Monday, January 16, 2017

Who is Lady Macbeth?

Lady Macbeth is one of the most compelling and famous characters created by William Shakespeare. She has become a byword for a strong woman behind a man, pushing him towards nefarious ends. The Macbeths are often seen as a sexy, powerful couple, bonded by their evil plotting. To summarize an analysis given in an interview by Laurence Olivier, Lady Macbeth is on a downward track from power ending in tragedy, while her husband is on the rise and their journeys cross each other at Duncan’s murder. Something about these interpretations rings false when compared against the characters’ cue scripts.

Over a couple of blog posts, we will examine the cue scripts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to dig into their relationship and their characters to better understand why these characters hold such a sway over our imagination. Today we begin with Lady Macbeth.

When we first meet Macbeth’s anonymous wife, her words are not her own. She reads a letter recounting events that we, the audience, already know. When we are introduced to a character, we see their true selves. If they are not as they appear, Shakespeare has them tell us. Deceptions in his plays occur between characters while the audience is always complicit in the lie. However, Shakespeare does not give us a true Lady Macbeth in her opening scene. Instead he gives a regurgitation of what we have already witnessed on stage. Lady Macebth is a parrot, exposition. Nothing about her is revealed.

Throughout Shakespeare’s work, language is character: how one speaks and the way one’s text works is how we truly know his creations. What do her first words, her first thoughts, tell us about Lady Macbeth? They offer an excellent example of how language can be used to shape character.

‘Glamys thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou are promis’d:’

Her first line is nine beats long (Glamys being pronounce ‘glamz’), and the thought runs into the next line of pentameter. What is interesting here is that there is one word that would fill the first line, making it a full 10-beat line, and completing the thought. Instead there is a one beat pause. She could say: ‘Glamys thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be king.

In this instance, we would see a woman in control saying what she means, but we do not. Instead, there is the impression that she cannot bring herself to say the word. There is a pause, trepidation. She continues to question her husband’s ability to do what needs to be done to reach the goal of which she herself cannot speak. There is never a consideration that he may be able to earn the crown legitimately, but that Macbeth must ‘catch the neerest way.’

The first action she takes, is to ask for supernatural, metaphysical help. At this point in the play, this choice does not indicate the strong woman that she is popularly portrayed to be (we cannot say that this is uncharacteristic of her, because we do not know that much about her):

‘…Come you Spirits,
That tend on mortall thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full
Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood,
Stop up th' accesse, and passage to Remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene
Th' effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests,
And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers,
Where-ever, in your sightlesse substances,
You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell,
That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peepe through the Blanket of the darke,
To cry, hold, hold.’

The language of Lady Macbeth’s request to darker powers may offer a glimpse of the person she was before taking this step because she asks for attributes she does not possess and to become something she is not. She would not ask to be unsexed unless she felt that her femininity was a liability. She begs to be filled completely with ‘direst Crueltie,’ an attribute she must not already have. ‘Stop up th’accesse, and passage to Remorse’ tells that she believes her conscience to be an obstacle. She prays that it becomes dark enough that she cannot witness her own actions and that Heaven, her religion, does not stop her. If this is what she wants, we can infer these are qualities she does not see in herself. She believes herself to be a woman without cruelty, filled with mother’s milk and full of remorse who is afraid to think that she is capable of the actions she considers.

Throughout her cue script, Lady Macbeth’s entrance cues give us information that contradicts the image of the strong demanding woman. Her first cue is ‘…a peerless Kinsman.’ She is not named here, and while the word ‘peerless’ does appear it describes a ‘Kinsman,’ not woman. This may be a reason why even before she asks for a transformation, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as sexless. If the emphasis is put on ‘peerless’ then she is the prime example of a Thane’s wife. Other words in the character’s cues include ‘delicate’ and ‘t’other.’ She is never named in her entrance stage directions other than ‘Lady.’ (Unbeknownst to an actor using cue scripts, no character ever states her name. Without a name there are psychological limits on how well the audience will ever be able to know Lady Macbeth.)

Over the next several scenes after Macbeth’s return we watch Lady Macbeth control, belittle, manipulate and berate her warrior husband:

‘…looke like th' innocent flower,
But be the Serpent under't.’

‘Was the hope drunke,
Wherein you drest your selfe? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to looke so greene, and pale,
At what it did so freely? From this time,
Such I account thy love. Art thou affear'd
To be the same in thine owne Act, and Valour,
As thou art in desire? Would'st thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the Ornament of Life,
And live a Coward in thine owne Esteeme?’

‘I have given Sucke, and know
How tender 'tis to love the Babe that milkes me,
I would, while it was smyling in my Face,
Have pluckt my Nipple from his Bonelesse Gummes,
And dasht the Braines out, had I so sworne
As you have done to this.’

‘But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And wee'le not fayle:’

‘Infirme of purpose:
Give me the Daggers: the sleeping, and the dead,
Are but as Pictures: 'tis the Eye of Childhood,
That feares a painted Devill.’

‘My Hands are of your colour: but I shame
To weare a Heart so white.’

All of this comes after Lady Macbeth seeks the aid of dark forces. Much is made of the metaphysical in this play as it pertains to Macbeth, but how does it affect his wife? At his point in the play Macbeth’s dealing with the witches was unsolicited, they came to him, but Lady Macbeth sought them out. Is her strength then a result of ‘Spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts?’

