One of the reoccurring themes in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is that of nature’s accepted order of things, which becomes upset and unbalanced when Macbeth murders King Duncan to gain the crown for himself. However, prior to Duncan’s death, Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, do not appear to have a properly balanced relationship that adheres to 17th century Scotland’s ‘natural order of things’ since it does not conform to that time period’s accepted gender roles of man and wife. When the play begins, it is evident that Lady Macbeth is in control of the relationship -- a relationship that seems more of a strong partnership than a loving marriage. Lady Macbeth plays the more dominant role, which is usually taken by the husband, and Macbeth is subordinate to her wishes. Ironically, it is only in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, when the natural world has lost its order, that the couple’s relationship briefly adheres to the proper standard of their day. But the evil and unnatural act that brought them to this new order will haunt the couple, and their partnership will pay the price. An examination of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before, during, and after the murder of Duncan reveals not only the transformation of the couple’s power dynamic, but also exposes the reversals in their individual natures – changes that lead to the death of their partnership and, eventually, of each other.
Before the Murder
When we first see Lady Macbeth, she is reading a letter from her husband informing her of the weird sisters prophecy that he would one day be king. In this letter, Macbeth addresses his wife as “my dearest partner in greatness” (1.5.11-12). The use of the word “partner,” and the absence of any other terms of endearment, suggests that their marriage may be more of a partnership than a romantic one. With knowledge of the sisters’ predictions, Lady Macbeth immediately turns to thoughts of murdering Duncan in order to expedite the prophecy, but fears her husband is too weak of a man to perform the deed: “I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.17-18). She uses the word “illness” to describe the cruelty she thinks her husband lacks (1.5.21). Lady Macbeth determines that she must convince her husband to kill Duncan by chastising him with her manipulative words. She describes it as pouring her “spirits” into his ear, an interesting word choice that works to link her to the unnatural “spirit” world of the weird sisters (1.5.27).
This connection of Lady Macbeth to the supernatural is given further support when she wishes to possess the nature to murder Duncan herself: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me . . . / Of direst cruelty” (1.5.41-44). She believes that it is in a man’s nature to kill, not a woman’s, and asks the spirits to take the milk from her “woman’s breasts” and replace it with “gall,” desiring to remove the nurturing source of ‘woman as mother’ with the boldness of a man who acts without compassion (1.5.48-49). However, she herself contradicts her own theory of women being compassionate and lacking cruelty, for Lady Macbeth certainly does appear most vicious and cruel and holds no compassion for Duncan when planning to kill him as a means to fulfill her ambition.
In contrast to Lady Macbeth’s uncompassionate and single-minded ambition, Macbeth’s contemplation of the murder shows him to possess some awareness of right and wrong. He also fears that they may fail. Macbeth is plagued by doubt and lacks the confidence of Lady Macbeth’s decisions. When returning home, his thoughts of Duncan’s removal remain unresolved. However, Lady Macbeth has reached her decision. Seeing as Duncan will be staying that night in their castle, Lady Macbeth plans for Macbeth to kill him as he sleeps. Macbeth is noticeably troubled by this plan and Lady Macbeth comments on his expression: “Your face, my Thane, is a book where men / May read strange matters” (1.5.63-64). She sees the panic and fear of the deadly plan registered on her husband’s face and advises him to “look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under ‘t” (1.5.66-67). She has already begun to try to strengthen her husband’s weak resolve.
Scene 7 of Act 1 finds Macbeth still unsure of the plan to murder Duncan, who now resides in their castle. He worries that the consequences of the murder will not play out in his favor and that he may face an “even-handed justice” (1.7.10), since it is said that “Bloody instructions [will] return / To plague th’ inventor” (1.7.9-10). He tells Lady Macbeth the plan is off. She proceeds to chastise him with her words, just as she had planned. She first berates his manhood: “Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire?” (1.7.39-41), basically asking if he fears he will fail in the act of murder in the same way that he fails in the act of making love. This becomes further evidence that their relationship is sexually dysfunctional and possesses more partnership than passion. She goes on to state that when Macbeth promised to murder Duncan, he was acting as a man, and that only by sticking to his plan could he become even more of a man (1.7.49-51). Next, Lady Macbeth tries to guilt her husband into the act by contrasting Macbeth’s weakness to her strength of courage. She does this by using a most cruel and horrifying example; saying that if she had promised her husband to kill her own child, she would not hesitate to pull the suckling baby from her breast and smash it’s brains out in order to keep her promise (1.7.56-58). Again, Lady Macbeth is shown to be merciless and without conscience while Macbeth is weak and indecisive.
Once Lady Macbeth has poured her “spirits” into Macbeth’s ear, filling him up with the manly “illness” required to murder another man, Macbeth resolves to carry out their plan, but becomes ‘ill of mind’ and experiences the first of a series of hallucinations. He comments on the death of nature around him: “Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse / The curtained sleep” (2.1.50-51). It is now night and the decency of day sleeps while evil is brewing, thus causing his disturbing vision. “Wicked dreams” refers not only to Macbeth’s hallucination and his wicked plans to kill Duncan, but also foreshadows the nightmares that will haunt Macbeth and his wife after Duncan’s death.
