the TrageDy of Lady Macbeth:
A modern interpretation of the significance of the female character in a timeless play
In comparing the characters of Macbeth and his wife, it is difficult to state which one has greater responsibility for the events that take place in the play. Since it is called The Tragedy of Macbeth, we might assume that Shakespeare intended Macbeth to be the protagonist, but in Declan Donnellan’s production the character of Lady Macbeth becomes almost as important as her husband’s. Donnellan’s interpretation emphasizes “human-kindness” of Macbeth, his weak and doubtful nature. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, is portrayed as a slightly unnerved, but very determined woman. Neither character is complete without the other, and this connection is emphasized in the production: the actors show a great deal of physical contact (move together around the stage, hold hands, and die together), as well as emotional bond through acting. The stage version of the great Shakespearian tragedy gives a modern interpretation to eternal characters by making them more human-like. In the modern version Lady Macbeth assumes a new role, that of a strong woman and a loving wife, unlike the cold and ruthless figure that haunts the pages of the original text.
In this production Lady Macbeth embodies a slightly different archetype, that of a femme fatale, which adds new dimensions to the traditional feminine image: strength, determination, psychological superiority over men. In this production, Lady Macbeth is shown a more powerful figure than her husband. When Macbeth starts shaking and quivering, she holds his hand and calms him down. When he loses control after seeing the ghost of Banquo, she quiets him and restores peace among the honored guests. The dark Lady of Shakespearean tragedy becomes a devoted and loving wife on stage.
At the time the play was written women had a completely different status than today. Therefore, in the text the figure of Lady Macbeth is similar to that of Eve: a woman leading a man to his downfall. Her words to Macbeth are full of sly manipulation: “Wouldst thou have that/Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,/And live a coward in thine own esteem” (I.7.41-43). However, in the way Anastasia Hille delivers them in the production, these words acquire a completely different meaning: tears soften them, sudden busts of emotion make them more like pleas than commands. The way Anastasia Hille portrays the emotions of Lady Macbeth on stage when she first finds out that her husband is to become king (Act I, scene 5) is different from the impression that reading Shakespeare’s text creates. Although in both the text and the production the woman fanatically clings to the idea of Macbeth becoming king, in the text her words sound ruthless and pragmatic. In the production, on the other hand, there was not a note of vanity or desire of power in the actress’s voice. Her reaction was that of pure, selfless adoration, as if she were a mother celebrating her child’s victory. Lady Macbeth’s obsession as it is portrayed in the production is detrimental in nature; it inspires both heroes to a horrid crime, each for the sake of the other more than himself, and finally brings about their gruesome end.
Declan Donnellan places great emphasis on the love between the husband and wife in this production of Macbeth. Although the text does give us a suggestion of emotional connection between the two heroes, the mention of it often comes from characters other than the spouses, for example from King: “…his great love, sharp as his spur, hath help him/To his home before us” (I.6.23-24), – which is not convincing enough, since Macbeth himself rarely proclaims his love. But the production is filled with images of deep and passionate, almost idolizing love between him and Lady Macbeth. The way the two actors interact on stage helps to highlight this fixation with each other: they move together in perfect synchrony, first, keeping some distance apart, then, never breaking grip. In this sense, the death of the characters is perhaps the culmination of their tragic love where the two troubled souls finally reunite.
In the text Macbeth is heavily influenced by his wife, but on stage his dependence is even more emphasized. Macbeth of Will Keen is spineless and cowardly. When Macbeth hears the prophecy, he is seized by uncontrollable fear – his hands, voice, his entire body and soul are shaking. But once in the arms of his loving wife, he calms down and is able to make decisions. Lady Macbeth is a rather emotional and mystical woman, yet at the same time she is very strong-minded and courageous. Because Macbeth is unable to take full control of his life and responsibility for his actions, he lets fate decide his destiny and believes the prophecies pronounced by the witches. In fact, both personages rely greatly on the higher powers and get their courage from it, but in different ways: after Lady Macbeth reads the letter, she falls down on her knees in a kind of prayer – even though the enterprise is not of a nature that would please God, she still asks for a blessing from the higher powers. In her words there is such passion, such blind and undoubted faith in the promised greatness of Macbeth (I.5.24-28):
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the folden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.
In this ecstatic imitation of a prayer she calls the “spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” (I.5.38-39) and uses such imagery that suggests a kind of magical ritual: “Make thick my blood” and “Come to my woman’s breasts/And take my milk for gall”.
Come, thick night,
And pall the 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!” (I.5.48-52)
After she willingly rejects the intervention of any kind of humane hesitation in this diabolical payer, she seems to pull all her strength together in concentrated determination and when Macbeth arrives joyful, but feverishly wavering, she plays all her cards to convince him that he should take what had been promised to him: from reasoning to flattery, to scorn – to “women’s weapons”, tears.
We cannot blame Lady Macbeth for his crime, because as she says, the crime was already in his mind when he entered his house:
Your face, my thane, is a book where men
May read strange matters (I.5.60-61)
Macbeth understands that he is committing a deadly crime and he is scared that he would have to pay for it:
that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. (I.7.8-12)
Macbeth proceeds to list all the reasons against killing Duncan, thus taunting himself, while Lady Macbeth never lets doubt escape her lips, nor even enter her mind. Macbeth confesses that he has “no spur/To prick the sides of my intent but only/Vaulting ambition which o’erlaps itself/And falls on the other”, he admits that cowardice is the only thing that holds him from committing the crime which he has consented to in his mind. The same great fear pushes Macbeth towards subsequent murders. Lady Macbeth disapproves of them, not so apparently in the book, but quite visibly on stage, because she sees no need in them. She is much more rational in her actions and reasoning: during the feast, when Macbeth has his visions, she is able to successfully play the part, as well as in the other scene, where the court is crowded around the dead King’s body: in that scene Macbeth is shaking and walking off, while she is weeping very convincingly with other noble men. Only in the sleepwalking scene (Act V, scene 1) does she unconsciously show her regret and remorse of the evil deed.
The unique scene of the death of Lady Macbeth as it is portrayed in the production embodies the concept of the fused nature of the two main heroes. In the text there is no suggestion that Macbeth is as her side when Lady Macbeth dies. However, on stage he is holding her silent head in his arms while pronouncing one of his last soliloquies before finally defeating his enemies. But when her death is announced, she stands up and slowly walks out of his life. “She should have died hereafter” (V.5.17), says Macbeth, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, only not now, when he is about to face his fears again, of which he has “almost forgot the taste” (V.5.9). For him it is a fatal blow. It is the death of Lady Macbeth, more than anything else, that destroys his will to fight, and makes him submit to his fate. They reconcile again, quite literally, on stage after he meets his tragic end.
In Declan Donnellan’s interpretation Lady Macbeth is perhaps even a more tragic character than the protagonist of the play. The director brings out the theme of love between the two heroes as the main force that directs their actions. It ties them even closer together and, in a sense, takes away some of the responsibility for the mutual crime because the motif of it becomes selfless and it appears as if each overcomes their fears and doubts about this dreadful act for the sake of the other. It is not to say that a murder can ever be justified, but in adding so many human qualities to the characters of Macbeth and his wife, the director arouses sympathy for them from the audience. The only difference is that Lady Macbeth is technically innocent and would have nothing to do with the crime had she not willingly and mercifully consented to share her husband’s moral burden.