Discuss the final verdict of Malcolm on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: ‘this dead butcher and his fiend –like Queen.’
Malcolm’s final pronouncement on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seems a very direct verdict on this blood-soaked couple. Indeed the play presents a gory and vicious sequence of slaughter, moving from the opening ironic congratulations upon legitimate -slaughter bestowed upon the hero Macbeth by King Duncan , to the apocalyptic and ‘illegitimate’ brutality of the villainous Macbeth as he orders the murder and probable rape of Lady Macduff and her family.
Interspersed between these two uneasy polarities or versions of killing, are the murders of King Duncan and Macbeth’s friend and ally Banquo. The head count as I am suggesting is bloody and disturbing. The play steadily progresses or regresses into nightamre and sadism.
Macbeth however is a drama that makes its audience feel far more than just revulsion and disgust for its eponymous protagonist and his wife. It is the strange identification and even sympathy that we are persuaded to feel for the murderous couple that renders the drama utterly compelling. This feeling needs to be examined in order to problematise our reaction towards Malcolm’s unambiguous verdict.
I will begin my discussion of Malcolm’s verdict with a brief analysis of the world of Macbeth as evidenced by the opening of the play.
Macbeth opens with the preternatural meeting of the three witches who are waiting for their supposedly unsolicited rendezvous with Macbeth himself:
‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’ So the paradoxical admission of all the witches goes. This admission anchors the action of the play to ambiguity and paradox and highlights the centrality of ambivalence to any understanding of the play’s action. If we think about the strange appearance of the witches themselves with their beards and yet female bodies, then we notice that the ‘feminine’ is being scrutinised and even ironised.This is stressed a little later by Banquo when he meets the witches with Macbeth, and of course when we meet Lady Macbeth who worries over the ‘kindness’ of Macbeth when facing the bloody ‘necessity’ of murder!
‘Masculinity’ is therefore perhaps at war with ‘femininity’ in the play and when Macbeth is announced ironically as a ‘bloody man’ and praised for a behaviour that ‘unseamed’ another, we know that we are in a world where butchery is regarded as being both heroic and necessary. The feminine is suppressed by the masculine in this world of terroritorial exchange. Hierachies of power are under close examination in the play; stability is only ever temporary.
This change is anticipated through Macbeth’s reflective aside after the meeting with the witches:
‘This supernatural soliciting Cannot be ill; cannot be good…present fears are less than horrible imaginings…nothing is But what is not.’
This aside is steeped in ambivalence as it hints that Macbeth has already thought of regicide. Are the witches consolidating rather than initiating murder?
It also shows the power of Macbeth’s nightmarish imagination. He literally ‘sees’ the murder, and ‘sees’ the bloody future ahead? It is this intensity and profoundly disturbing imagination that invites identification by the reader and audience. For Macbeth is the most intelligent charcter in the play. Who else can we be or identify with?
Macbeth’s consciousness literally dominates the play and gives us here a presience of the appalling power of desire. If we want something, then that want can lead to events that can spiral completely out of control and beyond our original acceptance of who we are;the very pace of the play’s action makes us realise just how dangerous desires might be; our secret lives can rapidly become all too real and deadly?
If I now turn my attention to the verdict of Malcolm upon Lady Macbeth, the ‘fiend-like Queen’ of drama, I notice an immediate disparity in the hierarchy of ‘evil’ between Macbeth and his wife. Whilst Macbeth is a ‘butcher’ in a world that I have already suggested is peopled with ‘legitimate’ butchers, his wife is a ‘fiend’, a supernatural term which obviously transports her crimes way beyond the ‘natural’ and the legitimately ‘feminine’. This disparity in terminology is significant as Macbeth is the actual murderer and his wife’only’ an accessory.
However the world as embodied in Malcolm, the legitimate heir to Duncan’s throne and power, chooses to blame the wife more than the husband. Perhaps her crime is far more transgressive and subversive than the mere act of murder?
This unevenness of blame is anchored I think to the very nature of the Macbeth’s marriage. Their relationship is intensely passionate, manifestly sexual and dare I say it, loving! Indeed when we first witness the couple reunited after their parting, she addresses him as ‘My dearest love’, an address that is both tender and erotically charged as she is already aware of the witches’ prophecy, and he likely to have sent her this description of the prophecy in an attempt to guarantee his ambition.
In a play that is so bleak and violent, such endearments have a singularity that sets them apart from the loveless world. After the slaughter of Duncan there is something profoundly passionate at Lady Macbeth’s exclamation: ‘ My Husband’ as this definition of Macbeth seems both proud and excited- she thrills at what she hopes he has done in killing for powerand importantly – for her. It is tempting to read the act of murder as a form of consummation.
If Lady Macbeth is suggestively passionate about the return of her husband after
Unfortunately she is limited imaginatively and so becomes wholly incapacitated by her conscience. This complicates any reading of her as mere ‘fiend’ as she is haunted by the deed she encouraged. In legal terms then, she repents, though this repentance is read as aberrant by her household and by implication the wider world.
It is also fascinating to see the parallels between Lady Macbeth’s suicidally inclined reaction to the death of
This repetition ironically frees Macbeth to carry on killing and ironically also seems to destroy their initial intimacy. If the act of murder is a strange ‘child’ of their relationship, then once the murder is born, it separates them forever. For when Lady Macbeth’s suicide is announced Macbeth replies: ‘She should have died hereafter; there would have been a time for such a word.’ Macbeth has no time to even give voice to his mourning for his wife. This change has been wrought through their greed, a greed that has brought nothing but destruction upon their world and the greater world.
Lady Macbeth is unambiguously ambitious for power. This ambition destroys the only relationship that has any vitality and passion on the play. Interestingly she is childless and as I have said, murder becomes a surrogate child of their union. However there are two famous instances in the play where Lady Macbeth seems cite conventional maternity and feminity, only to subvert them horrifically:
‘Come, you spirits….unsex me here, and fill me….top-full of direst cruelty!’ (Act 1, Sc!)
‘I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, And dashed the brains out….’ (Act 1, Sc 7)
No audience or reader can help but recoil at these terrible images. Lady Macbeth defies all conventional readings of ‘femininity’ and seems to invite satanic intervention. This is recognised by Malcolm who seems to embody the wider ‘moral’ world of the drama, though of course he has no direct access to these scenes and it is as if he ‘knows’ Lady Macbeth’s secret ‘fiend like’ life because of her husband’s deeds.
For example the murder of Lady Mac Duff, though ordered by Macbeth, seems very much in the spirit of the Lady Macbeth’s words? Once again, their union is terribly and damagingly intimate, like so many infamous killers in real life. It seems that two individuals fatefully joined, can be far more powerful than one?
In conclusion, the summary of Malcolm though literally ‘true’ in terms of the events of the play, seems too prescriptive when we ‘feel’ the power of the play, with its intensely realised protagonists. For the play is dominated by the fiercely realised imaginations of its central characters and the audience in recognising the almost hypnotic intimacy between the Macbeths cannot help but be fascinated by them and almost to feel sympathy with their destruction however self-willed.
Indeed it is quite true to say that with the intensely realised contradictions that lay at the heart of the play, and the Macbeth’s relationship, they are ironically the only characters we can identify with at all. This is why, though Malcolm is right he is also so wrong; think of his dismissal of MacDufff’s reaction to his family’s murder. How can we possibly admire such a self-seeking and probably cold-hearted killing machine? We can’t and therefore the drama ends nihilistically with the deaths of the only ‘vital’ characters in the play. Ironically of course the Macbeths!
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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