Once the murder of Duncan is concluded, this bullying aspect of Lady Macbeth dissolves, and where before she pushed Macbeth to bloody thoughts she now tries to pull him away from them. Given that the first several scenes of the play illustrate how bloody his acts are on the battlefield, this seems to be a more likely role for Lady Macbeth to play in her home life – but we never see them on a normal day.

‘Gentle my Lord, sleeke o're your rugged Lookes,
Be bright and Joviall among your Guests to Night.’

Keep in mind as well, her request to the dark forces concluded with the murder of Duncan. Once he is assassinated, the contract has ended. She is troubled by the influence she held over her husband. In a rare moment alone with her thoughts and the audience, Lady Macbeth slips into a rhyme, the first and only that she has for herself and the audience as she questions what she has done:

‘Nought's had, all's spent.
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer, to be that which we destroy,
Then by destruction dwell in doubtfull joy.’

This is the only time she second-guesses what she and her husband have done.

It is often posited that the Macbeths are one of the only happily married couples in Shakespeare’s canon. But the language of her text does not reflect this supposition. When speaking to Macbeth, his wife uses ‘thou’ or ‘thine’ (a display of physical closeness) only eight times, and never after he goes off to kill Duncan. She says ‘we,’ ‘us’ or ‘our/s’ only five times. At one point when discussing the murder, she asks, ‘What cannot you and I performe upon / Th' unguarded Duncan?’ (emphasis mine). Her language separates herself from her husband even at the same time she is pushing him to commit a murder they planned together.

In none of her exchanges, most importantly those with her husband, does Lady Macbeth finish another person’s rhyme, and she only has five internal rhymes (two of which were touched upon above). Two of these are to her husband, but have the appearance of the theatrical convention of buttoning or highlighting an important thought:

‘Which shall to all our Nights, and Dayes to come,
Give solely soveraigne sway, and Masterdome.’

‘Onely looke up cleare:
To alter fauor, ever is to feare:
Leave all the rest to me.’

Both of these come at the time when she is convincing her husband that they should kill the king.

Lady Macbeth does have a number of short lines, the majority of which either begin or end her exchanges with other characters, or are single lines. This either means that she has action or pauses at the beginning of her lines, or she is completing someone else’s line, illustrating a dependence on other characters – dependence because the lack of rhyming shows no special affinity with those Lady Macbeth shares lines. One would expect more intimacy in the language expressing a happy marriage. The evidence of contented matrimony must reside in the interpretations of performers, because there is little evidence of it in the text.

Everyone familiar with The Tragedie of Macbeth remembers Lady Macbeth’s iconic sleep walking scene. The image of her in her nightgown with a candle, trying to rub bloodstains from her hands is indelibly stamped on the mind. The way that the scene is written makes it a theatrical coup (often in our unrehearsed cue script workshops The New Renaissance Theatre Company uses it to illustrate how well the rules of the technique work to block a scene in the moment and how a scene that many people think they know can be drastically different and new).

Sometimes it is referred to as her mad scene, only the word ‘mad’ is never used to describe her, although she does warn her husband ‘These deeds must not be thought / After these wayes: so, it will make us mad.’ Neither the Doctor nor the Gentle Woman who witness her sleep walking ever says that she is mad. The Doctor comments that walking in her sleep is a ‘great perturbation in Nature.’ Nobody else sleep walks in Shakespeare’s plays. Claudius and Gertrude, as guilty as they are never walk in their sleep. Lear and Ophelia both go mad, but never sleep walk. This particular characteristic seems to be reserved for special circumstances (possibly those marked by the supernatural?).

It is perhaps these special circumstances that foster interest in the character of Lady Macbeth. Many portrayals of her character show the audience a strong and demanding woman, the power behind the throne, the driving force or engine and something has always felt wrong about it. In some places she does push him, but given the manner of her introduction, she does not seem like the kind of character that would be so assertive towards a husband who is known for his battlefield brutality. In A Midsommer Nights Dreame, Theseus introduces us to his warrior wife, Hippolyta, with the phrase: ‘I won thy love doing thee injury.’ They met in conflict. There is no mention of such a relationship between the Macbeths, which would be an important dynamic for the playwright to set for the audience given the nature of the play.

Questions of supernatural influence on Macbeth must also be asked of his wife. Remember, the first thing that she does is ask for metaphysical help to aid her in making her husboand do what is necessary to become King, even to do it herself. We are never told (explicitly) if she gets that help. Perhaps she does, and that is why once murder is committed, we see a shift in her character as she comes back to her more normal state of being. But Shakespeare never lets us see what the Macbeths were like. It is the equivalent of listening to one half of a phone conversation. We have no definitive way to judge these characters, and therein lies the attractiveness of this play. If the Macbeths were like this, then they were always capable of their crimes. If the Macbeths were like that, then the witches and darkness have power in the play. Perhaps this couple was always on this track, but we can never know, and so these questions make this play and these characters dynamic and compelling.

-Andy Kirtland, Managing Director, The New Renaissance Theatre Company

Lady Macbeth
Gabriel Cornelius von Max (1885)