For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v. In this speech, Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits to make her cold and remorseless, so that she can convince her husband to kill the king, and take the throne.
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits390
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 nature395
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,400
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, Act I, Scene v, Lines 388-403.
The Given Circumstances
Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband. That letter informs her the witches prophesied he would be king. Soon after she’s finished reading it, another messenger, (hoarse and out of breath), tells her that King Duncan will be staying at her castle tonight! Lady Macbeth immediately sees this as the perfect opportunity to make her husband king, by plotting to murder Duncan as he sleeps under her roof.
I’ve seen at least six productions of “Macbeth” and when it comes to this scene I think the main interpretations I see are either that Lady Macbeth is gleefully evil, or highly sexual. While it is true that she is praying to dark spirits, and her language when she speaks to Macbeth is sexually charged, I feel that these are not the only options when playing this character.
I love the regal poise of Francis in this 2021 movie. She is utterly in control and has absolutely no qualms about murder. I get the sense that she’s more praying to Mercury to get her to speak daggers to her husband, instead of to Lucifer to help her use one. She even has knives coming out of her ears (look at those earings!) This Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem evil in the sense of a cartoon villain. She’s just a woman in a violent society who believes that regicide is an acceptable way to sieze power. I think in this world, might makes right.
By contrast, Judy Dench in the 1979 RSC production is also very human. Her spirits are like… well spirits. You get the sense that she’s taking a swig of liquid courage to get her to go through with these actions which SHE KNOWS ARE WRONG.
Ravens in Greek and Norse myths were birds of prophecy and associated with the goddess of magic, Hecate (who appears in the play in Act IV). Ravens often appeared to announce deaths or execution. The speech is also full of imagery that rejects traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues. Lady Macbeth seems to associate womanhood with kindness, mercy, pity, and remorse and thus attempts to shed her femininity to accomplish her cruel objective of killing Duncan.
The Rauen himselfe is hoarse,
That croakes the fatall entrance of Duncan
Vnder my Battlements. Come you Spirits,
That tend on mortall thoughts, vnsex me here,
And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full
Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood,
Stop vp th'accesse, and passage to Remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene
Th'effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests,
And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers,
Where-euer, in your sightlesse substances,
You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell,
That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes,
Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke,
To cry, hold, hold. Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, First Folio Reprint from Internet Shakespeare Editions.
It’s interesting to note that (in the First Folio text) this speech is only three sentences long. It is a constant build up of energy with only three stops. In addition, Shakespeare puts the most important words, at the end of each line. Almost every line ends with something Lady M wants to kill, such as Duncan, or wants to kill within herself (peace, remorse, nature, Woman(hood). The verse also has commands strewn about in the beginnings and ends of lines. The question is, how confident does Lady Macbeth feel while giving them?
Questions to consider
One of the biggest questions I have with this play is why Lady Macbeth and her husband want to be king and queen anyway? After all, Shakespeare has written plenty of plays that detail how hard and stressful (uneasy) it is to be king. Plus, Macbeth is already a trusted lord and friend of the king, why would he want to damn himself to get a job he knows isn’t his to take? I think that, especially now in the 21st century, it’s very important to have a coherent motive for why the Macbeths are willing to kill for the crown.
Looking over the text, my actress sensed a deep loneliness in Lady Macbeth and a haunted feeling that makes her seem desperate to change her life. I thought about how insomnia and paranoid fears are repeated motifs in the play, as well as character traits found in both Macbeth and later Lady Macbeth. Then I thought- Macbeth is a soldier; his wife has probably had to spend years wondering if he is going to come home and imagining what kind of terrible death he might suffer on the battlefield While the king sits safely at home. Perhaps she sees killing the king as a form of revenge for all the fear and sleepless nights she’s experienced, and an attempt to protect her husband from war, by safely placing him on the throne. Maybe she sees this as the only way to make sure her beloved husband never dies in battle. Therefore, instead of watching an evil woman become more evil, you’re watching a good woman, (with good intentions), damn herself for love, which I would argue is a much more active and dynamic choice.