The Madness of Lady Macbeth


Lady Macbeth, Gabriel von Max (1885)

Lady Macbeth’s mad midnight wanderings are certainly one of the more  enduring images of Macbeth, but, to me, they also evoke its biggest question.  What drives Lady Macbeth mad?  It is obvious from early in the play that Macbeth himself is a bit unhinged; he hallucinates a bloody dagger even before he has murdered Duncan.  Whether or not he was unbalanced in the first place, or the thought (and later commission) of murder drove him mad is open to debate, but it is quite clear his conscience and mental health are sorely tried by the means of his rise to kingship.  Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to display no such scruples.  She exhibits no qualms of conscience regarding the murder of Duncan.  She cajoles and pushes Macbeth, asking him why he even mentioned the idea if he had no intention of following through on it.  After Duncan is murdered, she begs him to put the deed behind him, to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten crown.  The only concern she has is that they may be found out.  Thus it seemed very odd to me when she is suddenly consumed by guilt, so agonized by inner voices that she cannot sleep in peace, and eventually kills herself.  While the sleepwalking scene is harrowing and moving, it made no sense to me.  It seems out of character for this ruthless, ambitious woman to suddenly be driven mad by her sins.  What gives?

I just could not make the leap from scheming, ambitious Lady Macbeth to the disturbed, haunted sleepwalker. It seemed to me that there must be something missing.  I apparently am not the only one. Poking around on the DVD, I found some excellent commentary by Ian McKellan.  He acknowledges that many feel that there is a scene missing, but he contends that there is not.  McKellan points out that the explicit words might not be there, but that Judi Dench’s acting shows it.  So I watched the play again bearing that in mind — and he is right. Dench’s Lady Macbeth’s increasing desperation as her husband descends into madness and depravity is obvious. Her initial distress and alarm when she hears that Macbeth has murdered Duncan’s guards becomes distinct panic in the moments before and during the fateful banquet.  It is not entirely unbelievable that Dench’s Lady becomes mad with shock and grief once you can tear your eyes away from McKellan’s Macbeth and watch her.  It is, as I have said before, a brilliant performance.

But what really is driving Lady Macbeth’s despair and eventual derangement?  Dench’s stellar performance notwithstanding, is this a matter of interpretation, or is it actually in the play?  Initially I thought it was largely dependant on interpretation.  We see the stress; we have to fill in the descent into madness.  But on further examination, I discovered it really is in there.  I just had to work hard to find it.

I do not think it is guilt over the initial murder that is haunting Lady Macbeth; she seems fine with that, even claiming she would have stabbed Duncan herself had he not looked so much like her father as he slept.  I think, instead, that it is the stress of dealing with Macbeth’s self-reproach and insanity, and the increasing number of murders he commissions in order to cover his killing of Duncan, that drives her over the edge.  She apparently seems okay with the one murder. She is, after all, the person who pushes for it in the first place, and then repeatedly urges Macbeth to put it behind him, telling him that “what’s done is done,” and that his guilty thoughts should “indeed have died with them they think on.”   What she cannot deal with is what that murder has done to Macbeth.  She has made him king, but in doing so, has also made him miserable and insane.  Macbeth feels so guilty about murdering Duncan that he thinks his sin must be obvious to everyone. He sees enemies all around him, enemies that must be eliminated, and each elimination seems to necessitate even more.  It is true that Banquo was suspicious, but everyone else seems to suspect the princes, whose flight has cemented their guilt in the eyes of the other nobles.  As Lady Macbeth begs her husband to forget murdering Banquo, her growing horror at his need to eliminate all suspicion is apparent. After the banquet, we do not see her again until the sleepwalking scene, where it is obvious from both her manner and her ravings that Macbeth’s degeneration has taken a toll on her.  She is agonized over the murder of Macduff’s kin — “The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?”  It is THAT blood she has on her hands, the blood of all the people she did NOT feel needed to be murdered in order to secure Macbeth’s place as king.  She can live with Duncan’s murder.  She cannot live with the madman she has unleashed, and the bloodbath that has ensued.

Of course, this all may be just a giant fanwank on my part.  This interpretation is what makes sense to me, and so that is what I see to be there.  It can also be argued that what Lady Macbeth forced her husband to do was so contrary to her womanly nature (as perceived by Elizabethan morals) that she could not remain sane, having gone against her God-given role. This is likely true, and  also quite likely how Elizabethan audiences interpreted it, but I also think there is some of my interpretation about it too.  As always, YMMV.


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3 Responses to The Madness of Lady Macbeth

  1. matematichica says:

    Interesting take on Lady Macbeth’s trajectory. I’ve always read her breakdown not as a response to her husband’s madness necessarily, but as a bubbling to the surface the fears and feelings she’s been trying to squash. I see her inability to kill Duncan not as a momentary weakness, but as a real inability to emotionally handle killing. Once it’s done, she is a very practical woman who values action and cool-headedness, and so she just deals with the aftermath, unlike her shell-shocked husband. Perhaps the fact that she didn’t do the deed gives her the energy to push through this bit. But later, when there is less need to just go-go-go, the act comes back to haunt her.

    Actually, as I write this, it occurs to me that this perspective does mesh well with yours in some ways: perhaps Lady Macbeth would have been able to bury her reaction effectively if her husband’s behavior and breakdown didn’t keep bring the murder to the fore. But I think of it as inevitable: the responsibility for Duncan’s death was going to come home to roost, sure as houses. She cannot keep that repressed forever.

  2. That is an interesting perspective, one I had not considered. Lady Macbeth is all for killing Duncan, but she doesn’t actually have to do it herself. Still, it seems that she would have been okay with just that murder; I really do think it is the continued killing that gets to her. And the fact that Macbeth has gone totally batshit and exposed their deeds to everyone with his mad ravings.

  3. matematichica says:

    Yeah, it’s pretty clear that Lady Macbeth was not expecting to have to deal with her husband seeing phantoms at state banquets, and all the fallout from that. That’s not how “queen” is supposed to go!

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