In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature, in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect and all the charms and graces of personal beauty. You will probably not agree with me as to the character of that beauty; yet, perhaps, this difference of opinion will be entirely attributable to the difficulty of your imagination disengaging itself from that idea of the person of her representative which you have so long accustomed to contemplate. According to my notion, it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex--fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fragile--
Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honourable as Macbeth;--to seduce him to brave all the dangers of the present and all the terrors of a future world; and we are constrained, even whilst we abhor his crimes, to pity the infatuated victim of such a thraldom. His letters, which have informed her of the predictions of those preternatural beings who accosted him on the heath, have lighted up into daring and desperate determinations all those pernicious slumbering fires which the enemy of man is ever watchful to awaken in the bosoms of his unwary victims. To his direful suggestions she is so far from offering the least opposition, as not only to yield up her soul to them, but moreover to invoke the sightless ministers of remorseless cruelty to extinguish in her breast all those compunctious visitings of nature which otherwise might have been mercifully interposed to counteract, and perhaps eventually to overcome, their unholy instigations. But having impiously delivered herself up to the excitements of hell, the pitifulness of heaven itself is withdrawn from her, and she is abandoned to the guidance of the demons whom she has invoked.
Here I cannot resist a little digression, to observe how sweetly contrasted with the conduct of this splendid fiend is that of the noble single-minded Banquo. He, when under the same species of temptation, having been alarmed, as it appears, by some wicked suggestions of the Weird Sisters, in his last night's dream, puts up an earnest prayer to heaven to have these cursed thoughts restrained in him, 'which nature gives way to in repose.' Yes, even as to that time when he is not accountable either for their access or continuance, he remembers the precept, 'Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.'
To return to the subject. Lady Macbeth, thus adorned with ever fascination of mind and person, enters for the first time, reading a part of one of these portentious letters from her husband. [I, v, 1-12.] Vaulting ambition and intrepid daring rekindle in a moment all the splendours of her dark blue eyes. She fatally resolves that Glamis and Cawdor shall be also that which the mysterious agents of the Evil One have promised. She then proceeds to the investigation of her husband's character. [I, v, 14-23.] In this development, we find that, though ambitious, he is yet amiable, conscientious, nay, pious; and yet of a temper so irresolute and fluctuating, as to require all the efforts, all the excitement, which her uncontrollable spirit, and her unbounded influence over him, can perform. She continues [lines 23-28]. Shortly, Macbeth appears. He announces the King's approach; and she, insensible it should seem to all the perils which he has encountered in battle, and to all the happiness of his safe return to her--for not one kind word of greeting or congratulation does she offer--is so entirely swallowed up by the horrible design, which has probably been suggested to her by his letters, as to have entirely forgotten both the one and the other. It is very remarkable that Macbeth is frequent in expressions of tenderness to his wife, while she never betrays one symptom of affection towards him, till, in the fiery furnace of affliction, her iron heart is melted down to softness. For the present she flies to welcome the venerable, gracious Duncan, with such a show of eagerness, as if allegiance in her bosom sat crowned with devotion and gratitude.
THE SECOND ACT: There can be no doubt that Macbeth, in the first instance, suggested the design of assassinating the King, and it is probable that he has invited his gracious sovereign to his castle, in order more speedily and expeditiously to realize those thoughts, 'whose murder, thought but yet fantastical, so shook his single state of man.' Yet on the arrival of Duncan, his naturally benevolent and good feelings resume their wonted power [and after rehearsing the arguments against the commission of the crime], he wisely determines to proceed no further in the business. But now behold, his evil genius, his grave-charm, appears, and by the force of her revilings, her contemptuous taunts, and, above all, by her opprobrious aspersion of cowardice, chases [away the feelings of] loyalty, and pity, and gratitude, which but a moment before had taken full possession of his mind.
