By: William J. Rolfe
The following biography was originally published in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth. Ed. William J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Co., 1918.

Concerning the two leading characters of the play, Macbeth and his Lady, there has been much discussion and a wide divergence of opinion. Let us examine the play for such facts relating to them as we can discover, and consider what inferences we may draw from these facts as to the characters and relations of the pair.

At the opening of the play Macbeth is the thane of Glamis and a captain in the Scottish army, which has just won a victory over the king of Norway, who was aided by a force of rebels under the command of the thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and his fellow-captain Banquo have performed prodigies of valour in the battle, and are on their way home from the field when they are met by the three witches, as Shakespeare calls them, and as they are called in the old chronicle from which he took the main incidents of his plot. They appear to be simply the witches of ancient superstition--hags who have gained a measure of superhuman knowledge and power by a league with Satan, to whom they have sold their souls and pledged their service. From the first scene of the play we learn that they have planned this meeting with Macbeth, whom, in reply to his startled question, "What are you?" they hail, one after another, as "thane of Glamis," then "thane of Cawdor," and finally, "Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!" Banquo then asks what prediction they have for him; and in turn they address him as "Lesser than Macbeth and greater," "Not so happy, yet much happier," and add, "Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none." Macbeth would fain have them tell him more, but they vanish with no response to his eager appeal.

A moment later, Ross and Angus arrive as messengers from King Duncan, by whose command they hail Macbeth as "thane of Cawdor."

Here occurs one of the inconsistencies of the play which puzzle the critics. In the interview with the Witches Macbeth had said:

By Sinel's death I know I am thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
A prosperous gentleman.

This may have been said merely to draw out an explanation from them, though he must have been aware that Cawdor was a traitor who had just been conquered and taken prisoner in the battle from which he himself was returning. But when Ross hails Macbeth as "thane of Cawdor," the latter replies:

The thane of Cawdor lives; why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Argus then states that Cawdor lives indeed, but is condemned to death for treason; but just what his treason was he does not know. This is not easily explained, as Ross, who is now present with Angus, had in a former scene informed Duncan of Cawdor's presence in the battle as an ally of the Norwegian king; and Ross himself had been directed to see Cawdor executed, and his title given to Macbeth.

We know, however, that such inconsistencies not unfrequently occur in plays that appear to have been written less hurriedly than Macbeth evidently was; and this may be an instance of the kind. If scene 2 of this act is an addition by another hand, as some suppose, Shakespeare may not be responsible for the fault.

In the soliloquy that follows this announcement of the new honour conferred upon him, Macbeth says:

Two truths are told
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. I thank you, gentlemen.
[Aside.] This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Here, almost at the moment when the prediction concerning the thaneship of Cawdor is fulfilled, we find Macbeth meditating murder, that he may bring about the fulfilment of the prediction that he shall be king hereafter. To one critic at least this seems rather sudden, but he ascribes it to the rapidity with which the action of this play rushes on from first to last. To my thinking, it is in perfect keeping with one of the most marked characteristics of Macbeth--his active imagination. This is the key to much that he afterwards says and does.

In The Tempest, when Antonio is tempting Sebastian to murder King Alonso, he says:

What might,
Worthy Sebastian? O, what might?...
The occasion speaks thee, and
My strong imagination sees a crown
Dropping upon thy head.

This might be said of Macbeth at this point in his career. Not only is he sure that the prophecy is to be fulfilled, but, to quote the words of the Lady in another scene, he "feels now the future in the instant." His strong imagination sees the crown suspended over his head, as later he sees the air-drawn dagger marshalling him the way to murder. The golden prize hangs within his reach. It is held only by the slender thread of an old man's life. He has but to cut that thread, and the crown is his. "Come, let me clutch thee!" is his mental exclamation. But the "horrid image" of the murder comes before his mind's eye with equal vividness, and makes his seated heart knock at his ribs. The bloody deed is as yet but "fantastical"--a thing of fancy--but it is as real to him and as frightful as the ghost of Banquo, which is no outward apparition, but

A [spectre] of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain.

