Is "How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me" from Macbeth a pathetic fallacy, personification, or a metaphor?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Shakespeare's Macbeth presents two of drama's all-time villains: Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth becomes obsessed with the desire for power when she learns that witches have prophesied Macbeth's ascension to the throne of Scotland. When Macbeth tries to back out of their plan to assassinate King Duncan, Lady Macbeth chillingly declares:

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 plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.

Lady Macbeth is saying that she has nursed a child and knows how emotional the experience is. She goes on to say that rather than go back on her word, she would be willing to beat the nursing child's brains out. That's a pretty dramatic (and heartless) statement.

So, is the statement a pathetic fallacy, another kind of personification, or a metaphor?

A pathetic fallacy is created when we attribute human emotions to something that is not human. Well, cold and evil as she may be, Lady Macbeth is still human, so that's not it.

Personification is a more general term than pathetic fallacy, but it still involves attributing human qualities to a non-human, so once again the fact that Lady Macbeth is human eliminates that choice.

A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things that is not literally true. Writers create them to add a shade of meaning to their characters or descriptions. This doesn't seem to apply either, with one possible exception. It is never made clear whether or not Lady Macbeth is or ever has really been a mother. She certainly doesn't act like one. So if in fact she has never had a child, her statement that she has “given suck” might be meant in the figurative sense. Perhaps she is just saying that she can “imagine” the emotions involved. If so, you might be able to make a case for calling this a metaphor.