gcse lady macbeth essayWatch
Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth as a construct to explore the effects of power in the hands of women in a patriarchal society and to present power as a dangerous and destructive force when combined with ambition outside of the parameters of the established ‘Great Chain of Being’. Initially, Lady Macbeth is presented as strong-willed figure of dominant nature; this is done through excessive use of imperatives, and affiliation with the supernatural. However, eventually Lady Macbeth’s power diminishes as guilt plagues her mind, until her mental deterioration results in her tragic death. Perhaps Shakespeare is using her character as a deterrent, a warning to those who seek to alter the ‘Great chain of being’ through immorality and sin.
In her first appearance in the play, Act I, Scene V, Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as a powerful figure, done through her soliloquy, in which she summons the 'spirits' to 'unsex' her, to 'make thick [her] blood', to rid her of emotion. Here Lady Macbeth’s rejection of her femininity reveals her desperate desire for power and strength, as a helpless victim of the patriarchal society she faces- and this idea is emphasised through the repeated use of the imperative “Come” that reflected her determination to obtain such power. To a Jacobean audience, her demands would appear more shocking as she requests that the spirits take her ‘milk for gall’, symbolising a rejection of motherhood and the principal responsibilities of Jacobean women to lead a domestic, family-orientated life. In addition, the noun ‘gall’ reflects how Lady Macbeth desires for her feminine traits to turn poisonous, allowing her masculine strength and influence. Here, her reference to ‘milk’ echoes her previous soliloquy, where she expresses concern that Macbeth is ‘too full o’th’ milk of human kindness’ to carry out the planned regicide and gain a more powerful societal standing. Lady Macbeth attributes ‘gall’ to herself while her ‘milk’ to her husband, revealing her attempt to subvert their gender roles and assert dominance over Macbeth. Throughout this scene, Lady Macbeth calls upon the ‘spirits’, affiliating herself with the supernatural and the evil, but powerful witches, further displaying her malignant power.
Later in the play, Lady Macbeth’s power of manipulation is revealed as she commands her husband to commit King Duncan’s murder. In Act I, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth convinces Macbeth to ‘look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t’. Shakespeare’s use of the natural imagery of a flower suggests innocence and virtue, however, this is contrasted with the metaphorical description of a serpent, presenting her as a corrupting influence and force for evil and chaos in the play. Lady Macbeth’s deceptive nature is further portrayed through Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical questions, for example, she asks ‘What cannot you and I perform upon Th ‘unguarded Duncan?’ to which Macbeth relents under Lady Macbeth’s commands to kill Duncan. Her dominance is further displayed through her distinction between masculinity and femininity: in contrast to her self-proclaimed manliness, she brands Macbeth a coward and explains that by carrying out the deed, Macbeth ‘would be so much more the man’.
Further in the play, In Act II, Scene II, Lady Macbeth remains an authoritative, pragmatic figure, however, she also notably begins to show anxiety following Duncan’s murder by convincing Macbeth that ‘Had [Duncan] not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t’, also foreshadowing that she will soon struggle to cope with guilt later in the play. However, Lady Macbeth’s resolute nature is displayed as she clearly and rationally establishes control of the situation and criticizes her husband's apparent lack of composure and masculinity. She persuades Macbeth- "My hands are of your colour, but I shame, to wear a heart so white”. Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth’s dominance over her husband here through the colour imagery; while ‘white’ traditionally represents innocence and purity, here it associates Macbeth with weakness, dependence, and cowardice.
In Act V, Scene I, Lady Macbeth’s power has diminished as she has descended into madness, relentlessly tormented from the memory of killing Duncan. She is overwhelmed by guilt, unable to sleep, and has taken to somnambulism. In contrast to Lady Macbeth’s composed attitude seen in Act II, Scene II, her speech is now disjointed under her emotional pressure, symbolic of her fragmented mind. She speaks in prose, revealing her panicked, disturbed state of mind as she utters the monosyllabic ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’, with this metaphorical blood a symbol of her guilt and remorse. This scene presents the transition from her initial reaction to seeing the literal blood on Macbeth’s hands and ordering him to “go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand”. Earlier in the play, she was powerful enough to conceal their crimes, but as more blood has been spilled over the course of the play, Shakespeare reveals that her subconscious cannot accept what she has caused and so her power is drained by her inability to sleep. In Jacobean times, sleep was considered to be healing, only innocent people could sleep well.
Shakespeare may have crafted the character of Lady Macbeth to demonstrate how corruption of natural disorder leads to that person’s inevitable downfall, effectively a deterrent for committing crime against the monarchy and disrupting the ‘Great Chain of Being’, particularly emphasising the disorder caused by women attempting to subvert gender roles in society: as a result of Lady Macbeth’s defiance, her progressive loss of power leaves the audience unsurprised when we learn of her tragic death.