It is the bloody business which informs thus to his eyes--that makes the fearful visions of his excited imagination seem to take palpable shape before him.

Is this the first suggestion of murder that has occurred to Macbeth? Some of the best critics believe that he had meditated this bloody treason before the beginning of the play. They infer this from what Lady Macbeth says, when, in a subsequent scene, he determines that he will proceed no further in this business of murder:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.

This is the only passage in the play that can be construed as a hint that Macbeth had plotted the taking-off of Duncan at some earlier time, and that the Lady had advised him to wait for a more favourable opportunity. I do not think that we are driven to this interpretation, or that it is necessary, if we reject it, to suppose that a scene has been lost or omitted in which the pair had discussed their plans for the crime. There has been an interval sufficient for such discussions, but Shakespeare did not deem it necessary or desirable to introduce it into the play. We have evidence in that play as it stands that the words I have quoted from Lady Macbeth's speech cannot refer to a time previous to the dramatic action. Such a supposition is inconsistent with her soliloquy after reading Macbeth's letter in which he tells her the Witches have predicted that he is to be king. She fears his nature, which will not permit him to "catch the nearest way"--that is, to kill Duncan. If at any former time he had proposed to kill him, she could have no doubt of his being willing to do it now. She could not have thought that, though he had ambition, he was without the illness that should attend it, and that the valour of her tongue must overcome his repugnance to the crime. A moment afterwards she asserts that she will have to commit the crime herself. At the close of that terrible apostrophe to the spirits of darkness in which she prays that she may be unsexed and filled with direst cruelty, she says:

Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That make keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'

She is to use the knife, not urge her husband to do what she assumes he will fear to do. When Macbeth comes in, she says to him:

He that's coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch.

She will be responsible for dispatching this business. Macbeth says: "We will speak further;" but she tells him that all he is to do is only to "look up clear," and not to betray their purpose by his perturbed countenance. "Leave all the rest to me," are her parting words.

When Macbeth next appears, we find that he is to "bear the knife" against his kinsmen and king, and when the Lady comes in, it is evident that this is the plan on which they have agreed. She tells him that he has "sworn" to do the deed, and after she has satisfied him that there is no danger of failure he is ready for the "terrible feat."

Here we see that there has been a change in their plans. The Lady is not to kill Duncan, but Macbeth is to undertake it. He has "sworn" to do it. This must have been arranged at an interview between the two scenes we have been considering. There was time for such an interview, but if there had not been, it would not have troubled Shakespeare. In this play a whole scene occurs (iii. 6) to which no possible time can be assigned, and such scenes are found in other of the plays.

In the present instance, however, there is no such impossibility. Duncan arrives at the castle before dark, as the dialogue outside the walls (i. 6) clearly shows. The banquet is hours later. In the interim the king may be supposed to be resting in his chamber after the journey. Macbeth and the Lady have the opportunity for "speaking further" concerning their plot, as he had proposed. The vision of the crown again rises to his imagination, and he is impatient to cut the thread that prevents his clutching it. He seems to have suggested some rash way of doing this at once, and doing it himself, but the Lady sees that neither the time nor the place which he proposes is suited to the purpose. She suggests that it will be safer to wait until a later hour, when the king and everybody but themselves is in bed. Since she now finds that Macbeth is willing to do the killing, she naturally transfers that part of the business to him; but, lest his fears and scruples should lead him to waver again, she exacts an oath that no compunctious visitings of nature shall shake his fell purpose to bear the knife himself. When, in the scene that follows, his thought of the risk of failure makes him shrink from doing what he has sworn to do, she overwhelms him with bitterest reproaches for his cowardice and perfidy, and, to relieve his apprehensions, adds to the precautions already agreed upon the drugging of the possets furnished to the king's guards when they retire with him to his chamber. This reassures Macbeth, and his courage is at last screwed to the sticking-place.

