In Iverness, the castle of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband that details the events that have occurred so far in the play, his new title and the meeting with the witches. While reading, Lady Macbeth remarks that while her husband is ambitious he is too full of ‘th’ milk of human kindness’ to do what is necessary to realize his ambitions, and plans to convince him to undertake the required actions. A messenger announces Macbeth is close to arrival and Lady Macbeth begs ‘you spirits/ That tend of mortal thought, unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe too-full/ Of direst cruelty’, planning to abandon her natural femininity so as to be able to commit the bloody actions needed for Macbeth to attain the kingship. Macbeth then enters and tells his wife Duncan will stay the night, but Lady Macbeth responds that the king will not see tomorrow; she tells her husband to be patient and leave matters to her.
Our first view of Lady Macbeth raises various questions concerning not only her character but also the marriage between she and Macbeth. They are polar opposites; Macbeth is indecisive concerning the act of regicide despite it offering him the chance to realize his ambition, while Lady Macbeth is decisive and considers nothing except forcing her husband to realize his ambition. While it may be argued that she is a loyal and caring wife for doing so it is difficult not to criticize her here, as her decisiveness and plan to help her husband reveal an evil nature. She admits fearing Macbeth’s nature as it ‘is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way’ and her plan to convince him presents her as corrupting; it is possible to sympathize with Macbeth later in the play as her plans and words suggest he is corrupted by his wife into acting in an underhanded manner. She plans to ‘pour spirits in ear’ which suggests she will corrupt him unknowingly, which may be a reference to another Shakespeare play, Hamlet, when King Hamlet was killed while asleep as Claudius poured poison in his ear; the mention of ear may suggest that the person acted upon has no control or ability to stop the action. If she has her way, she will transform Macbeth from an ‘innocent flower’ to ‘serpent’, the epitome of corruption, which makes it difficult to consider Lady Macbeth as a supporting wife. She realizes that she has to manipulate and control her husband so as to achieve his and her aims.
Points of note
The issue of gender/ sex comes to light here. Lady Macbeth plans to help Macbeth but can only do so by removing her femininity and losing feminine compassion, ‘remorse’; this is the reason for her plea to ‘unsex me here’, so she can be cold and ruthless enough to convince her husband to kill the king. This may suggest why the Weird Sisters have beards; do they need some masculine trait so as to be ruthless enough to be part of an act such as murder or regicide?
The natural order has already been disturbed, evidenced by Lady Macbeth’s remark that ‘Thy letters have transported me beyond/ This ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant’. The future she refers to is the world when Macbeth becomes king and immorality reigns; this has already begun as two of the play’s principal characters plot to kill the king.
Lady Macbeth reveals herself as another character aware of deception and its role in the world as she instructs Macbeth to ‘bear welcome in your eye but be the serpent under’t’ when Duncan arrives. This does lessen some of the criticism towards Lady Macbeth as Macbeth has already shown himself to be able to deceive, as he presented himself as loyal to the king in the previous scene while still considering his ambition to be king, which would involve killing Duncan.