Two versions of “Macbeth” act 5 scene 1
I have studied two versions of “Macbeth” act 5 scene 1, otherwise known as the sleepwalking scene. They are the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the BBC productions. I have watched several productions but I am going to focus on these two versions in particular. I want to examine the significance of the scene and analyse how it has been produced and directed.
This scene is extremely important because it occurs just after Macduff has swore to avenge the killing of his family and just before we see Malcolm’s army getting ready to fight against Macbeth.
The scene is situated in an important part of the play also, because Shakespeare traditionally places the finale of the play in act 5. It is the first time we have seen Lady Macbeth since the banquet and the scene is used to tell us what has been happening to her in the meantime.
It is there to allow the viewer to enter the mind of Lady Macbeth and to realise the nightmare she is living in.
It is there to show how she is coping with recent events and it will be the last time we ever see her. She is not alone in this scene; a doctor and a gentlewoman are also there. Their roles are to observe Lady Macbeth discreetly and to comment on what she is saying and doing. We find out about her insecurity and that she is afraid of the dark. We also learn that guilt has taken over and that she is extremely unhappy.
As one of the major characters in the play, Lady Macbeth has been involved in some of the main events. For example, she was in alliance with her husband in Duncan’s murder, and even persuaded Macbeth to go through with the murder after he had decided to leave things to chance (Act 1 Scene 7). She organised the whole murder by laying out the daggers and she “drugged the possets” of the grooms. She also helps Macbeth after the murder by distracting others when she fainted so her involvement was very significant. At that stage she is the dominant partner in the marriage. She has seen a chance to make her husband king and is determined not to let it slip away. She asked evil spirits to ” unsex me here” and for any natural feelings to disappear so she would not hesitate in carrying out the murder.
This seems to have worked because when she is persuading her husband her language is very forceful and she conjures up images of horror. Her wish for the evil spirits to “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty” has been granted. Manhood is a frequent theme in this early scene. Lady Macbeth sees it simply as a man should have courage to act and to face danger but Macbeth says that he dares to do anything that is suitable to a man; to do more would be unmanly. She knows how to manipulate her husband and this is clearly shown when Macbeth gives in to his wife’s demands and decides to go ahead with the murder after the questioning of his manhood.
Her ruthless determination has made Macbeth overcome his doubts. These early characteristics have all but disappeared by the sleepwalking scene. She is no longer the ambitious, determined, moral blackmailer. Instead she is a broken woman, emotionally drained and a shadow of her former self. The banquet scene has fully taxed her resources and resulted in her total collapse. She is now guilt-ridden as her soliloquy discloses. She knows about the other murders and this has taken its toll on her mentally and physically too. The significance of sleepwalking is that her guilt is depriving her of any comfort, even sleeping.
The gentlewoman and the doctor open the scene. The doctor is questioning the gentlewoman about lady Macbeth’s condition. She responds by telling the doctor about her sleepwalking but when he asks the gentlewoman what Lady Macbeth has said, she replies “that sir, which I will not report after her”, explaining that she has no witness to confirm her speech. This suggests that knowing what Lady Macbeth has said could be dangerous for her. While the doctor is trying to persuade her, Lady Macbeth appears whilst holding a candle, this is interesting because it symbolises the good that is still inside her. In both productions she is lit in a way to imply that she is possessed by the supernatural. The mist and darkness reminds us of Banquo and Macbeth before they met the witches on the moor. It also brings back memories of the witches (act 1 scene 1) when they talked about “the fog and filthy air”.
Lady Macbeth is seen to be rubbing her hands frantically and talks about the blood on them. She mentions a spot that she cannot remove; this could be the mark of the devil or maybe it is symbolising the guilt within her. She cannot wash away her murderous deeds. She goes through a roller coaster of emotions as she receives flashbacks from when she and her husband were plotting to kill Duncan. She says “one; two: why, then ’tis time to do’t.” This is her remembering the ringing of the bell when Duncan was about to be murdered. She continues, ” Hell is murky!” She has said this because she knows what her fate will be and understands the consequences of her actions.
