Character analysis: Lady Macbeth

Focussing on characterisation, language and imagery, Michael Donkor analyses Lady Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 5 of Macbeth, and considers how this scene fits into the play as a whole.

Key quotation

LADY MACBETH The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-ful
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!' (1.5.38–54)

Setting the scene

Act 1, Scene 5 of Macbeth is set in Macbeth’s castle in Inverness. It forms part of the audience’s first encountering of Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth has just read Macbeth’s letter, which outlines the weird sisters’ prophecies. She proceeds to express to herself her concern that Macbeth does not possess the steeliness or desire to use underhand means to acquire the glittering titles the witches have said lay before him.

The passage we’re interested in here follows this directly. It opens with a messenger interrupting Lady Macbeth’s meditations on the letter. The attendant informs Lady Macbeth of her husband and King Duncan’s impending arrival (‘The king comes here to-night’ (1.5.30)). The passage moves on to Lady Macbeth resuming her interrupted soliloquy, now in chillingly resolute mood as she readies herself for the imminent killing of Duncan. Then Macbeth arrives and she instructs him to leave the planning and execution of their bloody plan in her hands.

Photograph of Jonathan Slinger and Aislín McGuckin in Macbeth, 2011

Photograph of Jonathan Slinger and Aislin McGuckin in Macbeth, 2011

Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are covered in Duncan’s blood after the murder.

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How does Shakespeare present Lady Macbeth here?

In this scene, Lady Macbeth’s characterisation is used to continue the play’s steady ratcheting up of tension. The suspense of this passage is enhanced by the fact that Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy after the messenger has left is uttered in a stolen moment of stillness before action and fretful dialogue commences. It is a fleeting opportunity for her to consider her own feelings and responses to the unfolding events before Macbeth enters with weaknesses that will inevitably require her ‘tending’. This time pressure accounts for the strikingly condensed nature of the soliloquy. In just 17 lines, the audience are offered a dense series of images that speak of Lady Macbeth’s own complexities, contradictions and itchy anxiety about the ungodly acts she and her husband are about to commit.

The soliloquy’s opening image – a croaking raven – is a telling one. The bird not only has associations of ill omens but was also renowned for eating the decayed flesh of fallen soldiers on battlefields, closely linking to the idea of the Macbeths – and Lady Macbeth in particular – being a sinister, parasitical couple feeding on the lives of those more powerful and benevolent than themselves.

This idea recurs (but taking the argument in a different direction) when Lady Macbeth calls on ‘spirits’ for assistance; in some ways what she seeks is for her own body to be decomposed. She asks dark agents to ‘come’ and strip her of her femininity, to ‘unsex’ her body, using a series of listed imperatives that foreshadow the persuasive techniques she will subsequently use on Macbeth towards the end of the scene.

But, having called upon malevolent presences to help disintegrate her body, she does not want to remain in a sexless, physically diminished state. She also wants to be reconstituted and refigured as a being hard and armoured like her warrior husband; as a monstrous being with unnaturally thickened blood and breasts that produce deadly poisonous 'gall'.

That Lady Macbeth calls on mystical, external forces to assist her with this transformation is worth interrogating too, for two reasons. Firstly, it clearly gives weight to the reading of the character being a fourth witch, whose speech here has incantatory rhythms that lend it a distinctly supernatural quality. Secondly, this request for the support of others also perhaps reveals a sense of lacking beneath the surface of Lady Macbeth’s boldly assured malevolence: Lady Macbeth does not 'naturally' possess the zeal and evil required to undertake her plan, and so has to seek out the power of 'murth'ring ministers' to help her do it.

Alternatively, rather than interpreting Lady Macbeth's requests for dark assistance literally, we can see them as more metaphorical utterances: the speech is, in fact, a kind of 'pep talk' directed to herself and designed to undermine the merest inkling of 'remorse' she might feel. It is a moment of self-encouragement to help bolster and 'thick[en]' the most reprehensible parts of her character.

