The comparative spirals of Macbeth and his wife

(Pieces for the Melbourne Shakespeare Society assume that readers are very familiar with the plays.)

The tragedy of Macbeth is said to be about ambition.  But without the drive of his wife, Macbeth would not have succumbed.  She is the driver of his spiral into evil and death. 

But she figures in only nine of the twenty-eight scenes of the play.  Here is a summary.

1.5  She gets news of the witches’ forecasts.  She is enraptured – not for herself, but for her husband.  He is not ‘without ambition,’ but he lacks the ‘illness’ that is called for.  She can’t wait to get her hands on him to fire him up.  She asks to lose her womanhood and capacity for remorse that might shake her ‘fell purpose’.  (The Everyman gives ‘savage’ for ‘fell’.  This play is the origin of ‘one fell swoop.’)  She tells him to put ‘this night’s great business’ into her dispatch.  ‘Leave all the rest to me.’

1.6  She greets the king and thanks him for the honours on ‘our house’.  The king says ‘We are your guest tonight.’

1.7  Macbeth vacillates precisely as his wife had forecast.  ‘We still have judgment here…. He’s here in double trust.’  She fires him up with scorn and aspiration in the most shocking language.  He capitulates.

2.2  Theatre does not get more fiery than this.  Had Duncan not resembled her father as he slept, she would have killed him.  Macbeth has done it, but he is a real mess.  ‘Consider it not so deeply’.  Macbeth is on the verge of cracking.  ‘These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad.’  She then realises with horror that he has brought the daggers back with him.  She directs him to take them back and smear the grooms.  He cannot bear even the thought of going back.  He knows he will never wash this blood from his hand.  She returns the daggers and tells him that she also now has blood on her hands – but that a ‘little water clears us of this deed.’

2.3  When the murder is discovered, she commits a howler: ‘What, in our house?’.  Macbeth is a model composure (and delivers gorgeous lines echoed by Cleopatra on the death of her lover).  She faints and is carried out.

3.1 Macbeth does not tell his wife he means to kill Banquo and gees up the murderers just as his wife had geed him up.

3.2  Macbeth says a ‘deed of dreadful note’ is needed for Banquo, but refuses to say what.  ‘Be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck…Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’

3.4  The ghost of Banquo makes Macbeth look mad in public – and say things consistent with his being guilty of the murder.  His wife rails at him – ‘Are you a man?  …. This is the very painting of your fear.’  But Macbeth is in another world.  ‘Blood will have blood…I am in blood / Stepped in so far….’  And yet ‘We are but young in deed.’

5.1  She is driven mad by guilt.  ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?  …  Here’s the smell of blood still.  All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.  Oh, oh, oh!’

Her death, presumably suicide, is off stage.

So, the ups and downs of the hero are traced in detail.  But for his wife, the decline is hardly shown on the stage. 

This playwright is not the one to accuse of sloppy construction.  The focus in on the hero, and his fall is triggered by two interventions.  One is the supernatural – the witches.  The other is the goading of his wife.  The later supernatural event – Banquo’s ghost – is hardly needed to lock in the descent of the hero.

This play comes after Hamlet.  That hero was asked to commit murder.  He paused – for about the length of the play.  Macbeth paused too – but he overcame his misgivings with the help of his wife.  He had absorbed the teaching that conscience does make cowards of us all.

Neither Macbeth nor his wife appreciated the dilemma of those seizing power by violence.  How do you stop someone doing the same to you?  You just keep going.  You must.

The comparison with Hamlet is one way of looking at the play.  The other is the comparison between the hero and his wife.  Both seek to neutralise – or sterilise – their consciences, to stop the access to remorse.  Lady Macbeth does so in hair raising terms.  But while Macbeth succeeds, to the point where he could he lead an SS Death’s Head Aktion, his wife utterly fails.  She simply is not up to it.

If you look at the summary above, you can see the occasions where the tide is changing.  In Act 2.2, the wife is staggered by her husband’s collapse.  She tries to tell him not to reflect so deeply – and even says they may go mad.  The delivery of these lines by Harriet Walter on the Argosy set is magical.  This young Scots woman has a fearful premonition that she is out of her depth.

Then in Act 3, she is listless and disillusioned.  The husband takes full command and does not tell her what he is doing.  She may still be there to try to control him when his ‘fit’ comes upon him, but she is no longer in the driver’s seat – or anywhere near it.  It is now he who says ‘Leave it to me.’

The difference in the two trajectories is one focal point in the play.  Another comes from putting your trust – or faith – in the supernatural. 

Macbeth sees that he was sold a pup.

I pull in resolution, and begin

To doubt the equivocation of the fiend

That lies like truth.  (5.5.42-44)

Frank Kermode (the citation comes from Tanner) referred to Christ’s response to Satan in Paradise Regained.

…that hath been thy craft,

By mixing somewhat true to vent more lyes.

But what have been thy answers, what but dark

Ambiguous and with double sense deluding… (1.432-5)

Well, there you have it – advice from the two greatest writers in our language – some, including me, would say in any language – on how to deal with bullshit from people like Donald Trump. Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison, mountebanks all.

Shakespeare – Macbeth – ambition – literary criticism.

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