She is in complete despair at this stage. She also reveals that she knows about Macduff’s family when she says “the thane of fife had a wife: where is she now?” She is no longer innocent of this knowledge. She constantly rubs her hands and states “will these hands ne’er be clean?” and “here’s the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” This is quite ironic because it is her who says to Macbeth after the murder of King Duncan, that ” a little water will clear us of this deed” (act 2 scene 2).
The contrast is no more evident than here, this is where Lady Macbeth takes charge of the situation after Macbeth had forgot to plant the daggers on the grooms. She takes the daggers to do it herself and reassures Macbeth. If you compare this to the sleepwalking scene you can see the difference. Not only has she got the guilt of Duncan, Banquo and Macduff’s family but also she has now realised that Macbeth does not need her and doesn’t confide in her anymore. This once strong woman is now worthless. Near the end of the scene the doctor recognises that she needs a priest more than a physician. Compare the state of their relation at these two points as well. What once was a strong solid relationship is now left in tatters.
The two productions differ in certain ways. In the BBC version, the stage is misty and it is set inside a castle. Archways and stonewalls are clearly visible. There are steps leading to Lady Macbeth’s bedroom and the scene starts with the doctor and gentlewoman talking to each other in the middle of a large room. Jean Lapotaire is playing Lady Macbeth and she tends to over act her part. She moves about a lot more than Judi Dench in the RSC production. She appears almost as a ghost figure. She is illuminated and I think the director does this to make us aware of a supernatural presence. The camera focuses in on her and she is lit from the back which I believe adds to the effect.
Both actresses walk by the doctor and gentlewoman, which suggests that Lady Macbeth is completely oblivious to what is going on around her, this quote supports that theory, “aye, but their sense is shut”. Lady Macbeth is constantly changing the tone of her voice and facial expressions from being joyful to afraid. This helps illustrate the utter despair she is feeling and contributes to the dramatic effect. Her delivery is breathy and exaggerated, I believe that her performance is over dramatised but on the other hand she is trying to convey the state of mind that Lady Macbeth is in. The doctor is quite old and is convincing. He is startled and shocked at what he hears. The gentlewoman is emotional and her tone of voice varies to help express her emotion
In the RSC production, the most obvious difference is the lack of props. It is a very dark stage and there is only a table and chair. The director has created the illusion that a candle is lighting up Lady Macbeth’s face but it is more likely due to the lighting department. This helps to create a sense of evilness. Judi Dench acts very differently to Jean Lapotaire. When she enters her eyes are swollen to give the effect of her crying. The Gentlewoman’s delivery is monotonous and the Doctor is quite young. The delivery of the words and facial expressions are very important in this production due to the lack of visual effects. Judi Dench does not move very much and opts to sit down at the table instead.
The camera remains focused on Lady Macbeth’s face. The candle/lighting helps the audience to see her facial expressions more clearly. She is very convincing and her tears seem to be genuine. When the death of Banquo is mentioned the camera looks at the Doctor to show his shock. Neither the Doctor nor the Gentlewoman are dressed in clothing from that period. Judi Dench lets out a huge cry, this cry is heavily exaggerated but I think it helps to convey the pent up emotion that she has been feeling. The light of the candle can be seen fading away as Lady Macbeth leaves, this is the last time we will see her.
All in all, I preferred the RSC production I thought Judi Dench’s performance was excellent. Jean Lapotaire was sometimes slightly comical because of her over exaggeration but this may be more appealing to people who are not familiar with “Macbeth”. Jean Lapotaire’s delivery was interesting. She almost sang the line ” the thane of fife had a wife: where is she now?” like a nursery rhyme, this is somewhat ironic considering that it was tragic. I think the RSC caught the real significance and emotion of the scene well. I think an older Doctor could improve it and I believe the Gentlewoman’s delivery could be more passionate.
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