Even here [I, vii, 54-59], horrific as she is, she shews herself made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature. The very use of such a tender allusion in the midst of her dreadful language, persuades one unequivocally that she has really felt the maternal yearnings of a mother towards her babe, and that she considered this action the most enormous that ever required the strength of human nerves for its perpetration. Her language to Macbeth is the most potently eloquent that guilt could use. It is only in soliloquy that she invokes the powers of hell to unsex her. To her husband she avows, and the naturalness of her language makes us believe her, that she had felt the instinct of filial as well as maternal love. But she makes her very virtues the means of a taunt to her lord.... It is the dead of night. The gracious Duncan shut up in measureless content, reposes sweetly.... The daring fiend, whose pernicious potions have stupefied the attendants, and who even laid their daggers ready--her own spirits, as it seems, exalted by the power of wine--now enters the gallery in eager expectation of the results of her diabolical diligence. In the tremendous suspense of these moments, while she recollects her habitual humanity, one trait of tender feeling is expressed, 'Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it.' Her humanity vanishes, however, in the same instant. [For when her husband refuses to return to the chamber to replace the daggers] instantaneously the solitary particle of her human feeling is swallowed up in her remorseless ambition, and, wrenching the daggers from the feeble grasp of her husband, she finishes the act which the 'infirm of purpose' had not the courage to completle....
THE THIRD ACT: The golden round of royalty now crowns her brow, and royal robes enfold her form; but the peace that passeth all understanding is lost to her forever, and the worm that never dies already gnaws her heart [III, ii, 4-7]. Under the impression of her present wretchedness, I, from this moment, have always assumed the dejection of countenance and manners which I thought accordant to such a state of mind; and, though the author of this sublime composition has not, it must be acknowledged, given any direction whatever to authorise this assumption, yet I venture to hope that he would not have disapproved of it. It is evident, indeed, by her conduct in the scene which succeeds this mournful soliloquy, that she is no longer the presumptuous, the determined creature that she was before the assassination of the king; for instance, on the approach of her husband we behold, for the first time, striking indications of sensibility, nay, tenderness and sympathy; and I think this conduct is nobly followed up by her during the whole of their subsequent intercourse. It is evident, I think, that the sad and new experience of affliction has subdued the insolence of her pride, and the violence of her will, for she now comes to seek him out, that she may, at least, participate his misery. She knows, by her own woeful experience, the torment which he undergoes, and endeavors to alleviate his sufferings by the following inefficient reasonings: [III, ii, 8-12]. Far from her former habits of reproach and contemptuous taunting, you perceive that she now listens to his complaints with sympathizing feelings; and so far from adding to the weight of his affliction the burden of her own, she endeavors to conceal it from him with the most delicate and unremitting attention.... All her thoughts are now directed to divert his from those sorriest fancies by turning them to the approaching banquet.... Yes, smothering her sufferings in the deepest recesses of her own wretched bosom, we cannot but perceive that she devotes herself entirely to the effort of supporting him.
Let it be here recollected, as some palliation of her former very different deportment, that she had, probably, from childhood commanded all around her with a high hand; had uninterruptedly, perhaps, in that splendid station enjoyed all that wealth, all that nature had to bestow; that she had, possibly, no directors, no controllers, and that in womanhood her fascinated lord had never once opposed her inclinations. But now her new-born relentings, under the rod of chastisement, prompt her to make palpable efforts in order to support the spirits of her weaker, and, I must say, more selfish, husband....
THE BANQUET: Surrounded by their Court, in all the apparent ease and self-complacency of which their wretched souls are destitute, they are now seated at the royal banquet; and although, through the greater part of this scene, Lady Macbeth affects to resume her wonted domination over her husband, yet, notwithstanding all this self-control, her mind must even then be agonized by the complicated pangs of terror and remorse. For what imaginings can conceive her tremors lest at every succeeding moment Macbeth, in his distractions, may confirm those suspicions, but ill-concealed under the loyal looks and cordial manners of their facile courtiers, when, with smothered terror, yet domineering indignation, she exclaims, upon his agitation at the ghost of Banquo, 'Are you a man?' [III, iv, 60-68.] Dying with fear, yet assuming the utmost composure, she returns to her stately canopy, and with trembling nerves, having tottered up the steps to her throne, that bad eminence, she entertains her wondering guests with frightful smiles, with over-acted attention, and with fitful graciousness; painfully, yet incessantly, labouring to divert their attention from her husband. Whilst writhing thus under her internal agonies, her restless and terrifying glances towards Macbeth, in spite of all her efforts to suppress them, have thrown the whole table into amazement; and the murderer then suddenly breaks up the assembly by the confession of his horrors: [III, iv, 110-116.]
