In Macbeth, ambition conspires with unholy forces to commit evil deeds which, in their turn, generate fear, guilt and still more horrible crimes. Above all, Macbeth is a character study in which not one, but two protagonists (the title character and Lady Macbeth) respond individually and jointly to the psychological burden of their sins. In the course of the play, Macbeth repeatedly misinterprets the guilt that he suffers as being simply a matter of fear. His characteristic way of dealing with his guilt is to face it directly by committing still more misdeeds, and this, of course, only generates further madness. By contrast, Lady Macbeth is fully aware of the difference between fear and guilt, and she attempts to prevent pangs of guilt by first denying her own sense of conscience and then by focusing her attention upon the management of Macbeth's guilt. In the scene which occurs immediately after Duncan's death, Lady Macbeth orders her husband to get some water "and wash this filthy witness from your hand" (II.i.43-44). He rejects her suggestion, crying out, "What hands are here. Ha! they pluck out mine eyes! / Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?" (II.i.56-58). But she in turn insists that the tell-tale signs of his crime cannot be seen by others, that "a little water clears us of this deed" (II.i.64). But midway through the play, Lady Macbeth loses both her influence over her husband and the ability to repress her own conscience. Once her husband has departed to combat against Macduff's forces and Lady Macbeth is left alone, she assumes the very manifestations of guilt that have been associated with Macbeth, insomnia and hallucinations, in even more extreme form.
As for the motive behind the theme of guilt, it is ambition for power, and it does not require much for Macbeth to embrace the weird sisters' vision of him as the ruler of all Scotland. Macbeth is ambitious, but it is Lady Macbeth who is the driving force behind their blood-stained rise to the throne(s) of Scotland. Lady Macbeth is awesome in her ambition and possesses a capacity for deceit that Shakespeare often uses as a trait of his evil female characters. Thus, when she greets her prospective victim in Act I, she "humbly" tells King Duncan that she has eagerly awaited his arrival and that her preparations for it are "in every point twice done, and then double done" (l.vi.14-18). The irony here is that double-dealing and falsity are at hand, and Lady Macbeth's ability to conceal her intentions while at the same time making hidden reference to them has a startling effect upon us.
Beyond the evil that human ambition can manufacture, Macbeth has a super-natural dimension to it; indeed, the play opens with the three witches stirring the plot forward. Even before his encounter with the three witches, Macbeth finds himself in an unnatural dramatic world on the "foul and fair" day of the battle (I.iii.39). Things are not what they seem. After his first conclave with the witches, Macbeth is unable to determine whether the prophecy of the witches bodes "ill" or "good." He then begins to doubt reality itself as he states that "nothing is / But what it is not" (I.iii.141-142). The prophecy, of course, is true in the first sense but not what Macbeth takes it to be in the second. In like manner, the three predictions made to Macbeth in the first scene of Act IV seem to make him invincible; but the "woods" do march and Macbeth is slain by a man...
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not ("naturally") born of woman.
Not only does an unnatural world overturn reality in Macbeth's experience, in Lady Macbeth's experience, this movement beyond nature is self-invoked. In an oft-cited speech, Lady Macbeth actively conjures up supernatural forces to change her into a creature without conscience or human (or "feminine") compassion.
Come, you spiritsThat tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,And fill me, from the crown to the toe topfulOf direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,That no compunctious visitings of natureShake my fell purpose, nor keep peace betweenTh' effect and it!(I.v.40-47)
Lady Macbeth alters herself into a monster, "de-sexing" herself into an embodiment of evil akin to the demon goddess Hecate. As many scholars have pointed out, unlike Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff, Macbeth and his wife are childless; there is no succession of kings behind Macbeth as there is behind Banquo. Having shorn herself of the ability to generate an heir, Lady Macbeth undergoes an alienation from both her gender and, as discussed below, from her marriage to Macbeth.
The waking world of reality and the unnatural world of evil intermingle in the paranoid hallucinations and, most markedly, in the insomnia of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth. After Duncan's murder, Macbeth hears that internal voice which commands him to "sleep no more" (II.ii.37). Restive to the end, Macbeth's insomnia is noted by his wife. She attempts to explain the more vivid and horrifying experiences that he undergoes, such as seeing Banquo's spectral effigy at the feast, by referring to natural causes, telling her husband that his vision stems from the fact that he lacks sleep. But then Lady Macbeth herself falls victim to a deep, somatic disorder. As the doctor who treats her insomnia is told, Lady Macbeth only begins to sleepwalk and to compulsively wash her hands when Macbeth is no longer present, the tyrant having taken to the field to stop Malcolm, Macduff, and their fellows from overturning his reign. In the end, Lady Macbeth enters into a limbo state of madness, sleepwalking between a horrible reality and a vision of the hell it portends.
The deterioration of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth as individuals is closely paralleled by the collapse of their marital relationship. Oddly, among all of Shakespeare's married couples, the Macbeths of Act I and Act II show the highest degree of bonding and cooperative spirit. The very first time that we see Lady Macbeth, she is reading a letter from Macbeth prefaced by the fond salutation, "Dearest Partner of Greatnesse." There is in the first two acts of the play a mutual admiration between the two, a dual respect based on their shared conviction that the manly Macbeth is fit to be king, while the commanding Lady Macbeth is his natural consort. When Lady Macbeth is first told that Macbeth has executed their plan and killed the king, she cries out "My husband."