Images of obscurity abound in this passage: 'dark ... sightless ... thick night ... pall … dunnest smoke', all clearly chiming with Lady Macbeth's desire for her wrongdoing to pass unseen by prying eyes. These images serve as a counterpart to Macbeth's transparency – his open face where 'men can read strange matters' without any difficulty. These allusions, of course, carry with them the obvious associations of impure intent and evil. But, in this instance, they also reflect Lady Macbeth's need to conceal and hide her own weakness and misgivings from herself and from Macbeth. With such a reading in mind, when Macbeth enters and Lady Macbeth presents him with careful guidance about how to dissemble, her instruction about controlling appearance to ensure that guilt does not reveal itself is as much for herself as it is for Macbeth.

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An engraving by James Parker after R. Westall, Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 5: Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy.

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How does this presentation of Lady Macbeth fit into the play as a whole?

The most familiar, recognisable reading of Lady Macbeth’s role in the play is that she is the puppet master who pulls – often mercilessly yanks – at Macbeth’s strings. Several aspects of her portrayal in Act 1, Scene 5 add to this view. When Macbeth enters, not only does she shape and direct his behaviour, she also speaks significantly more than he does. Macbeth’s utterances are concise and practical, hers expansive, detailed and richly embroidered with imagery, reflecting the elaborate workings of a mind masterminding a dastardly plan. The perception of Lady Macbeth as the powerful, motivating force behind the couple’s scheme is of course sharpened in Act 1, Scene 7 when, using terrifying images of infanticide and her ‘undaunted mettle’ (1.7.73) ,she taunts Macbeth for his lack of masculine resolve and reignites his passion to pursue power at any cost.

However, the view that insecurities lurk within Lady Macbeth's outward strength connects our extract with her final appearance in the play, in Act 5, Scene 1. In this later scene after the Macbeths’ killing spree, Lady Macbeth’s mind is ‘infected’ (5.1.72) by guilt and madness (as opposed to being possessed by demonic powers as in Act 1, Scene 5). Her speech is presented in loose, unravelling prose where questions, repetitions and reversals show a fully exposed frailty and an anxiety that ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten [her] little hand’ (5.4.51).

As well as her vulnerability having developed between Act 1, Scene 5 and this final encounter with her, in the latter scene her attitude towards darkness shows progression too. Previously, Lady Macbeth had courted darkness and dimness. But by the end of the play her desire is for clarity; to be free of dirty, blemishing entities. She wants to be rid of ‘damn'd spot[s]’ (5.1.35) and the ‘murky’ (5.1.36) nature of the Hell that awaits her provokes great fear.

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow, 1814

Portrait of Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow

Sarah Siddons was one of the greatest actors of her day, and was best-loved in her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Here she is depicted in Act 5 Scene 1, the sleepwalking scene.

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The thematic complexity of this passage explains why it continues to fascinate audiences. In a play that, in many ways, presents us with a world turned upside down – where ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ (1.1.11) – this scene offers us a glimpse of conventional gender roles being inverted. Lady Macbeth’s wish to be symbolically ‘defeminised’ is seemingly granted with great speed: her activity, forcefulness and engagement that are present as soon as Macbeth arrives shows that she is taking on characteristics that an Elizabethan audience would have identified as being more ‘masculine’.

How has this scene been interpreted?

Trevor Nunn’s 1979 version of the play (recorded for television), with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth and Ian McKellen, as her husband remains a towering and chilling production of the text, of which Act 1, Scene 5 is a particular high point. Here, Dench’s performance is multifaceted. Often, her lines are delivered with an icy austerity, in suitably hushed, hissed tones. Dench’s call to the ‘spirits’ is presented as the character engaging in a real, meaningful dialogue with these presences; it is a conversation so powerful and real to Lady Macbeth that its implications shock and frighten her, making her voice waver, making her squeal with fear.

Macbeth’s arrival in the scene brings about a subtle shift in Dench’s performance. Rather than aggressively cajoling her husband into following her ‘fell purposes’, instead Dench interestingly uses her feminine wiles – using womanliness she renounced seconds before – to flirt with and coerce Macbeth into action. Their conversation here, and Lady Macbeth’s persuasion, is full of seduction and unsettling sensuality.

  • Michael Donkor
  • Michael Donkor is a writer and is currently working on his first novel Hold. He also teaches English Literature at St Paul's Girls' School in London.