This may or may not have been precisely what Shakespeare had in mind for filling the gap between the two scenes in which the pair soliloquize and confer concerning the method of the murder; but it is certain that we are not compelled to assume that the Lady's allusion to Macbeth's readiness to kill the king at some former time and place must refer to a period before the beginning of the play. If that had been Shakespeare's meaning, he would have given us some more distinct intimation of it than this single passage furnishes. This interpretation, I may add, is not only inconsistent with what the Lady says of her husband's nature, but also with what he himself says (or soliloquizes) when he finds the prophecy of the Witches fulfilled in part by his being made thane of Cawdor. If the purpose of killing Duncan had occurred to him before that time, the "horrid image" of the suggestion could not have affected him as it does. Rather would he have welcomed the prophecy as a supernatural encouragement of his plot of murder and usurpation. The obvious meaning of his words is that the plot is then first suggested to him, and that the horror of it almost overwhelms him. His imagination sees not only the crown, but the blood that must stain his hands if they are to clutch it before it falls. No wonder that for the moment the sorry sight of that blood, though only fantastical, makes him hesitate:

If chance will have me king, why, chance my crown me,
Without my stir.

But it is only for the moment that he can reason thus rationally and virtuously. Again his eyes turn to the resplendent prize, and the blood that must be shed to gain it is forgotten.

We may now consider it settled beyond any reasonable doubt that the purpose of attaining the crown by the murder of Duncan occurs independently to both Macbeth and his wife. Neither suggests it to the other; their guilt in this respect is equal.

It may also be noted here that we have no right to say, as certain critics have done, that the Witches instigate Macbeth to the crime. They simply predict what is to be his destiny. They suggest no means or method for bringing about the fulfilment of the predictions; they say not a word to incite him to sinful thought or deed. Their prophetic message once delivered in the briefest form possible, they vanish, paying no attention to the entreaties of Macbeth that they will stay and tell him more.

Their prophecies, moreover, are not addressed to Macbeth alone, but also to Banquo, in whose soul they excite no thought or purpose of evil. He accepts them as prophecies, nothing more, and shows little interest in them until Ross and Angus come and hail Macbeth as thane of Cawdor. Then, so far from welcoming them as propitious intimations of good fortune, he warns his companion that they may prove to be due to the machinations of evil spirits, who

tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles to betray 's
In deepest consequence.

To Macbeth, on the other hand, the very fact that the supernatural soliciting has begun with a truth is proof that it cannot be ill. Yet, as his conscience admonishes him, it cannot be good, for it tempts him to crime; and he admits that he is ready to "yield" to that temptation.

Here we begin to see what manner of man he really is. Up to this time he has won golden opinions from all sorts of people, and apparently has deserved them. But, like so many other men of excellent reputation, he has hitherto been upright only because his virtue has never been subjected to any severe test. When a great temptation assails him, he falls like Lucifer, never to rise again.

Macbeth is utterly destitute of moral principle. His ambition for the crown once aroused, he determines to murder his king, who has just bestowed now honours upon him, and to whom he is bound by ties of kinship as well as of loyalty. When later he hesitates to commit the crime he has planned, it is not from any compunction of conscience, but from "sheer moral cowardice"--from fear of the consequences in this life. Shakespeare has taken pains to make this clear in Macbeth's soliloquy (i. 7):

If it were done when 't is done, then 't were well
'T were done quickly.

That is, if the deed were really done, if that were the end of it, the quicker it is done the better.

If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.

That is, if the murder could thwart or control the possible consequences here, only here, in this world, he would risk whatever might follow in the life to come. But, as he goes on to say, there is the danger of retribution here. Our bloody deeds return to plague us here. The cup we have poisoned for another is thrust to our own lips. Those words, "We'd jump the life to come," show that, in thinking of the possible consequences in this life--the risk of detection, disgrace, and punishment--he does not for the moment forget or ignore the retributions of another world. He deliberately defies them. Like the men who were supposed to sell their souls to the devil for wealth or power in this life, he is willing to pay the final price that the crime involves if present success can be assured. If Satan were present to pledge this, Macbeth would close the bargain at once; as this is impossible, he hesitates for the moment, but only for the moment--only while the thought of possible failure is uppermost in his mind. As soon as his wife has explained how the murder can be made to appear the act of the grooms, his hesitation is at an end. How exultantly he welcomes the assurance that others can be made to bear the imputation of the crime!

