff must come as a shock to her. She has helped to create a monster, so to speak, and the extent of the evil to which Macbeth is driven seems to weigh heavily on her conscience. When she sleepwalks in act 5, scene 1, she asks,

The Thane of Fife had a wife, Where is
she now?
—What, will these hands ne'er be clean?
(act 5, scene 1, lines 44–45)

Thus, she links the deaths Macbeth has caused to her own guilty conscience, and this seems to be a major factor in their changing relationship. She had evidently been prepared for one murder but not for multiple—and certainly not for the murders of a woman and children who had done nothing wrong.

Her developing understanding of the monster she created drives Lady Macbeth and Macbeth apart. He is prepared to go to much greater lengths than she is to retain their power, and his conscience is better able to support these crimes than hers is because he was more prescient than she was prior to the first one.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team


An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Initially, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the ultimate power couple. They are both committed to Duncan's murder—albeit with varying degrees of commitment—and see Macbeth's subsequent elevation to the throne of Scotland as fulfilling his destiny.

There is a sense that once Macbeth has achieved his wicked goals, Lady Macbeth will attain a position of equal power and authority within the kingdom, since without her, Macbeth would not have been able to rise so far and so fast. She was the main mover behind the plan to assassinate Duncan; she was the one who constantly cajoled, bullied, and pleaded with Macbeth to go ahead with the murder when he seemed to be getting cold feet. It's not unreasonable, then, for Lady Macbeth to expect great power to come her way once her husband is safely ensconced on the throne.

But that's not what happens. Once Macbeth becomes king, his wife fades from the picture, marginalized and ignored by the man she whom helped to grab the biggest prize. As Macbeth descends deeper and deeper into outright tyranny, he finds that he no longer needs his wife—he can rule just as well without her, he thinks. The irony here is that it was Lady Macbeth's sheer bloody ruthlessness more than anything else that led to Macbeth's becoming king of Scotland. Yet now, as he develops into a blood-thirsty despot, he makes increasingly cruel, barbaric decisions on his own—decisions that (again, ironically) Lady Macbeth would almost certainly not have advised him to make.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Initially, Lady Macbeth seems to be the one to 'wear the pants' in the relationship.  She is the one to first suggest that King Duncan die before leaving Macbeth's castle, and she calls on the spirits to 'unsex her' or take away her femininity so that she can play her part in the murderous scene.  Macbeth is very unsure about murdering the king whereas Lady Macbeth is confident and zealous to accomplish the deed.  She is the one who makes all the plans, and keeps them from Macbeth until the time is right. 

After the murder is committed, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to almost switch places.  Macbeth keeps secrets from Lady Macbeth, such as Banquo's death.  Lady Macbeth becomes the one who is unstable and unsure - to the point where she goes insane because she cannot handle what she has done.  Macbeth becomes seemingly harsh and evil, confidently deciding to kill whoever might threaten his time on the throne.

For both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, their greed, selfishness, and desire for the throne blind them to everything else and deteriorate their relationship to the point that upon Lady Macbeth's death, Macbeth barely seems to be concerned. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team