Desire for Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely: Lady Macbeth’s Character Analysis
In the 19th century, British Politician became known for a famous excerpt from a speech “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This quote is conveying that has a persons power grows their sense of morality diminishes. At the beginning of the play Macbeth by Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth has a penchant for power and will stop at nothing to become queen.
Yet, as the play progress, the atrocities that she and her husband have committed weigh too heavily upon her heart. From her bouts of sleepwalking to her constant referencing of blood, becomes apparent that it was too much for her to handle. Lady Macbeth’s lust for power and unfettered ambition leads to her emotional deterioration and ultimate demise, proving that her desire for absolute power corrupts absolutely.
With very few exceptions, no character in any of Shakespeare’s plays undergoes such a radical devolution as that which transforms Lady Macbeth from a nearly superhuman character in the first Act of “Macbeth” into a sleep-walking, nervous parody of the confident woman she once was, by the start of Act V. When we first see Lady Macbeth on stage, she is a commanding character. She conveys her intention to realise her dark ambitions in language that is as unforgettable as it is frightening: “The raven himself is hoarse…To cry “Hold, hold!” (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 27-48). But, after her ineffective efforts to control Macbeth’s reaction to the Ghost of Banquo in Act III, scene iv., Lady Macbeth virtually disappears from the play. We hear of her again at the start of Act V when a doctor and one of her ladies in waiting discuss her insomnia, but this hardly prepares us for the ghostly figure who next appears. As Lady Macbeth enters sleepwalking, uttering words that are laden with guilt and a pathetic longing for the comfort of her absent husband we are reminded of the just how corrosive the effects of power are. Even before Macbeth is told by Seyton that Lady Macbeth is dead (Act V, scene iv), we recognise that she is no longer herself. She has become merely a shadow, a living ghost, haunted by the memories of the night that changed her life forever.
We first see Lady Macbeth in Act I, scene v, alone and reading a letter from her husband that speaks about his meeting with the weird sisters and their prophecy that he will become Scotland’s king. Lady Macbeth issues no response to Macbeth’s account of events. She focuses instead on the prospects for Macbeth’s acting to fulfil the prediction and concludes that he may be “too full of the milk of human kindness” to carry out the required deed of killing Duncan. Her determination to remove any obstacle that prevents him from realising his ambition and potential is captured in her unforgettable summons to him: “Hie thee hither, | That I might pour my spirits in thine ear, | And chastise with the valour of my tongue | All that impedes three from the golden round, | Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem | To have thee crown’d withal” (I, v., ll.25-29). Even at this early stage in her engagement with power, her desires seem similar with those of the weird sisters, but Lady Macbeth’s invocation is far more powerful and disturbing in its language than the inarticulate (but cunning) statements of the witches. However, Shakespeare provides us with a number of subtle clues to an underlying vulnerability in her character. Learning that King Duncan is coming to their castle and thereby providing an opportunity to kill him, she finds it necessary to call upon “spirits” to “unsex” her;(I, v, ll.46-51). While the speech resembles Macbeth’s “stars hide your fires” speech in the prior scene, it is most memorable for the insights it provides us into her character. In particular, we notice that Lady Macbeth fails to consider that “compunctious visitings of nature” might return to haunt her after the crime has been committed, and that furthermore her frightening change of who she is will alter her natural bond with Macbeth.
After Lady Macbeth has ceremonially drained all feminine kindness from her spirit, Macbeth enters, and she tells him that Duncan must be “provided for,” the innuendo being that he must be murdered. He puts her off, saying that they shall speak about the matter later, but Lady Macbeth does not use the word murder, referring to it instead as “this enterprise.” Since she has already spoken openly about the plot kill Duncan with her husband, some moral inhibition must be preventing Lady Macbeth from from actually saying the word murder. Of course, things do not go as planned. Not only does Macbeth fail to carry out her instructions concerning the placement of the murder daggers, the blame does not fall upon Duncan’s guards but upon Malcolm and Donalbain, the king’s two sons, who have fled the scene. At the midpoint of the play, in Act III, scene ii, Lady Macbeth worries aloud, asks a servant whether Banquo is gone from the castle, and then sends him with a message for King Macbeth. For the first time in the play Lady Macbeth hints at the extent of what the murder has cost them,saying in a soliloquy:
“Nought’s had, all’s spent/ Where our desire is go without content; ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy/Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy” (III, ii., ll.4-7). When Macbeth enters, she chastises him for leaving her alone and then advises him to “sleek over” his “rugged looks,” and be “bright and jovial” at banquet. (III, ii. ll. 27-28). He first advises her to do the same and then says that she should remain ignorant of his plans to dispose of Banquo and Fleance. In the banquet scene itself, Lady Macbeth is unable to rein in her husband’s guilty horror at seeing Banquo’s ghost, and although she is under incredible pressure her handling of the guests does leave much to be desired.
Lady Macbeth is absent for most of the latter part play and her reappearance at the opening of Act V is foreshadowed by the worried comments of her doctor and one of her gentlewomen. As she enters silently, the two refer to her behaviour as if she no longer existed. They note her compulsive habit of washing her hands, and, consistent with this diagnosis, the first words that she speaks are “a spot.” We soon realise that in her own mind, Lady Macbeth’s hands are unclean and that she simply cannot command an imagined “damn’d spot” to disappear. Completely oblivious to those around her, she transfers this symptom of guilt to Macbeth, saying “Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale. I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come out on ‘s grave” (V, i., ll.62-64). Macbeth, of course, is not present, for he has gone to the battlefield, but in her final speech, Lady Macbeth’s desire for conjugal partnership comes forth, as she says to her imagined husband, “To bed, to bed, there’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed” (V, i., ll.66-68). In Act V, scene iii, Macbeth commands the doctor to cure his wife, but the doctor wisely replies, “Therein the patient must minister to himself” (V, iii, l.45), and shortly thereafter Macbeth is told of his wife’s death, presumably as a result of suicide.
Looking back, after the murder of the King, Macbeth withdraws from his marital relationship to Lady Macbeth and no longer relies upon his wife’s capacity to interpret events for him. He keeps his plans to have Banquo and Fleance killed from her, saying to his one-time partner, “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck | Till thou applaud the deed” (III, ii, ll.50-51). By the banquet scene of Act III, Lady Macbeth is no longer part of her husband’s world, he no longer needs her as a spur to ambition. Deprived of her function in directing Macbeth’s actions, Lady Macbeth is left alone and isolated. Long before Macbeth concludes that “life is a tale told by an idiot”, Lady Macbeth, no longer a wife nor even a natural woman, has entered into a twilight realm in which there is no active role for her to perform nor any means through which guilt can be extinguished.
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