But while waiting for the fatal signal which the Lady is to give by striking the bell, he gives way again to horrible imaginings. The dagger he is to use floats before his eyes; but it does not frighten him from his purpose:

Thou marshalls't me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.

The visionary dagger becomes bloody, but the real one is not yet red, and he decides that the former is nothing but a "dagger of the mind" to which the anticipation of the bloody business has given apparent shape. His imagination reverts to the night--the time for "wicked dreams" and wicked deeds--for witchcraft and for murder, with stealthy pace moving like a ghost toward his fell design. So will he move, invoking the sure and firm-set earth not to betray his approach to the sleeping victim. But he checks the poetic musings. It is the time for action. "Whiles I threat he lives." The bell rings.

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

It is a knell that strikes for himself no less than for Duncan; and it summons him, not to the earthly heaven of his hopes, the joy he anticipates in the attainment of royal power, but to the hell of guilty fears that permit no sleep by night and no peace or rest by day, but drive him on from crime to crime until retribution overtakes him at last.

Though, at this particular time, Macbeth would not have carried out his plot against Duncan if the Lady had not overcome his cowardly fear of the consequences, it does not follow that he would never have screwed his courage up for the deed without her influence. The vision of the promised crown, the glittering prize of his unholy ambition, would still hover above his head, stimulating his imagination and alluring him to the nearest way of gaining it. He would be ever on the watch for a favourable opportunity of doing the murderous deed necessary for its acquisition, and, with or without the encouragement of his companion in guilt, he would nerve himself to the fatal stroke that would enable him to clutch it. The exigencies of the drama require that he should do it now, and the Lady, with her clear head and strong will, furnishes the stimulus needed to spur him on to instant action.

Let us now turn for a time to her, and endeavour to get a fair conception of her character. As we have seen, the intention of murder occurred to her without any suggestion from her husband. So far as that was concerned, both were equally guilty. They were also equally ambitious; but I believe that she was ambitious for him rather than for herself. They are bound to each other by strong ties of conjugal affection; but her love, if not the stronger, is the more unselfish, as the love of woman is apt to be.

Mrs. Kemble (Notes upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays) calls Lady Macbeth "a masculine woman," but adds that "she retains enough of the nature of mankind, if not of womankind, to bring her within the circle of our toleration and make us accept her as possible." I believe, however, that she goes too far in denying to the Lady "all the peculiar sensibilities of her sex," and in saying, "there is no doubt that her assertion that she would have dashed her baby's brains out if she had sworn to do it, is no mere figure of speech but very certain earnest." To my thinking, it was a figure of speech in a sense, though "certain earnest" in another sense. Macbeth has sworn to do a dreadful deed from which he now shrinks. She says to him that if she had sworn to do anything, however horrible and unnatural, she would do it. The particular illustration of the quality of her resolution which she gives is the strongest she can imagine--the murder of her own babe at a time when to do it would be the utmost conceivable outrage to maternal affection; a deed which she knows she could never do or think of doing, much less swear to do, but which she would do if she had sworn to do it. That would be a murder infinitely worse than the one Macbeth has sworn to do--the murder of an innocent and helpless babe--her own babe--a murder for which there could be no imaginable motive--but the oath once spoken should be kept, though to keep it would tear her very heart-strings asunder.

It is significant that Lady Macbeth, when she first resolves to commit the crime, feels that she must repudiate the instincts of her sex before she can do it:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

Elsewhere Shakespeare has depicted two women--the only two in his long gallery of female characters--who are monsters of wickedness, without a single redeeming trait; and he has emphasized the fact that such women have unsexed themselves and ceased to be women. They are Goneril and Regan, the unnatural daughters of Lear. Note what Albany says to Goneril:

See thyself, devil!
Proper [native] deformity seems not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman....
Thou changed and self-cover'd thing,

[That is, thou whose natural self has been covered or lost, so that thou art a mere thing, not a woman.]

Bemonster not thy feature!...
Howe'er thou are a fiend,
A woman's shape doth shield thee.

[Though a fiend, she still has the outward shape of woman, or she should die.]