But a change occurs in the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Act II of Shakespeare's play. Once Duncan has been dispatched, Lady Macbeth becomes increasingly unimportant to her husband. After the murder of the King, Macbeth begins to withdraw from his marriage to Lady Macbeth. It is significant that Macbeth does not convey the graphic details of the King's death to his wife and that he departs (wisely, in fact) from his instructions to leave the daggers of the king's guards behind. Moreover, he keeps his plot against Banquo and Fleance from his wife, and she has no role at all in the killing of Macduff's family. Indeed, following her ineffectual efforts to control Macbeth when he sees Banquo's ghost at the banquet, Lady Macbeth virtually disappears from the plot. Not only is Lady Macbeth no longer directing the action in the natural domain of the play, she is now excluded by her husband from partaking in either the natural or the supernatural progression ahead.
When we see her again, Lady Macbeth is virtually unrecognizable, a shaken shell of her former self. As noted above, critical opinion about Lady Macbeth has moved in the direction of seeing her as either a pathetic character or as redeemed by her own suicide, in the sense that it demonstrates her underlying humanity. What is truly pathetic, as opposed to monstrous, about Lady Macbeth of Act V is that she no longer has any role in her partnership with Macbeth. She has voluntarily relinquished her natural role as Macbeth's wife to mobilize him into action, and in the unnatural world into which she has entered, she is no match for the witches who have assumed the function that she once performed on behalf of her partnership with Macbeth. Pathetically, Lady Macbeth yearns for the natural union that she had with her husband, for the role of nurturer and comforter, and that is no longer available to her. Lady Macbeth's last words are not expressions of guilt, but tender solicitous of care from her husband: "give me your hand … to bed, to bed, to bed" (V.i.66-68).
*Scotland. British country north of England that historically had its own language, monarchy, parliament, and culture. In the period in which Macbeth is set, 1040 to 1057, Scotland was beginning to form as a nation, building on its Viking and Saxon tribal nucleus, while constantly wracked by bloody internal disputes and wars with England. Shakespeare’s choice of this period in Scottish history is far from accidental, as it pertains to the origin of the two Scottish royal lineages—those of Malcolm and Banquo—through which James I constructed his successful claims to the thrones of both England and Scotland. Shakespeare even stages the constitutional shift from feudal elective monarchy to patrilineal inheritance and the construction of “divine right” (to which James constantly referred), when Duncan names Malcolm as heir and prince of Cumberland.
By the seventeenth century, Scotland was usually described in the English cultural imagination as wild and ungovernable because of its difficult topography, harsh weather, and uncivilized people. Images of Scotland, like those of Ireland and Wales, suffered from English Tudor nation-building—that is, “England” was constructed negatively, by defining what it was not. Hence, Shakespeare’s Scotland becomes England’s antithetical Other, a nightmarish land of barren heaths and misty crags, populated not only by aggressive clansmen and regicides but also by supernatural forces and demoniac spirits. The play’s “England,” on the other hand, is depicted as graciously ruled by a “good king,” the saintly Edward the Confessor, who heals with a royal touch and possesses a “heavenly gift of prophecy.”
This imaginary rugged Scottish landscape, with its crags, hollows, and storms, is symbolically central to Shakespeare’s depiction of a turbulent political structure. Consequently, in the play’s denouement, as the nation is returned to “natural” order, the wild countryside itself seems to rise up against the murderous Macbeth, as Birnam Wood comes toward Dunsinane, in the shape of Malcolm’s camouflaged troops and in accordance with the weird (or wyrd) sisters’ prophecy. Simultaneously, the disruptions of the natural world, the “hours dreadful and things strange” with cannibalistic horses and “strange screams of death,” which accompany Macbeth’s regicide and rule, are apparently purged as health is restored to the “sickly weal.” However, the replacement of one regicide by another reveals the similarities between the regimes, staging the play’s equivocal wordplay and eliding the differences, as each term becomes “what is not,” both “fair” and “foul,” like the landscape itself.
Heath. Fictional Scottish wasteland of uncontrollable natural and supernatural forces. As inhabited by the three weird sisters, the “blasted heath” is a symbolically liminal site of transformation and equivocal multivocality, in which weather is both “foul and fair,” where the sisters are both “women” and bearded males, who can appear and disappear, and where prophecy is both “ill” and “good” as language subverts sight and meaning. In addition, the sisters’ presence gives Scotland gender as (super-)naturally “female” in its uncontrollable wildness throughout the play, in contrast to Scotland’s strongly masculine warrior culture.
*Scone. Ancient castle and holy site, immediately north of Perth and thirty miles north of Edinburgh. The Pictish capital of the early Scots, Scone became the traditional site for the “investment” or crowning of new monarchs, who sat on the Stone of Scone, a legendary symbol of nationalism that traces back to the eighth century. The stone was seized by England’s Edward I in 1296 and removed to London, where it remained for many centuries.
*Inverness. Scottish town on the Moray Firth, at Loch Ness, about thirty miles west of Forres and about ninety miles north of Fife. Inverness is the site of the Macbeths’ feudal castle, located on the northern edge of Duncan’s territory and strategically placed to guard against incursions from northern Europe. However, this distant frontier also makes it an ideal place for rebellion against a centralized government, as evidenced by Cawdor’s insurrection. The town of Cawdor is only ten miles east of Inverness.
*Dunsinane Hill. Thousand-foot-high crag, part of the Sidlaw hills and less than ten miles north of Scone. The site of Macbeth’s military fortress and last stand, the daunting hill faces a forested area which stretches twelve miles northwest to the town of Birnam. It is through this “wood” that Malcolm and Siward make their final, disguised attack.