«Macbeth» - Conveying madness through language
The character of Lady Macbeth is central to Shakespeare's tragedy. Whereas she is hardly present in the source text of the play (Holinshed's Chronicles), Shakespeare endows her with a rare psychological depth. Women's parts were performed by boy actors in Elizabethan England because the puritans at the time didn't want women to take part in theatrical activities. The result was that women's parts were often shorter and less demanding than men's parts, as they had to be taken up by young boys who had little experience. It was thus quite daring to develop Lady Macbeth into a protagonist of the play.
Determination and denial of nature
In Act I, Lady Macbeth receives news from her husband that King Duncan will come to their castle of Dunsinane to honour Macbeth. Knowing of the prophecy of the witches, according to which her husband should become king, she decides to convince her husband to murder the king in order to make the prophecy come true.
Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. 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! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'
Macbeth: Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.
Lady Macbeth: What beast was't, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
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:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Macbeth: If we should fail?
Lady Macbeth: We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail. When Duncan is asleep--
Whereto the rather shall his day's hard journey
Soundly invite him--his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
The unguarded Duncan? what not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?
Keys to the text
- In these two extracts, what elements suggest that Lady Macbeth wants to cast away her womannhood? Why does she want to do that?
- What elements suggest that getting rid of nature as a woman will make her unnatural and inhuman? In what way does Macbeth's first cue emphasise that message ("I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none")?
- Lady Macbeth speaks in verse and most of her lines are pentameters, lines that have five feet (five stressed syllables). What effect is conveyed by the regular rhythm of her speech? What kind of woman is she?
The sleepwalking scene
Eaten away by guilt and regret, Lady Macbeth roams through the castle at night. Her sleepwalking speech is witnessed by one of her attendants and a doctor.
Lady Macbeth: Yet here's a spot.
Hark! she speaks: I will set down what comes from
her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!--One: two: why,
then, 'tis time to do't.--Hell is murky!--Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?--Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
Doctor: Do you mark that?
Lady Macbeth: The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?--
What, will these hands ne'er be clean?--No more o'
that, my lord, no more o' that: you mar all with
Doctor: Go to, go to; you have known what you should not.
Gentlewoman: She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of
that: heaven knows what she has known.
Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Doctor: What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charged.
Gentlewoman: I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the
dignity of the whole body.
Doctor: This disease is beyond my practise: yet I have known
those which have walked in their sleep who have died
holily in their beds.
Lady Macbeth: 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.
Doctor: Even so?
Lady Macbeth: 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!
Keys to the text
- Why is it important that Lady Macbeth's speech should be witnessed and interrupted by the Doctor and the Gentlewoman?
- Compare this passage to the two extracts from Act I. Is Lady Macbeth still speaking in verse? In your opinion, why is prose used by Shakespeare to express madness?
- The "Lady Macbeth effect" is a term used in psychiatry. Look it up on the internet and explain why Lady Macbeth is such a perfect example of this pathology.
The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, by Henry Fuseli, 1781-1784
Henry Fusely, or Johann Heinrich Füssli, was a Swiss painter but spent most of his life in England. He liked to explore the supernatural and was very much influenced by Shakespearean imagery, like many other artists belonging to dark romanticism.
Keys to the painting
- How does Fusely signify Lady Macbeth's madness?
- The artist represents the Gentlewoman and the Doctor in the background. What is their function in the composition? Do they hold the same part as in Shakespeare's play?
- Look at the lines in the picture. You have the vertical lines of the torch, the wall and Lady Macbeth's left hand, and then you have the oblique lines of the bodies. What do these lines symbolise? Can you find similar oppositions or contrasts in the palette of colours chosen by the artist?
450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth
Pour citer cette ressource :
"«Macbeth» - Conveying madness through language", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juillet 2013. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/les-precis-et-le-workbook/workbook/madness-in-shakespeare-lele/macbeth-conveying-madness-through-language