Neither Goneril nor Regan prays to be unsexed, for they are only fiends in a female form; nor would the prayer have occurred to Lady Macbeth if she had not been a woman, notwithstanding her treason to womanhood. She feels that she must for the time abjure the natural instincts and sensibilities of her sex, if she is to do the bloody deed which is to give her ambitious husband the crown without waiting for fate to fulfil itself. She is not destitute of all feminine sensibilities, as Mrs. Kemble assumes, but struggles against them, represses them by sheer strength of will.

Mrs. Kemble even goes so far as to say that the Lady's inability to stab Duncan because he resembled her father as he slept "has nothing especially feminine about it," but is "a touch of human tenderness by which most men might be overcome"; but to concede human tenderness to the Lady is inconsistent with the assumption that she could have murdered the infant at her breast. We cannot doubt that Shakespeare introduced this touch to remind us again that she was a woman, and not a monster, like the daughters of Lear. This is quite in his manner. It is like Shylock's allusion to the ring that Leah gave him when he was a bachelor, which shows that, hardened and merciless though he was, he was not utterly destitute of human tenderness.

Professor Moulton (Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist) is more just in his conception of Lady Macbeth. As he remarks, "Her intellectual culture must have quickened her finer sensibilities at the same time that it built up a will strong enough to hold them down"; and her keen delicacy of nature continually strives to assert itself. When she calls on the spirits of darkness to unsex her, "she is trembling all over with repugnance to the bloody enterprise, which nevertheless her royal will insists upon her undertaking." Her career in the play "is one long mental war; and the strain ends, as such a strain could only end, in madness." She seems to feel this herself when later Macbeth is lamenting that, though he had most need of blessing, "Amen stuck in his throat," and she exclaims:

These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.

But the next moment, when he refuses to take back the daggers he has brought from the chamber of death, her indomitable will enables her to do it herself. She must not allow her strength to give way while it is necessary to carry out the plan which is in danger of failing through his weakness. She can even indulge in a ghastly pun--the only one in the play--as she snatches the daggers from his hand:

If he does bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.

And while Macbeth is still idly staring at his bloody hands with "poetical whining," as another aptly calls it, she can return, with hands as red as his, and say with bitter sneers at his unmannerly wailing:

My hands are of your colour, but I shame
To wear a heart so white....
A little water clears us of this deed.

But ah! the difference between man and woman! He, now so weak that he cannot look on the man he has murdered, he who laments that great Neptune's ocean cannot wash the stain from his hands, goes on from crime to crime until he himself can say:

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er;

And later:

I have supp'd full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

He revels in murder, knowing neither fear nor remorse.

She, on the other hand, though now she can ridicule his weak moaning over his bloody hands and display her own that are red with the gore of the same murder, calmly declaring that a little water will clear them of the stain--she has nerved herself to this seeming brutality by force of will, desperately repressing all feminine sensibility out of love for him and sympathy in his ambitious purposes. She can do this while it is necessary to strengthen him and save him from failure and detection; but when she is once assured that he is no longer dependent on inspiration and support from her, the woman nature reasserts itself. She is not, as he is, insensible to remorse. She can silence for the time the voice of conscience, but it soon makes itself heard.

We have the first evidence of this in the scene (ii. 3) where the murder is discovered by the nobles. Macbeth has made the mistake of killing the grooms, but when Macduff asks, "Wherefore did you so?" he gets out of the predicament by ascribing the act to "the expedition of his violent love," which outran the dictation of his "reason." Then follows the hypocritically pathetic description of the dead king:

His silver skin lac'd with his golden blood,
And his gash'd stabs [looking] like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance;

And the supposed assassins:

Steep'd in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech'd with gore.

Lady Macbeth sees that he does not need her help at this critical moment, and the strain upon her nerve and will is at once relaxed. This sufficiently explains her fainting, which I believe to be real and not feigned; though the vivid picture of the murder may have been in part, if not wholly, the cause of the swoon, the enormity of the crime being thus brought home to her conscience. Macbeth may have thought that the fainting was a trick to divert attention from his mistake, if his attempt to justify it should not be successful, and this may account for his paying no attention to her at the moment; but this is quite as likely to have been due to his excitement, or to the promptness with which Macduff and Banquo "look to the lady."

