Is Lady Macbeth so ‘fiend-like’?
It is clear why Malcolm, as a new king, should demonise both Lady Macbeth as ‘fiend-like’ and her husband Macbeth as a ‘butcher.’ The recent King and Queen of Scotland have overseen a murderous campaign which started with the murder of Malcolm’s own father, the righteous King Duncan, who was ‘meek’ in ‘office’ and would have been considered divinely appointed. Shakespeare shows Malcolm seeking to establish a new order for Scotland and it is easier to do that if he can dismiss his defeated enemies as monstrous and inhuman. By placing Malcolm’s speech at the very end of the play, though, Shakespeare invites the audience to consider whether his views accord with their own. Malcolm’s view is partial not only in terms of bias, but he has also been away in England, whereas the audience has followed Lady Macbeth’s progress closely throughout the play.
There are many aspects of Shakespeare’s characterisation of Lady Macbeth which might support Malcolm’s view and this is apparent on her first appearance, reading Macbeth’s letter about the witches’ prophecies. In a speech reminiscent of the witches’ incantations, she calls on ‘spirits’ to ‘unsex’ her and fill her ‘from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty’ in order to help Macbeth achieve his ambitions and fulfil the prophecies, which necessitates the murder of Duncan. At the same time she dismisses her husband’s mildness, suggesting he is ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’, which would surprise the audience after earlier reports of his brutality in battle. The excessive image of cruelty contrasts effectively with the nurturing image of ‘milk’ applied to ‘human kindness’ and the same image is used in her incantation, when she desires her nurturing ‘milk’ to be removed from her ‘woman’s breasts’ and replaced with ‘gall’, an overt reversal of traditional ideas of femininity and the maternal. A similar idea is used in her speech when she has to goad Macbeth back onto the path of murder once he has decided to ‘proceed no further in this business.’ In this scene at the end of Act 1, she contrasts her determination with his vacillation with the shocking suggestion that she would have ‘pluck’d my nipple from [the] boneless gums’ of a ‘smiling’ baby and ‘dash’d the brains out’ had she ‘sworn’ to have done so. The contrast between the visual and sensual image of vulnerability and nurture in a breast-feeding child and the careless violence of ‘dash’d’ is horrific. These reversals of compassion and care could well lead an audience to support Malcolm’s judgement; if a ‘fiend’ is an image of a lack of basic humanity, this is surely exemplified by Lady Macbeth’s speeches.
It is important to note, though, that these are speeches; they are not actions. Although it is Lady Macbeth who plans the murder of Duncan with military precision, including intoxicating and incriminating the grooms, she carries out none of the murders in the play. It is possible to understand Lady Macbeth’s shocking speeches as rhetorical, words used to stir Macbeth into action. If she has to call on the help of ‘spirits’ and ‘murdering ministers’ to ‘unsex’ her, this implies she is actually conscious of her feminine and compassionate characteristics and recognises that they are a hindrance. Equally, while the image of dashing a baby’s brains out are truly shocking, it is a verbal image which is meant to shock, not an action which is performed. It is meant to provoke Macbeth into a recognition of the level of commitment Lady Macbeth feels she could show. It could, therefore, be hyperbolic. Shakespeare gives the audience a further glimpse of this in the murder scene. Though she has previously called for help from ‘murdering ministers’ and has claimed she could murder babies, she admits, privately to the audience, that she has been unable to kill Duncan, because he ‘resembled/ My father as he slept.’ Far all her talk, human feelings about relationships prevent her from taking murderous action. Not only does this give the lie to her claims about killing ‘the babe that milks’ her, it demonstrates her essential humanity, which challenges the idea that she is truly a ‘fiend’. Shakespeare gives the audience a much more complex view than Malcolm’s easy verdict.
Shakespeare gives plenty of other examples of Lady Macbeth’s cunning and deceit, from being the ‘honoured hostess’ towards Duncan to advising Macbeth to ‘look like the innocent flower/ But be the serpent under’t.’ While the metaphor of the snake here recalls Christian imagery of evil, it is again an example of persuasive words and, it could be argued, sound advice. While she frantically tries to cover up for Macbeth during his coronation banquet after the appearance of Banquo’s ghost, she is desperately trying to manage a threatening situation which she does not understand, finally telling the lords not to ‘Stand upon the order of your going/ But go at once’. Shakespeare shows her to be quick, resourceful and deceitful, but these are very human characteristics and it is important here that Macbeth has kept her ‘innocent of the knowledge’ of Banquo’s murder. She likewise has no involvement in the murders of Macduff’s family.
In the final appearance of Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare seems to confirm that she is in fact a fallible human being and that the actions of the play have had their toll. Her sleepwalking scene shows Shakespeare’s understanding of human psychology, as he presents her with a disturbed, disorientated mind through her unconscious speeches which are incoherent and broken up by punctuation: ‘–One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t – Hell is murky! –’ In both speech and physical actions she tries to wash her hands of the ‘damned spot’ of blood which is metaphoric of her indelible guilt. Shakespeare shows that this guilt has unbalanced her mind; though she attempted to become uncompromisingly fierce and to suppress compassion, it has come at a psychological cost and leads to her suicide. By creating a character with such complex psychology, Shakespeare suggests that in fact she is very far from a ‘fiend’.
In his moment of victory, Malcolm needs to bury the past and to suggest that the future will be different. That is easier if he assigns murderous ambition to a ‘fiend’, rather than to humanity which he shares.
Read more: Is Malcolm the Ideal King?