When the murderous hour arrives, Lady Macbeth, playing her evil version of the good wife, prepares the scene of the murder like a good wife would prepare dinner for her husband. She drugs Duncan’s guards and sets their daggers in their place for Macbeth to carryout the deed. Although she had previously wished for the “gall” to murder the king herself, but contended her woman’s nature prevented her from the act -- even though she showed no signs of a womanly compassion -- she now reveals a modicum of empathy, saying, “Had he [Duncan] not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done ’t” (2.2.12-13).
Macbeth meets his wife upon completing the murder and relates to her the details of the grisly scene. He describes hearing the guards awake momentarily and then say their prayers as they fell back to sleep. He laments that he wanted to join them in saying “amen,” but the word stuck in his throat (2.2.28-32). Committing an unforgivable crime against nature, Macbeth’s conscience felt the strong desire for God’s blessing, but was prevented from even speaking the holy word. God has now abandoned him. He next makes another reference to sleep, saying he thought he heard a voice declare, “Macbeth does murder sleep” (2.2.35) and “Macbeth shall sleep no more” (2.2.42). It’s unclear if these words were actually spoken by Duncan or if Macbeth is hearing the voice of his guilty conscience warning him that it will deny him any peace in the future, although the latter is more likely.
In his distressed state, Macbeth has neglected to leave the daggers in the hands of the guards, but refuses to go back into the chamber. Lady Macbeth characteristically berates him for his childish fear, takes the daggers from him, and goes to place them where they need to lie in order to make the guards appear guilty of Macbeth’s crime. Doing so, her hands become bloody (literally and figuratively), thereby securing her role in the murder and making her and Macbeth true partners in crime. With their collaboration in the murder of Duncan, their partnership has reached its pinnacle. They now share responsibility in the deadly deed and are now bound by a tremendous trust in one another to keep their secret.
After the Murder
Their plan proved successful, gaining them the crown, but, as predicted, neither the new king nor queen sleeps peacefully now; their “desire is got without content” (3.2.5). However, Lady Macbeth suffers more from guilt while Macbeth suffers primarily from paranoia, fearing the loss of his crown. Consequently, they have different ideas about how they should proceed. Macbeth is solely focused on staying king by any means possible, murdering all those who he perceives as a threat. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, desires no more murders and believes that it would be best to continue as they are so as to not raise any further suspicions about their role in Duncan’s death. Her guilty conscience weighs on her and in order to repress it, she wishes to put the memory of the evil deed out of her thoughts. She is able to conceal her inner turmoil and maintain an outward composure. Seeing her husband unable to act in the same manner, Lady Macbeth tries her old ways of swaying her husband’s thoughts with her words and urges her husband to stop dwelling on the events: “those thoughts which should indeed have died / With them they think on? Things without all remedy / Should be without regard: what’s done is done” (3.2.10-11). However, it appears that Lady Macbeth no longer holds the same power over her husband. Their relationship has been transformed into a more typical 17th century marriage, with Macbeth now dominant and Lady Macbeth powerless.
When murdering Duncan, Macbeth became the ‘man’ Lady Macbeth dared him to be, with the same compassionless manly traits she wished for herself when summoning the spirits to “unsex” her. Their unbalanced gender roles from before the murder have reversed. Macbeth is now dominant, cruel, and uncompassionate and can no longer be manipulated by his wife. And not only does he no longer require the encouragement of his wife, he doesn’t even feel the need to tell her of his plans. Additionally, much like Lady Macbeth summoned spirits in Act 1, Macbeth now summons the evils of the night to assist him in Banquo’s demise. Lady Macbeth is shocked and frightened by his speech, but Macbeth assures her, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (3.3.55). The “illness” that Lady Macbeth saw her husband lacking, the wickedness to kill, Macbeth now possesses in spades. This illness has overtaken him like a disease, making him a murderous monster.
As Macbeth becomes more tyrannical, trying to outwardly control his unraveling world, Lady Macbeth withdraws inwards and succumbs to madness. As quickly as their partnership transformed to typical man and wife gender roles, it now collapses altogether. By the end of the play, when Macbeth is told of his wife’s death, he doesn’t even bother to ask how she died, but only regrets the timing of her death: “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word” (5.5.17-18). He has no time to think of his wife since he is too busy defending his crown. He then receives the “even-handed justice” he previously feared when he is killed by Macduff.
In conclusion, the act of murdering Duncan to satisfy their ambitions not only transforms the partnership of Macbeth and his wife, but also alters their individual natures. They may momentarily take on the time period’s typical gender roles of man and wife, but with Macbeth no longer dependent on Lady Macbeth, their relationship dissolves completely. Macbeth’s previously indecisive nature becomes consumed with a murderous, power-hungry paranoia, while Lady Macbeth’s uncompassionate cruelty gives way to a guilty conscience that drives her to madness. Their ambition and ruthlessness brings about not only the demise of Duncan, but of their own marriage as well, and consequently, leads to the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.