When she next appears on the stage (iii. 2), we see that the attainment of the coveted prize has brought no relief from the remorse she suffers. She is unhappy in her new dignity--the more because he whom her love had helped to gain it likewise finds no joy in the acquisition. She laments for him as for herself--more for him than for herself--when she says:

Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content;
'T is safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

This to herself--and it is the cry of a broken heart that has brought wretchedness upon itself and the object of its devotion by a crime to which it was prompted by love; and with the same unselfish affection she tries in the very next breath to comfort him, hiding the wound in her own breast:

How now, my lord! why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard; what's done is done.

These sorry fancies, as we have just seen, are her companions no less, but she will not let him see it.

But her misery is that of a troubled conscience, together with pity and sympathy for him. His is the same that first made him shrink from the crime--no pangs of conscience, no touch of remorse, but cowardly fear of the consequences of his crime:

We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it;
She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

It is not that he has committed the crime, but that he must eat his meals in fear, and sleep in the affliction of terrible dreams--dreams of detection and retribution. "Better be with the dead" than live in this "torture of the mind!" Already he meditates new crimes to save himself from the results of the first. "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill." And the new crimes he can commit without stimulus or help from her.

After this she appears in the drama only twice: in the banquet scene, where again he is saved by her presence of mind from the exposure of his guilt which his distracted imagination threatens to bring about; and in the scene where her own share in that guilt is unconsciously disclosed as she walks in sleep.

After the banquet is broken up, instead of giving way to bitter reproaches, she endeavours to sooth his troubled spirit. As Mrs. Jameson remarks, there is "a touch of pathos and tenderness" in this which makes it "one of the most masterly and most beautiful traits of character in the play."

Shakespeare evidently intended that Lady Macbeth's complicity in the guilt of her husband should be limited to the murder of Duncan. It is a significant fact that Macbeth does not make her a confidant of his plot for killing Banquo and Fleance. Indeed, he distinctly avoids doing this after having vaguely hinting at the design. This partly because, as I have said, he does not need her help, but partly, I believe, because he has an instinctive feeling that she would not approve the course he has resolved upon. She certainly would have opposed it as at once impolitic and unnecessary. The Witches had not predicted that Banquo should be king, but only that his children should, and Fleance was but a boy as yet. There was far greater danger to Macbeth from the suspicions which the death of Banquo and his son might excite than from a possible attempt of theirs to play the bloody part Macbeth had played in the assassination of Duncan. Macbeth himself lays more stress on the prediction that Banquo's issue are to be his successors on the throne than he does on his fears that Banquo may suspect he killed Duncan, and that this may lead to his own overthrow. Banquo's "royalty of nature" is a perpetual rebuke to his own baser self, and his knowledge of the prophecies of the Witches is a menace, but the thought that most rankles in the breast of Macbeth is that all he has gained by the murder of the gracious Duncan is a "fruitless crown" and "barren sceptre," which are to be snatched from him by "an unlineal hand."

Some critics have thought that the Lady meant to suggest putting Banquo and Fleance out of the way when, in reply to Macbeth's reference to the fact that they are still living, she says, "But in them Nature's copy 's not eterne"; but she simply reminds him that they are not immortal. This interpretation is fully confirmed by the fact that, on his replying, "There's comfort yet; they are assailable," and adding that before the night passes "there shall be done a deed of dreadful note," she does not understand his hint, but asks, "What's to be done?"--a question which he evades. It is plain, however, that he still feels doubtful of her approval of the deed, which he would not have been if he had understood her preceding speech as suggesting it.

For myself, I am inclined to believe that the disappearance of the Lady from the stage after the banquet scene indicates that, from the time of Banquo's murder, Macbeth was less and less inclined to seek her company and sympathy. In the conversation before the banquet she asks him, "Why do you keep alone?" and it is in the same scene (iii. 2) that he avoids telling her that he has already engaged the murderers to waylay Banquo and his son. Even when their lives had begun to separate, and they would naturally get farther and farther apart. There is no reason to suppose that she knew of the plot for the destruction of Macduff's family, against which she would have protested more earnestly than against his designs upon Banquo, if he had made them known to her. His fears and suspicions urge him on to the bloody deeds which later Macduff describes to Malcolm:

Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face.

