In Act 1, scene 7 of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth urges her reluctant husband to commit the murder of Duncan, the visiting king to whom he owes allegiance. In the course of trying to persuade him to do the deed, she uses a number of strikingly paradoxical arguments, including the following:
- She accuses Macbeth of being unmanly because he seems reluctant to commit murder:
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.
Actually, standard Christian doctrine during Shakespeare’s period taught that to commit murder was to sin – to lower oneself on the so-called “great chain of being” by behaving like an irrational animal. Lady Macbeth’s argument is thus highly paradoxical.
- A bit later, Lady Macbeth once again speaks paradoxically when she proclaims that although she is a woman and has borne children, she would gladly kill her children rather than be guilty of the kind of cowardice she thinks Macbeth is displaying:
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.
Her willingness, as a mother and woman, to commit infanticide would have been seen by many members of Shakespeare’s original audience as highly paradoxical. Moreover, the horrible kind of infanticide she mentions would have been considered even more paradoxical coming from a mother.
- Lady Macbeth refers to the “swinish sleep” she expects Duncan and his men to be in when they are killed. Paradoxically, however, it is she and her husband who are about to behave like animals.
- Lady Macbeth tells her husband that after the king has been killed, she and Macbeth will cry out in apparent agony and torment:
. . . we shall make our griefs and clamour roar
Upon his death . . .
Paradoxically, later in the play, both Lady Macbeth and her husband will suffer real agony as a result of murdering the king.
- Later, in Act 2, scene 2, after the murders have been committed, Lady Macbeth calls her husband “foolish” for feeling guilty about what he has done. A “fool,” in the simplest sense, is a person who lacks reason. Macbeth actually behaved unreasonably when he killed the king, not when he now regrets having done so. Once again, then, Lady Macbeth’s words are paradoxical.
- When Macbeth’s conscience continues to trouble him, his wife advises, “Consider it not so deeply.” Paradoxically, if Macbeth had in fact given the matter the kind of deep consideration it deserved, he would never have committed the crime.
In these and many other ways, then, Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband is often strikingly paradoxical.