What imitation, in such circumstances as these, would ever satisfy the demands of expectation? The terror, the remorse, the hypocrisy of this astonishing being, flitting in frightful succession over her countenance, and actuating her agitated gestures with her varying emotions, present, perhaps, one of the greatest difficulties of the scenic art, and cause her representative no less to tremble for the suffrage of her private study, than for its public effect.
It is now the time to inform you of an idea which I have conceived of Lady Macbeth's character, which perhaps will appear as fanciful as that which I have adopted respecting the style of her beauty; and in order to justify this idea, I must carry you back to the scene immediately preceding the banquet, in which you will recollect the following dialogue: [III, ii, 36-55]. Now it is not possible that she should hear all these ambiguous hints about Banquo without being too well aware that a sudden, lamentable fate awaits him. Yet so far from offering any opposition to Macbeth's murderous designs, she even hints, I think, at the facility, if not the expediency, of destroying both Banquo and [Fleance] when she observes that 'in them Nature's copy is not eterne.' Having, therefore, now filled the measure of her crimes, I have imagined that the last appearance of Banquo's ghost became no less visible to her eyes than it became to those of her husband. Yes, the spirit of the noble Banquo has smilingly filled up, even to overflowing, and now commends to her own lips the ingredients of her poisoned chalice.
THE FIFTH ACT: Behold her now, with wasted form, with wan and haggard countenance, her starry eyes glazed with the ever-burning fever of remorse, and on their lids the shadows of death. Her ever-restless spirit wanders in troubled dreams about her dismal apartment; and, whether waking or asleep, the smell of innocent blood incessantly haunts her imagination:
'Here's the smell of blood still.
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten
This little hand.'
How beautifully contrasted is this exclamation with the bolder image of Macbeth, in expressing the same feeling:
'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash the blood
Clean from this hand?'
And how appropriately either sex illustrates the same idea!
During this appalling scene, which, to my sense, is the most so of them all, the wretched creature, in imagination, acts over again the accumulated horrors of her whole conduct. These dreadful images, accompanied with the agitations they have induced, have obviously accelerated her untimely end; for in a few moments tidings of her death are brought to her unhappy husband. It is conjectured that she died by her own hand. Too certain it is, that she dies and makes no sign. I have now to account to you for the weakness which I have ascribed to Macbeth.... Please observe, that he (I must think pusillanimously, when I compare his conduct with her forbearance,) has been continually pouring out his miseries to his wife. His heart has therefore been eased, from time to time, by unloading its weight of woe; while she, on the contrary, has perseveringly endured in silence the uttermost anguish of a wounded spirit.... Her feminine nature, her delicate structure, it is too evident, are soon overwhelmed by the enormous pressure of her crimes. Yet it will be granted that she gives proofs of a naturally higher toned mind than that of Macbeth. The different physical powers of the two sexes are finely delineated, in the different effects which their mutual crimes produce. Her frailer frame, and keener feelings, have now sunk under the struggle--his robust and less sensitive constitution has not only resisted it, but bears him on to deeper wickedness, and to experience the fatal fecundity of crime....
In one point of view, at least, this guilty pair extort from us, in spite of ourselves, a certain respect and approbation. Their grandeur of character sustains them both above recrimination (the despicable accustomed resort of vulgar minds) in adversity; for the wretched husband, though almost impelled into this gulf of destruction by the instigation of his wife, feels no abatement of his love for her, while she, on her part, appears to have known no tenderness for him, till, with a heart bleeding at every pore, she beholds in him the miserable victim of their mutual ambition. Unlike the first frail pair in Paradise, they spent not the fruitless hours in mutual accusation.