Ross confirms the reports:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call'd our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man's knell
Is there scarce ask'd for who; and good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

A terrible picture of what Macbeth is doing alone, in his insane suspicion of those about him and of everybody, near or far, who might suspect his guilt and be moved to avenge it. After his second interview with the Witches, who have deluded him with false assurances of safety and success, he seeks no other counsel and has no other confidant.

The Lady meanwhile, left to herself, ignorant of what is going on abroad, bears the burden of her remorse alone. Shut out from all sympathy, she broods over the crime to which she was tempted by love and the hope that it would bring not only royal power but all its accompaniments of pleasure and honour, but the fruits of which have been only disappointment, disgust, and misery to her husband and herself; and the consciousness of her sin and folly is like a consuming fire in her breast. Bereft of all worldly hope and all human sympathy, she is driven to despair. The season of all natures, sleep, denies her its comfort and relief. In perturbed wanderings at night she lives over the events of that other night when her hands were bathed in the life-blood of Duncan. No water now ill clear them of the stain. The agonizing cry, "Out, damned spot!" is vain; and "there's the smell of blood still," which all the perfumes of Arabia cannot remove or disguise.

The Doctor's direction that the means of self-destruction be removed from her, and that she be watched closely, indicates his apprehension of what the end may be; and though it is not distinctly stated afterwards that she did lay violent hands on herself, we can hardly doubt that this was the manner of her death.

When her death is announced to Macbeth (v. 5), he is already so estranged from her, and so absorbed in his selfish ruminations on his own situation, that it excites only a feeling of vexation that it should have occurred just then. "She should have died hereafter"--not, he seems to mean, when he had so much else to worry and annoy him. In his talk with the Doctor about her, in a former scene (v. 3), he appears to be impatient, rather than sympathetic, because she is sick; and now that the sickness has proved fatal, he indulges in no expressions of grief, but, after this brief reference to her ill-timed decease, he relapses into mournful reflections upon his own condition and prospects. He does not refer to her again, nor is there any allusion to her except in Malcolm's last speech, where he couples her with Macbeth as "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen." The son of the murdered Duncan might naturally call her so; but, except for her share in that single crime she does nothing to deserve the title; and for that one crime she has paid the penalty of a life of disappointment, wretchedness, and remorse.

Let me say, before dismissing her from our consideration, that I cannot think of her as a masculine woman, or, as Campbell describes her, "a splendid picture of evil,... a sort of sister of Milton's Lucifer, and, like him, externally majestic and beautiful." Beautiful, indeed, we can imagine her to be, but with a beauty delicate and feminine--perhaps, as Mrs. Siddons suggests, even fragile. Shakespeare gives us no hint of her personal appearance except where he makes her speak of her "little hand"; but that really settles the question.

Macbeth's career from first to last confirms the estimate we form of him when he hears the predictions of the Witches. At that time, as I have said, he seems as noble as he was valiant. He is ambitious, but two paths to power and fame are open to him--the path of rectitude, of loyalty, of patriotism, of honour; and the nearer way of treason, regicide, and dishonour. He lacks the moral courage and strength to choose the former. He cannot wait for fate to fulfil itself, but anticipates the working out of its decrees by impatiently taking the first step in the other path. He knows it is the wrong path, but it is only the first step that costs him even any transient struggle. Thenceforward, as we have seen, he can go on from crime to crime with only brief spasms of hesitation, due not to compunction or shrinking from sin, but only to his apprehensions of the possible consequences of his first deed of blood--discovery, disgrace, disaster, retribution in this life. The life to come he ignores, as he did at the start, and pursues the downward course, selfish, pitiless, remorseless, impious, to the inevitable tragic end.


Back to Macbeth

Home · Theatre Links · Monologues · One Act Plays · Bookstore · © 2006